Small groups project work has become an integral part of the curriculum for both the children in our program and the teacher candidates who are learning how to teach. When teachers notice that a group of children is interested in a particular topic or that a group of children could benefit from some more focused time with a teacher, a small group project is initiated. As teachers prepare to begin a project with children, they are asked to do a web of possibilities, gather relevant resources to inspire the children, and develop a set of questions to ask the children that could open up a dialogue about what the group will "do." Teachers are prepared to record and document what happens in the small group meetings. These materials are referred to by the team of teachers, as well as by the small group itself, to help plan a series of relevant and meaningful experiences with which to begin and throughout the life of the project. For the teacher candidates this is a challenging and significant part of their education. As the projects evolve teachers attempt to provide a balance of interesting, meaningful experiences based on the children’s interests as expressed daily, as well as experiences that would support the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. At the culmination of a project, teachers create documentation panels or books, which are intended to capture and make visible the children’s thinking as well as the learning that occurred.

The value of documentation for children and teachers alike

When we take the time to record children’s words, save and carefully display their work and photograph their focused engagement we are giving them a powerful message. The process of documentation gives children the message that we take them seriously. It tells them that they have something worthwhile to contribute. It tells them that we value their ideas. All of these messages contribute to their sense of accomplishment and self-confidence as capable learners. When teachers make children’s thought processes visible through their documentation, they are promoting children’s meta-cognitive skills (thinking about thinking). When children talk about their thinking and their learning, they learn better and they learn more. Talking about "what they know" elevates children’s understanding from merely intuitive to fully conscious. Knowledge that is fully conscious can be retrieved and applied in meaningful ways.

When teachers make the effort to document, something similar happens. Teachers may intuitively know that children are thinking and learning as they play and participate in teacher facilitated experiences. However it is when we document children’s words, save and carefully display their work and photograph their focused engagement that we elevate our awareness and understanding of the full impact an experience has had on children’s development from intuitive, to fully conscious. When teachers are fully conscious of how their actions as a teacher impact children’s learning and development we become more effective teachers. We are able to see more clearly how children learn through play. We can communicate to parents how children learn through play. And we become better at facilitating children’s learning through play.

Our process of documenting small group projects

The goal of documenting is to capture and make visible children’s interests, ideas, theories, learning and their learning process. Even pre-verbal children have ideas and theories about the world, but they are limited to non-verbal means of communication. Through photographs, samples of children’s work, direct quotes from the verbal child and teacher’s interpretive comments, documentation "tells the story" of the children’s experience participating in the project. Documentation is not a direct assessment. Rather it is an illustration of the power and richness of children’s learning in the context of relevant, meaningful activity. It is a record, shared in a visual way that others can understand, of what happened in the shared experience focusing specifically on the children’s attempts to master a skill or concept and the process of this effort; on children’s involvement and persistence in making discoveries and solving problems; or how children worked together to reach a common goal.