Project-Based Learning in Early Learning Centres

It’s fascinating to see how project-based learning, once the domain of middle and secondary school curricula, is now becoming a preferred method of education in the early stages of a child’s education.

Learning by doing is of primary importance in early education and projects, particularly collaborative ones, provide innumerable touch points for children to grow and develop a range of skills.

In a project-based learning environment, children gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended length of time on a question, problem or challenge. Projects provide a flexible and sustainable platform for children to explore and discover and to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. It provides opportunities for them to collaborate with others, learn about self-management, investigate, ask questions and accrue knowledge – all of which are important life-skills for progressing through their education years and thriving in the wider world.

Authenticity is an important aspect of project-based learning, and when children are immersed in a real-world context and draw on their personal interests and issues, the outcomes are even more significant. Early learning centres are realising the value of authenticity and are introducing projects like recycling or gardening which can run over the course of a whole year, providing sustainable opportunities for children to explore, discover, critique, learn and grow.

Some other examples of project-based activities which are popular in early learning centres are nutrition (particularly in schools where the provision of a meal provides a regular platform for discussion), building projects and tracking the seasons – all of which are motivated by the premise that project work presents innumerable opportunities to provoke investigation.

Projects allow curious young minds to explore and discover, they allow young children’s ideas to be valued, their creativity encouraged, their interests nurtured and their learning needs met. Importantly, because projects are open-ended and there is no right or wrong answer in project development, a child can fully explore their creative thought processes without fear of failure.

Project-based learning is gaining traction much earlier on in the school system, but it’s always been a guiding principle in the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. In Reggio Emilia inspired schools, projects provide the backbone of the learning experiences for both teachers and children – but the projects that this world-leading education approach incorporates into its curriculum are nothing like the conventional projects that would be typically associated with an early education school.

Their projects or investigations as they are known, are child-led. They may emerge from a chance event or a conversation. They may emerge from a problem that’s been posed to the group. They may come about as a result of a child’s interests or enquiry with the work following an unpredictable path based on the children’s interests. Importantly, they are adventures.

The focus is not to follow a standardised curriculum with pre-determined outcomes. Learning isn’t linear – teachers respond to the interests of the children and free them to construct knowledge together.

The approach is probably best described in the words of Italian teacher and psychologist, Loris Malaguzzi who founded the Reggio Emilia philosophy:

‘What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.’

The value of project-based learning and the Reggio Emilia philosophy have been recognised by Early Childhood Australia (ECA), a non-profit organisation that promotes and works towards what’s best for children. In an article on their website, the ECA said that after it had revisited what it knew to be ‘best practice’ for young children by accessing current learning frameworks and approaches including Reggio Emilia, the Early Years Learning Framework and the work of Kathy Walker, it had put in place a ‘project-based learning’ program.