Project Based Learning for First Grade

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Young learners thrive when they're able to participate in interactive activities. Project-based learning (PBL) understands this principle and takes an experiential approach to education. Read on to learn how to implement PBL with your first grade students.

Project-Based Learning Basics

Project-based learning experiences allow students to learn by doing and by finding answers to a central question. Typically, PBL begins with the teacher posing an open-ended essential question. PBL has several core characteristics, including the following:

  • The project requires students to dig into the content for a rich, comprehensive understanding.
  • The essential question is meant to inspire high-level skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving.
  • The students experience a 'need to know' feeling -- they're driven to find answers.
  • The project allows for student choice, voice, and reflection.
  • PBL wraps up with a presentation or sharing piece involving an audience, typically students and parents.

Planning a PBL lesson is an exciting but tricky experience for any age group, but especially for younger learners. Let's take a look at some ways to support PBL in a first grade classroom.

Student Collaboration in Project-Based Learning
student collaboration

Getting Started: Build, Explain, Create

Kids have immediate buy-in when you make it great from the start. To grab their attention, begin with a big question, invite a guest speaker, or use a technology presentation. Brainstorm questions and expectations for the project. First graders are young learners and need concrete, tangible steps laid out. List these steps on chart paper to be referred to often.

Make a specific space in your classroom to house materials, supplies, books, and any other objects for the project. This can be your 'PBL Corner.' Be creative and bring in research and reference materials as well as items to use on the project. Materials will range from books, photographs, arts and craft supplies, magazines, display boards, and technology.

How Does It Fit?

Project-based learning can be incorporated into your day and lessons in several different ways, depending on your needs and objectives. Its flexible model is great for different classrooms.

  • All Day PBL: One way to go all-in with PBL is to use it throughout the school day. This method incorporates all areas of your content curriculum, including reading, writing, math, and science. Students do project work fluidly throughout the day, researching, creating, and organizing. Using this model requires the teacher to be the main curriculum writer and usually does not lend itself well to programs that use commercialized textbooks. The project's focus is usually on science or social studies, with math and literacy integrated. For full immersion, teachers can collaborate with art, music, and other ancillary programs for support.

  • Partial Day PBL: If you're not quite ready for an all-day dedication, a good choice is to use PBL during science or social studies time. Although you still instruct in core subjects like math and reading, these aspects are reinforced during the PBL time as well. Opposed to an all-day approach, teachers typically dedicate the afternoon to partial day PBL and include specific learning from the morning. Teachers using this model can still use their textbook lessons for math, reading, and writing.

  • Stand-Alone PBL: Finally, you can create a PBL unit as a separate, standalone focus. In this method, the PBL is not connected to learning going on in other subject areas. Project work is done in the afternoon during science or social studies time and does not weave in outside concepts. This is a good choice if you want to use PBL in your classroom but have a rigid curriculum guide to follow.

Once you determine how you'd like to use PBL, you'll need to take a close look at your role in the process and decide if you're willing and able to be a PBL teacher.

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