George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL for Pre-K Through Second Grade

Very young students can benefit from project-based learning, as these detailed steps for a project conducted by preschool students demonstrate.

April 16, 2024
Leigh Ann Speake / iStock

Observation, exploration, and discovery are three main skills that young children (kindergarten to second grade) generally develop when they interact with their surroundings. Some children prefer to take time to observe the environment before moving around to explore, while others choose to immediately start actively discovering the wonders within the environment. Nurturing an environment that ignites curiosity and facilitates exploration, therefore, is paramount.

Early-years educators who work with children 2 to 7 years old play a pivotal role in laying the foundation for lifelong learning by creating spaces where children can freely explore their diverse interests and learn how to expand explorations and inquiries into meaningful in-depth projects. 

In this post, I share a project I developed for a pre-K class with 3-year-olds that offers clear examples of each step and process feature. The project began when a boy became fascinated by the sound that came out of a bottle when he blew into it. He shared his findings with his peers, and the Sounds Exploration project began.  

Creating an Environment for Exploration

The environments where young children interact become learning spaces and serve as educators, generating dialogue between children and/or between each child and the environment, developing processes of inquiry, reflection, observation, and active listening. What should these spaces be like? 

Versatility: Design flexible learning environments that allow spontaneous exploration and discovery in different areas and disciplines. Incorporate adaptable learning materials to accommodate diverse interests and activities. Equip your classroom with a rich variety of resources, including books, art supplies, natural materials, and sensory experiences. Allow children to access natural open spaces that offer enough room for free exploration.  

In the example of the Sounds Exploration project, the teacher offered different materials and contexts for the learners to make and identify sounds, both outside and indoors. In the open air, the teacher helped learners focus on sounds by inviting them to close their eyes and name the sounds they could hear. This takes some time and guidance to help learners to listen beyond the sounds in the foreground and pay attention to those in the background. The learners were then made aware of the sounds they made by walking on different surfaces—like pebbles, grass, and mud—and the sounds they made with sticks or by hitting the water. Outdoors contexts are full of discovery possibilities. 

Indoors, the children used materials such as plastic tops, foil, plastic, cellophane, construction paper, and cardboard to make sounds. Wood blocks, musical instruments, and toys (cars, trucks, dolls, balls, construction blocks) are also an option, as are the different surfaces (floor, carpets, tables) in the classroom. 

In both environments, the children had guidance to help them discover more about the sounds they produced. This connects with the next point.

Curiosity: Encourage a culture of inquiry by posing open-ended questions, stimulating wonder, and inviting children to explore topics of interest. Offer provocations and invitations to learning that spark curiosity and prompt further investigation. 

Collaboration: Facilitate opportunities for children to explore together, interact, learn from one another, and question their findings. 

Interacting with children during exploration periods

The most successful interactions a teacher can carry out in the period of inquiry are those that don’t have a single answer but allow for different responses. The children’s answers will likely be the result of the connections they make with themselves, their previous knowledge, their interaction with their peers, and the context in which they’re interacting.

As a consequence, the teacher has an opportunity to develop and model an attitude of listening and of inquiry into the children’s responses and the construction of their learning. 

For example, related to the Sounds project, the teacher might ask the following questions: 

  • “How do you do it? Can you teach me?”
  • “This sound... what does it remind you of?” 
  • ”What other sounds can we make?”
  •  ”What causes sound to be produced?”
  •  ”What can we use this sound for?”

Engage in active observation: Observe children closely as they play: as they interact with each other, the decisions they make, and how they choose to communicate their feelings, emotions, thoughts. Pay attention to their interests, preferences, and inquiries.

Listen actively: Listen to the children’s conversations when you ask open-ended questions to stimulate their thinking and foster reflection and critical thinking. Encourage them to communicate their ideas and their thoughts, share observations, and voice their desire to know. 

Let the children express freely: Let them show you their willingness to deepen their knowledge. Follow their interests and curiosity, allowing them to guide the direction of their exploration. Facilitate support and resources based on their inquiries, empowering them to build knowledge and take ownership of their learning journey.

Provide research tools: Offer the children access to age-appropriate tools and materials, including books, digital resources, and hands-on experiences. Support them in navigating these resources independently, fostering self-directed learning skills.

Facilitate tools to document their findings: Provide materials and resources for learners to document their discoveries in various ways: different art forms, notes, oral dialogues, audio/video recordings. 

Transferring exploration into research projects

Children’s active exploration, properly documented, will generate a lot of information and, in turn, will create the possibility of continuing work on a specific project.

In the example of the Sounds Exploration project, the learners were invited to use the sounds they had collected, identified, and documented to make a Sound Story from a well-known story they usually read in class and enjoyed. The guiding question was this: How can the learners in this class turn [the name of the story] into a sound story?

Assist project planning: Guide children in planning and organizing their research project, and deconstruct the process into manageable steps. Help them create research questions, collect information, and develop a short-term plan of action. 

Analyze the data collected: Facilitate understanding of the findings and guide the children to become aware of which subject area they’re willing to learn more about. 

Ignite Intrinsic motivation: Provide steps for the learners to become aware of  what they already know about the specific topic in that subject area and what more they want to know, and guide them in finding where they can collect the information they’re looking for. 

Foster reflection: Promote reflection throughout the research process. Provide opportunities for children to share their findings with peers and reflect on their learning experiences and strategies.

Research projects enable teachers to empower children to make choices and decisions about their learning journey when they have a range of options and opportunities to explore their interests authentically. In addition, research projects foster collaboration and peer learning by encouraging children to work together and share what they’ve learned. 

It’s important to recognize and celebrate children’s achievements and contributions throughout the research process. Create opportunities for them to showcase their work, share their findings with others, and receive feedback and praise.

In essence, by creating an environment that nurtures exploration, supporting children during their inquiries, and empowering them to take on leadership roles in their learning, early years educators can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of curiosity, discovery, and success.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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