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“From the very beginning, curiosity and learning refuse simple and isolated things: they love to find the dimensions and relations of complex situations....” (Malaguzzi, 1987, p.19)
While working with children at a university laboratory school, we have pondered the question of how to develop curriculum for very young children in a meaningful way that emphasizes content as well as process. In general, curriculum for toddlers (ages one through three) involves activity centers that change from day to day. Because toddlers tend to be immersed in the immediate moment and in the process rather than the product of their activity, teachers, when developing curriculum, tend to put little emphasis on long-range planning and on developing extensive connections between different activities.
Yet thematic units and long-term projects are becoming recognized as an important way to promote preschool and young school-age children’s learning. In Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach (1989), Katz and Chard describe project work as an innovative way to meet a wide spectrum of educational goals. Recently, we have also been strongly influenced by the project approach as developed in a public preschool system for children ages one through six in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, in press; New, 1990). In Reggio Emilia, projects for children involve spiraling experiences of exploration and group discussion followed by representation and expression and then the use of many symbolic media, whether words, movement, songs, drawings, building blocks, shadow play, or face-making in front of a mirror. Art is not viewed as a separate part of the curriculum but as part of the whole cognitive symbolic learning of the developing child. Children’s work is not casually created but is the result of a guided exploration of themes and events that are relevant to the lives of children and of the community (Gandini, 1984; Gandini & Edwards, 1988).
Are these methods relevant for children younger than age three? On one hand, we worried that a project approach would be too abstract for toddlers and more relevant to the teacher’s planning book than to the children’s interests. We definitely did not want to create another type of “pushed-down” curriculum. On the other hand, we believed that with certain important modifications, in-depth study projects might well be made appropriate for toddlers. They could be a valuable way to help the children find answers to their own deepest questions and make meaning and connections between actions, events, objects, and ideas in their world (Forman, 1989).