Facilitating PBL with OST’s youngest youth

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When planning and facilitating project-based learning, each age group presents its own opportunities and challenges. Working with our youngest youth (kindergarten to 2nd grade) can be challenging because youth are rarely reading and writing independently.  These youth are also still learning what it means to share and to work cooperatively.  Since project-based learning teaches the 21st century skill of collaboration (along with other important skills like communication, critical thinking and problem solving), it fits the developmental needs of these youth perfectly.  Below are a few guidelines to keep in mind when implementing project-based learning with K-2nd grade youth:

Be silly.  Which is to say, be age-appropriate.  Young children learn through play and respond well to adults that incorporate a playful side to their teaching style.  Recently at the Education Works program Alcorn Elementary, a staff member was asking youth a series of “Who has a bigger foot” questions, for example a child or a mom.  To get the kids giggling AND thinking, she asked, “Who has a bigger foot, a duck or a fish?”  After a few moments of puzzled looks, one youth shouted out, “Fish don’t have feet!” and everyone had a good laugh.  What felt like a game or just a silly conversation to the youth, had actually been a strategy to prepare youth to talk about measurement.  The staff member then continued with a measurement activity based on the book How Big is a Foot? by Rolf Myller.

Get Active.  Did you find a great worksheet then suddenly remember your youth aren’t exactly enthusiastic about more worksheets?  Why not turn it into a game or physical activity?  A worksheet that involves matching or arranging things in order can easily be turned into a gross motor activity.  Consider providing each youth with a name tag/label (ex. the names of the planets) then have them work together to put themselves in order.  Another idea is to create a relay race where youth have to take turns collecting words, pictures, or clues from around the gym then arrange them to solve a puzzle.  Divide the youth into teams to build in some friendly competition.

Break it up.  Many sites schedule project-based learning for an hour or more, but anyone working with kindergarteners knows young children have a hard time focusing for that long.  Set your youth up for success by breaking your project-based learning period into several 15-20 minute activities.  For example, you might start with a game, then read a book aloud together, then work on an art piece for the culminating event.  To the youth, it will feel like three different activities.  If you have an involved project, split it up over the course of several days.

Model.  Even though youth aren’t yet doing many things on their own (reading, writing, using computers, etc.) staff can still incorporate these skills into project-based learning.  Young children learn by watching and participating in a supported, structured way.  Staff can lead youth in group writing exercises by inviting youth to share their ideas, while the staff person writes the word, phrase, sentence on the board.  If you have access to a projector, TV, or smart board, consider connecting it to a laptop to model the use of technology.  Staff can lead youth in writing, video editing, even basic internet navigation.  Be sure to invite youth up to help you, so they can gain some experience moving the mouse or typing on the keyboard.  Modeling applies for other skills and character traits as well.  When you are engaged and wondering about the driving question, youth will wonder along with you.

Challenge Them.  Every so often a staff member will say, “They can’t do that, they’re too little!” to which I respond, “Have you tried recently?”  One of the exciting things about working with youth, young children in particular, is that they develop new skills at an astounding rate.  Just because the group couldn’t focus, read, do math, or write last month, doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do it this month.  Every once in a while give youth a task which might be just outside their comfort zone.  Be ready to provide support and encouragement if needed, but give the youth a chance to try the task on their own.  It is alright if that paper-mâché globe isn’t perfectly accurate.  What is important is that youth have the opportunity to build a new skill, which involves risking failure from time to time.

These are just a few ideas to help you get started with your K-2nd grade PBL project.  If you aren’t familiar with developmentally appropriate practice (sometimes abbreviated DAP by early childhood professionals) there are some great resources online.  The National Association for the Education of Youth Children has webpages on DAP with Kindergarten and the Early Primary Grades.  The You for Youth Afterschool Training Toolkit also has some excellent developmentally appropriate activity ideas for K-2nd grade youth.  Have fun!

by: Kristen Coe

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