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Project-Based Learning (PBL) in Preschools

Introduce your preschoolers to the real world by incorporating project-based learning into your curriculum.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) in Preschools

Project-Based Learning (PBL) in Preschools

Children are naturally curious. The early childhood years are a fundamental time in a child’s life when they begin learning about themselves and the world around them. While some preschool curriculums can narrow a child’s perspective down to the inside of their classroom or home, project-based learning helps children gain valuable knowledge and skills by leading them past their immediate environment and expanding their view to allow them to explore the real world. 

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about project-based learning—what it is, why it’s important, and how you can implement it in your early childhood education program.

Children sitting at a yellow table doing project-based learning using arts and crafts such as colored pencils and paper.


What is project-based learning?

Project-based learning (PBL) is a teaching method that enables children to gain useful knowledge and skills by engaging and actively exploring real-world problems and creating solutions. The goal of using this approach is to promote the development of cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and logical reasoning, and social-emotional skills, such as social awareness, teamwork, and self-management. Project-based learning fuses critical thinking and creativity with collaboration and communication so children acquire deep knowledge on the selected topic or content.

seven essential characteristics of project based learning


To help educators ensure that children acquire the knowledge, understanding, and skills they need to be successful learners, the Buck Institute for Education PBLWorks has outlined seven essential characteristics of project-based learning:

  • A challenging problem or question: The project is framed by a meaningful problem to be solved or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Sustained inquiry: Children engage in an extended process of posing questions, finding resources, and applying information.
  • Authenticity: The project involves real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact, or the project speaks to personal concerns, interests, and issues in the children’s lives.
  • Children's voice and choice: Children make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create, and express their ideas in their voice.
  • Reflection: Children and teachers reflect on the learning, the effectiveness of their question and project activities, the quality of work, obstacles that arise, and strategies for overcoming them.
  • Critique and revision: Children give, receive, and apply feedback to improve their processes and products.
  • Public product: Children make their project work public by sharing it with and explaining or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

When these elements are incorporated into building a PBL curriculum, they can increase a child’s success and positively affect their long-term growth.

Why is project-based learning important?

Traditional learning rarely ventures outside the classroom. Curriculums are often built to focus on the academic knowledge and skills that children need to be successful in the classroom as they transition from early childhood education to higher education. Project-based learning enables young children to build and develop cognitive and social-emotional skills and teaches them how to apply them to situations or challenges they’ll face in the real world.

In addition to preparing children for real-world experiences, project-based learning is an effective tool for increasing engagement in the classroom. The purpose of engagement is sometimes lost in education. However, instead of the focus being solely on a child’s interest in a topic or activity, the focus needs to shift to whether it’s cognitively engaging for the child. Your preschoolers might be interested in a lesson. However, you might want to consider asking: Are they curious? Are they asking questions? Are they using mental effort? By design, project-based learning is set up to promote meaningful learning where children use their autonomy to ask questions and create solutions.

The importance of utilizing project-based learning is evident when comparing the method to traditional projects. Traditional projects have always been a tool used to facilitate learning, but the differences between projects and project-based learning are what help demonstrate the benefits of the latter. 

Projects and project-based learning are often likened to a dessert and a main course, respectively. Projects are often a supplement added to the end of a lesson. They typically follow the direction of a teacher, focus on the product, and can be completed alone or at home. Depending on the scope of the lesson, it is also possible for projects to be unrelated to standards and skills. 

Project-based learning, however, can be seen as the main course. It is the lesson. Unlike traditional projects, PBL:

  • Is driven by children's inquiry
  • Focuses on the product and process
  • Involves collaboration with children and in-class guidance from teachers
  • Has real-world context and application

An important component of project-based learning is that it aligns with the skills and early learning standards set by each state for its early childhood education programs. A tool like brightwheel’s lesson plan software comes preloaded with the learning standards of each state, making it possible for you to use project-based learning to plan lessons. You can easily customize your learning standards to meet the requirements of your state and the needs of your children.

Project-based learning projects for preschoolers

Project-based learning creates opportunities for your children to engage in their education and development through active exploration. There is a vast pool of knowledge and skills you can focus on while using collaborative classroom projects, STEM projects, art projects, and more. The following examples provide great insight into how your project-based learning curriculum can look.

Investigation on bones

Eastern Connecticut State University provides a project-based curriculum about bones geared toward children between 18 months and 5 years old. They’ve built their lessons on five pillars: scaffolding play, balanced schedule, evidence-based classroom environments, portfolio assessment, and integrated planning webs. These pillars support play experiences in learning centers, planned whole-group experiences, teacher-guided outdoor play, intentional transitions, and cooperative learning groups.

The lesson plan is outlined in five stages:

  • Stage 1: Topic selection, research, webbing, and planning
  • Stage 2: Assessing prior knowledge
  • Stage 3: Initiation
  • Stage 4: Awareness phase
  • Stage 5: Inquiry across contexts

During stage one, you select several content goals and plan key experiences related to performance standards. During stage two, you spend time asking your children questions to assess their knowledge on the topic. Using this information, you implement specific activities for scaffolding.

