How to Play - Using a Project Approach

One of the approximately million things I love about my work as a Tinkergarten Leader is that I am constantly learning. As a high school science teacher, I loved using a project (and problem) based approach to learning. I started off with a long term project where students were challenged to change a habit to live more sustainably. This transformed over the years into a gamified project where students identified a problem related to sustainability (from lack of sustainable dog food to (my least favorite) how to recycle dead human bodies (high schoolers are interesting...) and proposed a solution. They could recruit group members or work alone. The final product had to include a physical product (prototype, newsletter, model, etc) and a written task (letter to an editor, blog post, etc). Eventually, the in-depth planning I did to prepare myself and students for this project enhanced all of my teaching. Instead of focusing on day-to-day planning hitting the next logical standard, I thought in more cohesive units centered around a problem of interest (like "Is the water quality in our region acceptable?", "Where is the safest place to live in NC?" etc). (You can see pictures from some of our project/problem based work above - designing an erosion resistant farm plot, pretending to be college admissions representatives and hosting a fair for middle school students, learning about impacts on water quality in our area, and playing the role of ambassadors from different countries while trying to agree to carbon cap and trade systems.) Work like this hooked my students more than how I had taught before focusing on relevant projects and problems, however as I moved in to working with younger learners, I was a bit unsure how to proceed. As Tinkergarten moves even deeper into using a project approach, I've been inspired to do some research on my own to learn more about the benefits of a project approach for little learners (in not-surprising news, the benefits are basically the same as those for high school learners) and how parents and educators can tackle planning play-filled projects with their young learners. In the rest of this post, I'll focus a bit on the benefits of a project approach to play, some questions to answer if you try this, and an overview of a planning tool I created that might help you plan some engaging play projects!

  • What is a project approach to play? A project approach to play invites children and those caring for them to focus on one theme for a couple weeks or months. Daily mini-projects (I'm calling these tasks for my own sanity) are returned to at deeper levels throughout the play project. This approach is popular for numerous reasons, but one is that young learners become immersed in the process of play, exploration, and learning to the point that the learners and teachers/parents might not be able to name the learning (though I guarantee you, it is still happening, so your kiddo is still learning loads even without a project) - by focusing play around a project, learners revisit the same concept in a myriad of different ways over an extended, but consecutive, amount of time which boosts learning (see the benefits question below for more on this). A project approach to play has been used in different early learning centers and homes for decades and is inspired by learning in Reggio Emilia, Italy and the work of Malaguzzi, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, and Gardner (Judd, 2007).

  • What are the benefits of a project approach to play? Project-based play stems from learner interests. This generally means that kiddos are more motivated to jump into play, try hard tasks, and keep exploring - it leads to more sustained play, in groups and independently. Because the same theme is visited again and again, children build a rich vocabulary organically. For example, if children are interested in cooking and play in the kitchen frequently for a month, they may start to use terms like hotter, colder, boil, rinse, cut in conversations more often. Terms like hotter, colder, bigger, smaller, more, less, under, over also relate to science and math concepts like understanding temperature, volume, and spatial awareness. Young learners thrive on repitition. A project approach to play often involves group play in a classroom setting that can boost social emotional learning, increase collaborative and cooperative skills, and give kiddos an opportunity to practice listening and looking at issues from different perspectives (LeeKeenan & Edwards, 1992). At home, there may be less opportunities for social play. However, if friends are invited over to play during the project, they might love to get involved, and your kiddo/s might not need your help to involve them. For example, my little one loves baby dolls and stuffed toys. If we spent a few weeks caring for her baby doll, it would likely come to play ground with us where she would show older kiddos how she cares for her baby doll and they might show her new ways to play with the doll (they love driving their dolls around in baskets on their bikes, HG loves to rock and change her baby). If a friend came over, they might negotiate turn taking or who uses what soft toy as a baby when. I think one of the most important benefits of a project approach to play is that, according to Janet Armstrong, it "encourages a positive disposition to learning" meaning learners are "likely to perform better later" (qtd in Judd, 2007). Project based play and learning takes the joys, wonderings, questions, and interests of children and shows children that what they care about is valuable and important in our classroom/home. This creates a sense of pride and belonging that sustains curiosity and encourages children to keep asking questions and doing the hard work of play and learning :). Additionally, while project based play requires a good bit of planning on the front end, it reduces the need to think of activities each day. When we choose themes that truly hook kiddos and make materials for play accessible, they’ll often step back into a project without us even telling them (for example, HG gets the watering can to water plants every time we go outside and often plays quietly with her dollhouse without a word from me).

  • How do I use a project approach to play? The first step is to know what your musts are if you have them. For example, I make sure we read, go outside, make a mess and clean it up, and solve a problem each day. Some families might have musts like, "we avoid wasteful play" and "we do not make a mess after nap time". Classrooms have standards to meet. Know these first and keep them in the back of your head so you can use them as a checklist for planning play. Identify learner interests by watching kiddos at play. What books hook them again and again? What do they ask questions about ALL THE TIME OVER AND OVER? What toys get them excited? What center could they stay at forever? What big life events are coming up or happened recently (first plane ride, trip to the beach, death of a pet, birth of a sibling) that might lead to a lot of questions? Now, decide what you think would sustain a few weeks of play that will interest your learners. Don't forget to also consider what interests you - even if you have to dig a bit to find what that is in your learners interests. We are better teachers when we are authentically curious too (I was NOT good at discussing dead body recycling with my students...). For example, if it is really hot outside, a few weeks on snow does not make sense. An obsession with a pink My Little Pony might be too small a focus for a few weeks. Learning the dances from Fortnite or singing Baby Shark over and over might be maddening for you. These floppy ideas could become themes like: Predicting Weather; How to Care for Horses; Dances around the World; Underwater Animals. Once you've identified the focus of your project, decide how to introduce it in a hooking way with your learners. This could be a trip to an aquarium, setting out related toys and watching your kiddo play, baking cookies together (or making a really bad and really good cookie and seeing what happened), etc (see the collage below for some simple set ups to provoke play with ramps/slides and cars, interest in clouds, creation with loose parts and dough). As your learners engage with the content in a new way, notice what they wonder, ask, say, etc. Taking pictures here is a great idea. Use their questions to plan smaller, daily-ish tasks. While you do these tasks, take pictures. Print these or put them in one document. Add captions each time you look at them together with their comments and reactions. This is how you record learning for young kiddos - and it helps them build a vocabulary and improve their working and long term memory by revisiting information. When you've answered your big questions/solved a problem/are ready to move on, celebrate and share your learning in some way and reflect on what worked and what you might do differently in later projects.

Try planning your own play filled project by using the document here (File > Make a Copy for your own editable Google Doc) or here (pdf).

I cannot wait to learn more about a project approach to play, to try it out with HG, to lead using it at Tinkergarten, and to watch YOUR journeys with project based play unfold! Please share your play using #watchwonderbloom!

Resources on a Project Approach to Play:

Eastern Connecticut State University. Project-Based Learning. Retrieved from:

Eastern Connecticut State University. Investigations Curriculum. Retrieved from:

Judd, J. (2007). The conversation: Reggio Emilia pre-schools. TES. Retrieved from:

Kogan, Y. & Pin, J. (2009). Beginning the journey: The project approach with toddlers. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 11(1). Retrieved from:

LeeKeenan, D. & Edwards, C. P. (1992). Using the project approach with toddlers. Faculty Publications, Department of Child, Youth, and Family Studies. 11.

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