What’s the Difference Between a Project and a Theme?

What’s the difference between a project and a theme? I mentioned recently that I had been talking with a friend about projects; what is a project? How do you go about starting one? How is it different to a theme?

I can only speak from my experience with Jack (3.5yrs) but the main difference, and most important, is that a project is entirely child-initiated and child-led. It follows an undetermined course, changing and evolving according to the child’s interests. A project has no time frame, it continues until the child’s interests have peaked and naturally shift to something else; possibly an off-shoot of the original project or a different subject entirely.

A theme is, in my experience, a predetermined subject, like dinosaurs or transport, where the activities within that theme are largely chosen by the adult and presented to the child. There is generally a sequence of activities which move from basic to more abstract concepts with a culminating activity at the end. There is usually a time frame (letter of the week, seasonal theme, etc.) where the adult will generally choose the end point.

A Field trip for Jack’s Space Project

For me, it is easy to recognise if I am planning a theme or preparing for a project by how much planning I have done beforehand. If I have the unit mapped out with activities slotted in, then it’s a theme. If I have an activity (or an open-ended experience) planned based on an observation (something Jack has said or asked, or a game he is playing) with the intention of seeing where he takes it, then I am preparing for a project.

Project-based learning is common in Reggio Emilia and Reggio-inspired preschools. The teachers will offer the children open-ended activities (often with a subtle suggestion of how the children could proceed) and then observe the children, listen to their stories, their questions, see how they navigate the activity, take note of their interest levels and talk with the children.

Then with the variety of materials on offer to the children, the teachers help them to make their learning visible through modelling or building, collage or drawing, dramatic play or music; any means at all to encourage them to delve deeper and deeper to find the answers to their questions, and in turn ask new questions. These activities aren’t preprepared. They are subtly suggested to the children as the discoveries from one experience lead onto the next.

Observational drawing of planets

Representational drawings of rockets: Followed on from dramatic play

So how does this translate to the home? Well, if you have a notebook and pencil, some basic art supplies (coloured pencils, oil pastels, clay, lead pencils, watercolour paints, washable paint, and paper of course), some open-ended loose materials for creating and inventingand access to a library then you are pretty much set. The notebook and pencil is for you to take some simple notes on your child’s interests. For me, this has been the best way for me to make sure that our projects stay Jack-led. My quick notes about games he plays of questions he asks stop me from taking over and planning too much in advance.

So for example, Jack was (and still is to some extent) really interested in volcanoes, particularly active volcanoes. I noticed one morning that he was throwing a red shawl (from the dress-up box) into the air as if a volcano were erupting. I made a quick note and while he was napping put out some red, orange and black paint. That afternoon I said something like, “Jack, I noticed you were making a volcano erupt this morning. Do you think you could make a volcano erupt with these paints?’ A resounding YES!

The Solar System

One of the best things about projects is that the activities don’t have to be fancy. By using your notes (whether mental or written down) you can help your child to connect their thoughts. Whether you say it to your child directly, “I noticed you doing… this morning…’ or ‘this morning you were asking about why the moon moves, do you think this book might give us some answers?’ or whether you make it more subtle, more of a provocation, by placing a new book on the shelf, or some watercolours and an object (related to your project), you are helping them to transfer their knowledge, their thoughts from one context to another. This is how learning happens; slowly, slowly building upon thoughts, thoughts about something which truly interested you. It’s about having choice and independence to explore, and being trusted that with guidance meaningful learning will occur.

11 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Project and a Theme?

    • Thanks Kathy. The more I read about project-based learning and the more I see how well Jack responds, the more I am convinced that it truly is the most effective way to nurture curiosity and support true, authentic learning.

  1. Kate, thanks for this post.

    AS you can see, I am reading along these lines lately, I need to head this way…

    I know I am in advance here with my question, but how do you plan to tackle things like maths and language? I mean I know that these things are integrated in the project a child make, and so he will have to touch it with his projects, but how do you integrate maths concept or grammar in project based homeschooling? They require a little bit more practice and in depth learning of concepts that are not appealing to kids generally.

    thanks Kate!

    • From what I understand I can see math and language concepts being very much integrated into the projects, like you said. Even though Jack is only 3.5 yrs old I can really see how deeply a child can study something when they are interested. In project-based learning I think the hardest part for me is to not jump in when I think a concept should be covered in more detail. This would be taking over and counter-productive; taking away from the child and making it our own. I know from my teaching experience what happens when an adult takes over and tells the child what they must learn, when they must learn it and how they must learn it.

      With the projects I can see them being quite rigorous. One of the main messages I have got from Lori’s book is to support the child to find their own information, write their own questions, take the lead in every aspect of the project. Even something as simple as going to the library can either be a learning experience for the child or not. Either they write a list of questions/topics before hand, look up where they might find the books, search through the contents pages and the index to see if they are relevant OR the adult finds the books. I think these concepts can definitely be well integrated into the project.

      I don’t think we will do entirely project-based though. I think we’ll have Reggio-inspired provocations/invitations and Montessori-inspired activities too. I just have to keep remembering that project time is Jack’s time and if there is something which I think needs to be covered again or in more depth than I need to either trust that Jack will learn this when he needs to or present it outside of project time.

      • Thanks for your lengthy reply.
        I think I am heading in that exact direction. Well, dare I say X is heading in that direction…
        In the last few days, I have seen how the learning that is done, when child led, is much more lasting and integrated then learning that has been led, even minimally by an external “force”. Learning goes a lot faster too!

        We are still not at a point where I can plan or think how I’ll get to present some of the more basic stuff to X, but I can see that I have time ahead of me. It seems obvious, as you said, that these things will have to be done completely out of X’s projects, as otherwise, I’ll be taking away part of his ownership of his learning, and I think that will not work, and might even backfire completely.

        Thank you again for your wise words!

        • There is a lot of time. I think we all seem to worry a little too much sometimes about our children ‘falling behind’ or not ‘getting ahead’, thinking about what all the other children are doing. But X will know things that other children are yet to learn, and other children will know things that X is yet to learn. It isn’t a competition, there is not endpoint. It’s a journey, a long journey, and there is plenty of time. xx

    • Thanks Lula. I’m still learning but so far it seems like a really natural learning path; following their lead. I am really looking forward to the older years when they are better able to structure their own time with learning. I’m sure it will be wonderful.

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