Themes vs projects: Spot the difference

In this blog, KATE HODGEKISS weighs the benefits of project over thematic approaches to young children’s learning and the interplay between children’s interests and the educator’s intentional thinking and scaffolding.

In early childhood, our trends of pedagogical practices change and evolve as we continue building research into child development and learning processes. In past years a common approach to early childhood education was the thematic approach, whereas in more recent years the project approach has become popular. However, it has been my experience that many educators continue to disagree about what constitutes a project as opposed to a theme. There are many services that employ a more flexible approach to themes and believe they are engaging in project work. But there are distinct differences between the two, which is useful to understand.

Teacher vs child led

Many educators define the difference between themes and projects by categorising themes as ‘teacher led’ and projects as ‘child led’. In reality it is more complex than this. In the traditional approach to teaching themes, an educator would predetermine the topics and could thus plan months in advance. This made themes quite a structured approach to education and assumed children would be interested in learning the same things at the same time (Bonnay, 2017).

In more recent years, the trend seems to be to base a theme on the interests of the children and follow it as long as the majority of the children’s interest is maintained. But this does not make your approach a project approach. While a project is based on the children’s interests (those that are meaningful and worthy of attention) and encouraged through intentional scaffolding, there are other important distinctions to be made.

Whole group vs small group

In thematic education, the chosen theme of the week/month would set the foundation of all learning for children in any given classroom. This assumes that the whole group’s interest in any particular topic can be maintained. And while this might be effective in a classroom of 10 children, it is somewhat presumptuous in a class of 20. As recognised by Bonnay (2017), this could lead to disengagement in the classroom.

A project approach, on the other hand, usually involves a small group of children who have displayed a common interest. Of course a whole group can be involved in a project (or an individual child for that matter), but it is more likely to be centred around a small group, which allows for more sustained and meaningful learning (Katz & Chard, 1992).

This difference becomes reflected in the environment. If you are setting up every area of your room according to the current interest of a majority group, you are still engaging in themes. The beauty of a project approach is that it allows for several topics to be explored in one classroom, at any given time.

Broad vs specific

When we apply themes in early childhood we would usually choose topics that are fairly broad to allow us more movement within the curriculum; for example, one might choose ‘seasons’ or ‘space’ as a theme. Alternatively, projects should be defined by the direction of research; for example, a project might be ‘Why do people float on the moon?’, where the theme would be ‘space’. While this specificity might seem restricting at first, the idea of a project is to follow the child’s line of enquiry, to observe the human narrative. This is something that themes do not allow for. In projects, children will determine the questions to be answered (Katz & Chard, 1992).

It becomes clear that there are distinct differences between the thematic and project approach to early education. While both have their benefits, projects give autonomy back to the learner and allow for them to follow their stream of consciousness in a way themes do not. It is important not to get too caught up in the ‘child led’ of it all. Whatever approach you choose, curriculum should always balance children’s interests with intentional thinking, planning and scaffolding from educators. 


Bonnay, S. (2017). Early childhood education: Then and now. Retrieved 21 October, 2018, from

Katz, L. & Chard, S. (1992) The Project Approach. In Johnson, J. & Roopnarine, J. (1992) Approaches to Early Childhood Education (2nd Ed). Merill Publishing Co. Retrieved from

Kate Hodgekiss

Kate has been in the sector for almost 20 years. Trained in Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University, Kate spent many years working as a teacher both inside and outside of Australia before commencing her management career. Over the course of her management career Kate has worked in a variety of roles including nominated supervisor, educational leader, start up consultant, regional manager and online program development creative head. Kate is passionate and known for her commitment to quality learning practices and environments, having directed a service as recently as 2016 through the assessment and rating process receiving the coveted exceeding in all 18 standards. Kate is the owner and director of Engaging Curriculum Solutions.

3 thoughts on “Themes vs projects: Spot the difference”

    Yarrow Andrew says:

    Thanks Kate. I am sure this is a helpful clarification for many educators. For me it often comes down to an issue about power, whether this is acknowledged or not. To support project work we must allow children the agency to set the direction, even if this is not what we had anticipated, as you have observed. Often adults attachment to particular themes reveals their own investments and interests, rather than the needs of children.

    Goodstart Early Learning Woy Woy says:

    I found this very interesting as I have struggled a little bit with understanding the difference this article makes it very clear to me and will impact on me from now on in how I go about things in my own classroom thank you I’m looking forward to more articles
    kind regards Georgie

    Wendy says:

    Kate , thank you for the clarity in defining the differences between theme and project. You might say I’m working towards the latter as I learn how to discern the questions pretoddlers, toddlers and pre kindergarten children, ie; those with emerging verbal language, want to find answers to while in the Atelier.
    I do acknowledge the beauty of the project approach is that it allows for several topics to be explored in the one room at any given time. This has been the way to date which allows children from different rooms to work on their earlier interests and to see and be part of what the other children have been creating. It is the most workable way that I’ve found to accomodate the needs of many on a daily basis. I’m willing to learn of any other ways you or others might suggest.
    There has been a lot of overlapping, merging, layering and transference of materials from one area to another, and with that some amazingly aesthetic artworks created. Collaborative sensory experiences, shared canvas for easel painting and large floor work has been enjoyable for all and has given the children the freedom to move around the room to spaces they wish to work in. The process has been on access rather than ownership which I believe is the way we are all heading. We are working towards increasing our potential to develop critical thinking skills, and for the moments we have together I am keen to listen to their voices and choices to further define the line of thought they wish to follow.
    I look forward to reading more about your own experiences and the wisdom you have gained from those times.

    Wendy Greblo

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