Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Kindergartners Explore Through Project Learning

The Auburn Early Education Center immerses young children in self-directed projects.
By Ken Ellis

VIDEO: Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning

Running Time: 9 min.

"Don't go yet, because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky!" warns a wary air-traffic controller from his cardboard perch above a mockup of a plane loaded with his classmates. But it's only a minor delay for students of the Yellow Pod, a small segment of the 460 kindergartners who attend the Auburn Early Education Center, in Auburn, Alabama. Soon, they will be virtually winging their way to Brazil on a fantasy flight aboard their handcrafted plane, culminating two and a half months of preparation for the role-playing exercise as part of a yearlong study of South America.

At this award-winning kindergarten learning center, shared with a special education preschool, the students decide what projects they want to tackle, and teachers guide them to resources, on the Internet and in books, that help them create something from what they learn. Whether they're building an airplane or a cruise ship, or conducting a funeral for the class praying mantis, AEEC students are learning more than basic facts and skills. They are acquiring a taste for the process of lifelong learning.

"These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning," says AEEC principal Lilli Land. "When you want to find something out, what do you do? You go to the computer, you get on the Internet, you get a book. You don't go to an adult and just have them feed you all the information. You have to learn to be a problem solver; you have to learn to be resourceful. So we teach them to be lifelong learners, and you have to keep them excited about the process of learning."

Although the project-based curriculum generates much of the enthusiasm for learning here, a recent infusion of technology -- putting interactive whiteboards in every classroom -- has raised the bar for students and teachers. Touching a giant screen, teacher Sandy Armstrong calls up a wall-size map of South America and points to Brazil. "That is a big place!" shouts a boy kneeling in front of her. And when she starts a video clip of an imposing anaconda, he says, "I'll bet he's gonna slide and slither and try to bite him."

"When they put it in our classroom and I saw everything that it could do just playing with it, and my kids were so excited, I could see what a difference it made in a matter of weeks," says Armstrong. "Even the teachers that have been teaching for twenty-five years that are afraid to jump into technology, they have jumped in with both feet. It's rejuvenated their ideas and their motivation."

As part of the school's literacy focus, a dedicated technology coach gives one-on-one instruction to students, who can manipulate giant letters on the interactive whiteboard. "They have a lot of problems when it comes to m and w," says Armstrong. "When they can flip the m over and it becomes a w, they get it. They'll say, 'Oh, it's standing on its head!' It's so much fun for them to do, and they're actually in charge of it. They have the power and, therefore, it's more pertinent to them."

As standardized-test pressure bears down on even the youngest learners and their teachers, Lilli Land challenges other principals to adopt AEEC's project-based-curriculum approach.

"We're teaching all the required content area, but we're doing it in a way that's more innovative, creative, that's off the path of what most people choose," Land says. "But there are many people who think, 'Well, we have to have the workbooks; our kids have to do drill and practice.' That's just scratching the surface, and it's also turning kids off to learning. And so you have to really be confident and trust in what you know is appropriate and good for young children, and believe that if you're actually involving the children every day in activities that are going to make progress in the academic areas, they're going to be fine on assessment."

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (40)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sandy Naramore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is meant for Lilli Land.

Hi Lilli.

I met you in Pratville at the Assistant Principal's convention. I am the A.P. at Greystone Elementary in Hoover. I thoroughly enjoyed the video. I hope to see you at the CLAS convention in Birmingham this summer.

Sandy Naramore

Lilli Land's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am glad you enjoyed the video. I will not be attending the CLAS conference because I will be in Atlanta at the NECC (technology) conference. Hope to talk with you soon. I am sorry I missed Laura's wedding. My mother had her 85th birthday, and I had to leave for a conference in California.

Kisha Tolbert Woods's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former teacher at AEEC, I am proud to say, that I share this video with my classmates (Technology in Education degree) all the time! One of my professors (Mimi Giman) is a Faculty Associate for the George Lucas Education Foundation and when I found the video I couldn't help but to share it with her class.

My current class is discussing Smartboards and I again recommended this video.

You all keep up the great work! I miss you all!

Kisha Tolbert Woods

Kathi M. Ellis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This first of all is a very interesting article and could also be very overwhelming for kindergarten students . This educator is studing Special Education and would be more incline to teach children the basics of geeting along with each other and other appropriate behaviors to assist them in sustaing in life. It is a good thing to teach children computer skills , but lets not forget if the computer breaks , the child needs to have learned how to go to the dictionary and look up a word.

Carol Albright's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to see more PBL for the early elementary grades. I have been using this type of apporach with students as an enrichment to the literature we are studying. I serve as the resource and guide them to books or websites where they actively take a part in their researching, learning, and build on what we have learned as a class. What I love about this approach is that the content areas are being covered creatively. It is great how this approach can really motivate a learner becasue they are truly enjoying the learning process.

Laura in Brookhaven, MS's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is the first PBL I have found in my research that is occurring in Kindergarten and first grade. I am so excited! I would love to learn more about how you implement PBL. Our school does not have SMART boards or much technology in individual classrooms, so the research might be problematic.

Karen Baker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I commend Auburn Early Education Center for taking a stand and really teaching our kids to be creative thinkers and problem solvers, instead of just fill-in-the-bubble robot test takers. This is the environment where learning will stick and the skills taught here are exactly what our society is going to need from these students when they graduate into a world of unpredictable change.

LF's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I would dearly love to see more K-5 examples of PBL in action. It seems like its really big at the middle and high school level, and somewhat forgotten at the elementary level where it has a lot of potential.

LF -- Maui, Hawaii

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Dear LF:

Edutopia has many examples of project-based learning in K-5 classrooms. You might be especially interested in the following videos. Be sure to read the articles that accompany each video for more details. The Project Learning topic page also has many examples.

A video on Nuuanu Elementary in Honolulu, HI

A video on Newsome Park Elementary in Virginia

A video on Clearview Charter School in San Diego, CA

Sherryl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear LF,

Have a look at the Inquiry Schools Web site for more video examples.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.