Stage three is where you can see the lesson take form. During initiation, the teacher in this example shares an x-ray and a letter from a friend explaining that she has broken her foot. This information is supplemented with books on breaking legs and arms and wearing casts. During stage four, the awareness stage, children wear gloves and trace a marker over where they feel bones in their hands. The purpose of this activity is described as increasing the children’s awareness of where they have bones and what bones feel like and then building interest around them.

Stage five involves dramatic play, where children roleplay a radiologist comparing bones or a patient at a radiologist’s office. Children also use blocks to build a skeleton or conduct experiments to determine whether milk or soda is better for bones. Through these methods, the children can come up with their own ideas about the importance of bones and how they protect vital organs.

Lastly, after going over their findings with the class, this project-based learning lesson plan ends with a science fair, where the children talk through their lessons.

The recess path

The Buck Institute for Education PBLWorks provides a sample project-based learning lesson plan that answers the question, “How can we create a recess path for children in our school to use when we have indoor recess?”  The goal of this lesson plan is to guide children into investigating different sensory paths while learning why recess might be held indoors—due to weather and temperature. 

This project-based learning lesson is centered around three objectives: considerations, learning goals, and major products. The lesson includes questions you can ask as you consider your preschoolers, the context, and the content and skills of the lesson.

  • Consider your preschoolers:
    • What do your preschoolers already know about measurement, weather, and temperature?
    • How can path movements be designed to include children with physical disabilities?
  • Consider the context:
    • Where would the best place be for a sensory path?
    • What kinds of community partners might serve as guest speakers or mentors to your children during this project?
  • Consider the content and skills:
    • What shared texts might deepen children's engagement with the topics and themes in this project?
    • What lessons, activities, and supports might you provide to help children develop their work?

The learning goals ensure that the lesson is aligned with early learning standards. In this example, the standards for this lesson target literacy, science, and mathematics. 

At the end of the project, the products are individual, class-wide, and school-wide. This lesson calls for children to create a weather-tracking journal as well as a how-to book, where they give instructions on their path. This spans to the class, where the entire group reviews the most popular paths. Lastly, the product is made public, where you have your children present their paths to other classes.

Teacher painting a cardboard box with children


Implementing project-based learning in early childhood

Project-based learning requires preparation and planning. It begins with a challenging problem or question that you guide your preschoolers toward finding the solution to. Use the following steps to begin implementing PBL in your classroom.

Design a plan

To use project-based learning in your preschool classroom, start with a question. Ensure that the answer and the process your preschoolers take to find a solution align with the knowledge and skill standards they should be learning and developing for their age. 

In the previous example from PBLWorks, they provided the question: ”How can we create a recess path for children in our school to use when we have indoor recess?” Once you have your question, make the question more engaging for your children. 

Instead, you might ask them: “How can we keep moving during recess when we can’t go outside?” As you design and plan the lesson, you can determine how you’ll introduce the idea of a recess path. At this time, you’ll select activities that support the question and identify the materials and resources you’ll make available to your children.

Create a schedule

How much time will you give your preschoolers to work on this project? Time management is a skill your children have yet to master. Keep them on track at different stages of the project. Help them schedule their tasks and set deadlines. 

Still, it’s important to stay flexible because things happen. Children lose interest and get distracted. Build extra time into the schedule to allow children to explore new directions. The goal of project-based learning is to allow your children to solve problems themselves, and sometimes that involves a new idea in the midst of exploring an existing one. 

Manage and guide the process

Project-based learning is a great opportunity for your children to start experiencing autonomy as they problem-solve and collaborate with their peers. You can still manage and guide their project to ensure their learning, active participation, and responsibility. This involves providing relevant materials and resources, teaching and modeling collaborative work, and designating roles within a group.

Similar to the seven essential characteristics of project-based learning is a “gold standard” of seven project-based teaching practices created by PBLWorks. When incorporating the steps outlined above, the following standards create an ideal foundation for implementing PBL in an early childhood setting:

  • Design and plan: You create or adapt projects for your preschoolers. You plan its implementation from beginning to end while allowing for some degree of children's voice and choice.
  • Align to standards: You use standards to plan a project and make sure it addresses key knowledge and understanding.
  • Build the culture: You promote independence and growth, open-ended inquiries, and team spirit.
  • Manage activities: You work with children to organize tasks and schedules, find and use resources, and create products to make them public.
  • Scaffold children learning: You employ a variety of lessons, tools, and instructional strategies to support all children in reaching project goals.
  • Assess children learning: You use formative and summative assessments of knowledge, understanding, and success skills.
  • Engage and coach: You engage in learning and creating alongside your children, identifying when they need skill-building, redirection, encouragement, and celebration.

Entering the real world

Project-based learning can be an innovative transition. As the teacher, you transition from directing your children through projects or challenges to guiding them and giving them tools to create solutions. By exploring real-world situations and using creativity and collaboration to ask questions and engage in problem-solving, your preschoolers can build and strengthen the academic and social-emotional skills they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.

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