Project-Based Learning: The Perfect Fit for Early Childhood Education

Wendy Ruiz headshotEarly childhood education experts often deal with the misperception that younger learners face barriers to deeper learning or high-skilled activities. According to Wendy Ruiz, director of iLEAD’s Early Childhood Education Programs, the truth is quite the opposite. Ruiz believes that the youngest learners deserve the rigorous, engaging and meaningful learning opportunities that project-based learning affords older learners.

Why PBL and Early Childhood Education

Ruiz believes, and can demonstrate, that PBL supports early literacy and more academic and social-emotional skills. Ruiz said young learners build language and literacy skills when they talk about project ideas and do introductory research alongside their facilitators. According to Ruiz, they develop cognitively while observing cause and effect, trial and error and problem-solving through project-based learning. She said they also learn creative skills as they expand their ideas and look outside the box, while also developing social-emotionally through collaborative work and implementation.

“PBL is important for preschoolers ages two to four, as it helps them to see how their ideas and questions can turn into extended learning experiences,” Ruiz said.

Unique to Early Childhood Education and PBL

PBL for preschoolers is different, as their attention span is much shorter. Therefore, Ruiz said projects are implemented and completed over a shorter span of time. She added that projects are typically completed in teams and that presentations of learning are not emphasized as much.

“PBL for this age is also based on the learners’ interests at the time vs. meeting specific standards,” Ruiz said.

An example of PBL for preschoolers, according to Ruiz, could be discussing snowmen and then asking a guiding question, such as “How do we make a snowman?: Ruiz said that the facilitators might read children’s books, sing songs, and then introduce a few trial-and-error activities with the learners. They may ask for predictions, such as “How many snowballs does it take before the snowman falls over?” Or “How cold does it need to be before the snowman melts?”

Types of Projects for Preschoolers

Little iLEADers children doing project

Ruiz said that projects tend to be shorter, simpler varieties based on learners’ interests and then can be completed in two to three steps. For example, Ruiz cites a good example of this, in which learners talked about Starbucks and how to make their drinks. They were having fun and wanted to create their own version of a Starbucks drive-through using their indoor and outdoor play areas. Ruiz said that parents donated supplies and learners tackled questions about costs, amount of supplies needed and more.

“This was a great example of a small project where learners were using language, math and social-emotional skills,” Ruiz said.

An example of a more in-depth project for preschoolers was one that Ruiz said her own three-year-old experienced. Learners were throwing away napkins in a trash can, and then one made a basket with a napkin. This led to a discussion about how to play basketball, and the learners formed basketball teams for a four-week experience. Ruiz said the learners, in addition to forming a team, created a team name and logo and even wrote letters to the Los Angeles Lakers asking for donations and athletic gear.

“Again, there were very high levels of learner voice, creativity and inquiry, while they also worked on language and math skills at the same time,” Ruiz said.

Challenges, Advantages

Ruiz admits there are some challenges. She said some parents and families may need additional explanations and understanding of PBL benefits. However, she said common challenges relate to having proper materials on hand, as well as keeping the activities learner-led and allowing young learners to problem-solve for themselves.

“When parents understand it, they love it,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said there are more advantages than challenges for PBL in early childhood education. PBL is designed with the framework of play, according to Ruiz. “Preschoolers are natural play specialists,” she said. “It’s their life work, really.”

Ruiz added that at Little iLEADers, facilitators offer loose parts and open-ended learning experiences, which naturally lend themselves to discussions, inquiry and extended learning — all great ways to facilitate PBL.

Going Forward

Ultimately, Ruiz advocates for PBL in early childhood learning experiences because she says it builds the foundation for deeper learning throughout the child’s life.

“It builds the foundation of lifelong skills, problem-solving, thinking outside the box and the social skills of real collaboration,” Ruiz said.

Her advice for facilitators, parents and families is to focus on the foundation of play-based learning.

“This will help learners to build trust in their own ideas and not be afraid to make mistakes,” she said.

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