The Power of Play in Project Work

The Project Approach is an inquiry-based, developmentally appropriate  approach to teaching and learning about real-world topics.  The children help develop the focus of a project based on their interests and questions they have related to the topic.  My K4-K5 multi-age class is currently studying bald eagles.  Our class name this year is “Burton’s Bald Eagles” so we developed our first project of the year around this American symbol.  In the initial stages of the project, the children were very interested in bald eagle nests.  The children found pictures of nests and information about nests found in different parts of the United States.  We learned that bald eagles mate for life and return to the same nest year after year and add to it each year.  The largest bald eagle nest on record was found in Florida and was 9 feet wide, 20 feet deep, and weighed approximately 3 tons!  The class really wanted to know if our whole class (13 children and 1 teacher) would fit in a bald eagle nest.  We used a measuring tape to measure out 9 feet, but it didn’t really give us enough information to know if we could all fit.  As a class, we decided to build a model of the largest bald eagle nest and then see if we could fit into the nest. 

In our research, we also learned that bald eagles make the foundation of their nests in a triangular pattern.  This amazed all of us.  How do they know?  The children made small clay and twig models of bald eagle nests before we started on the life-sized nest. 

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We used plywood to make the foundation of the nest.  The children measured the wood for each of the triangular tiers.  Then we had help cutting the wood into the different lengths before we arranged the wood into triangles.  The children nailed the pieces together and enjoyed singing “The Hammer Song” while they worked.

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We added cardboard sides (NOT 20 feet high) and arranged branches on the outside of the cardboard to look like a nest.  We cut a door so we could easily get in and out of the nest.  Then it was time to answer our question: Could our whole class fit into the largest bald eagle nest?

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We surveyed the class.

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Then we opened the door to our nest and piled in!  We fit with room to spare!  Immediately, the children turned into bald eagles, erupting into song with fairly accurate bald eagle sounds and using their knowledge of bald eagles in their play.  I watched and listened with great interest as they talked to each other.

Child 1: I am a snake.

Child 2: I am a grown up eagle, so you can’t hurt me.  Snakes are only predators for baby eagles.

Child 3: Are six- year- old eagles grown ups?

Child 4: Yes.

Child 2: I am a six- year- old eagle.

Child 4: I am not grown up yet.  I still hop from branch to branch. 

The children also found streamers to use as feathers.  They flapped around as they ran around the playground.  Then I heard, “Now I am soaring!” and they ran with their arms outstretched to glide through the air. 

The play becomes more complex as they gain greater understanding of the topic.  The children use the nest as the basis for new dramatic play scenarios daily.  They are now very interested in eagle babies, called eaglets, so they are acting out eggs hatching.  They roll up in little balls in the nest and then wiggle around to show they are hatching.  They ask each other wonderful questions like “How many eggs does a bald eagle lay?” and “Since lots of baby bald eagles get eaten, which one of us will live and which will be eaten?”  When they hatch out of the eggs, they hop around the nest (babies cannot fly – they hop) calling for food.  A child always takes on the role of the mother or father eagle and they “fly” around the playground catching fish for the babies.  They pretend to carry the fish to the nest in their talons and then rip it apart to feed the babies.  Other children become the predators: raccoons, snakes, and hawks are the most popular choices. 

The book The Project Approach: Making Curriculum Come Alive by Sylvia Chard talks about the 3 focuses of project work with young children: construction, dramatic play, and investigation.  In the bald eagle project, the children are involved in all three focus areas, with a lot of dramatic play incorporated throughout.  As the teacher, I am gaining a tremendous amount of knowledge about the children’s understanding of the topic by watching and engaging in play with them.  Their vocabulary through play is astounding.  Regularly I hear words like predator, prey, soaring, endangered, protection, talons, and habitat all used correctly within the play scenario.  It is obvious that the dramatic play element that the nest has provided is really solidifying knowledge the children previously had only in theory.  They are now able to internalize and experience a bald eagle’s activities in a supportive play environment.  While the nest is only a part of our project, I am thrilled to see all of the children excitedly demonstrating their bald eagle expertise!

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