PBL: Not Just For High School Anymore

Project Based Learning works for children as young as Kindergarten

By Crystal Woodin

Most people think project work is just for older children. The words kindergarten and projects typically aren’t seen as words that “go together.” This could be because many think the transitional age and time from preschool to real school known as kindergarten is still baby stuff. Changing people’s perceptions about what young children can do as learners starts now. Here is our story showing that the words project work and kindergarten actually do belong together.

In our kindergarten class, we use the project approach to explore topics that the children select. The project approach is an in-depth study selected and conducted by children. The teacher’s roll shifts from the keeper of knowledge to the facilitator of learning. The entire project is driven by the children’s questions. They guide their own learning. They ask their own questions and they find their own answers through research, field work, hands-on experiences, guest experts and parental involvement. Throughout the project it becomes a continuous cycle of asking and answering questions until the children become experts themselves. Children must know how to ask questions and find their own answers; it is a framework for all future learning. These are essential tools for building life-long learners. Project work fosters critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, cooperative learning, community support and parental involvement.

Our reptile project started thanks to us getting a class pet, “Echo the gecko” and an alligator head that we had in our science area. Strangely enough we learned that they were both reptiles and that opened the floodgate for questions about reptiles. Initially in phase one our questions focused mainly on geckos then it shifted into all things reptile. Our questions ranged from “Can geckos stick to walls?” to “How do snakes slither?”, “Why do mommy turtles leave their babies?”, “How big is the biggest alligator?” and “What predators do Komodo dragons have?” Throughout the course of the project our class asked over one hundred different questions about reptiles. Their question asking ability improved greatly throughout the course of the project and they learned where to get information, which is huge because at the beginning of the project they had no idea. We also started early with parental involvement opportunities by surveying our families about reptiles. Our project started in October and ended in January with us spending a minimum of 3 days per week working on the project during project time.

In phase two we invited in guest experts. We had the older brother of one of the students in our class, who breeds geckos, visit. The awesome story behind him as an expert is that he was a student who really struggled in school until his parents found something he was truly interested in and they used reptiles to motivate him and help him do better in school. He made a PowerPoint presentation for our class to answer all of our questions. When he shared it with our class their mother cried; she did not even know he knew how to make a PowerPoint slideshow. Not to mention how proud his little brother was that he was our guest expert. We had the Missouri Department of Conservation come and teach us about snakes and turtles. We skyped The Oregon Zoo to learn about and see a blue tongued skink. After that we skyped with two cast members from the History Channel’s hit show “SWAMP PEOPLE.” Mr. Justin and Ms. Liz the “Gator Queen” answered our questions about alligators! You never know who you can get as guest experts. All you have to do is ask and the worst someone might say is no. More times than not people do want to help and are willing to, in whatever way they can. We also went to see the Kansas City Reptile Show on a Sunday with our families to get exposure to more exotic reptiles.

Phase three is the culmination of all our learning. For the reptile project our class decided to make a movie to teach others about reptiles. They also decided with whom we would share all the learning. They wanted to teach other students in kindergarten and the rest of the school. They also wanted to teach their families; moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas. The children used non-fiction texts to gather facts so they could write their own scripts for the movie. Each child chose a reptile they wanted to teach others about and naturally created their own collaborative learning committees. After finishing their movie, the children decided that if we were showing a movie we needed to have popcorn. Next to follow was drinks and candy. That turned into “we should make our class into a movie theatre,” so we did. Each child selected a job to do for the movie theater. We had ticket takers, a concession stand, ushers and movie promoters. So not only did they make a movie to teach others about reptiles, they assumed the jobs they have seen with in their own communities. We had fifty family members show up to our movie premier, we only have fifteen students.

To make our “movie memorabilia” for the movie we paired with our art teacher and made clay reptile representations. Each child made a reptile that matched the one they chose to teach others about in the movie. After the movie showed, the children then shared their clay representations with their parents and the parents circled the room to hear from every child so they could learn about different reptiles. We also worked with our music teacher to learn a song about lizards to sing at our reptile show movie premier. During this project we worked hard to incorporate technology in a big way. We used iPads to do basic reptile research, video chatting applications to talk with people in different states about reptiles and we even made a movie! We completely rocked out a project and we incorporated lots of technology. A common misconception is that project work is not “real school work”, that no standards are being met. On the contrary, during the reptile project our class met twenty-eight Missouri Learning Standards in 6 different subject areas. And not only did we meet them, the children were afforded subject integrated learning opportunities that spanned multiple developmental domains.

Project work is powerful for every student, regardless of age. Kindergarteners are very capable learners. Children can do so much more than we give them credit for, if only they are given the chance. So what kinds of chances will you give students? How will you let them lead their learning? Where will they take you? And if you don’t know where to start when taking on project work; just ask your students what they want to learn about because they can and will always tell you. All you have to do is ask.

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