The School and the Children
The kindergarten program that participated in this project is
located on the Hong Kong Island. It is a nonprofit kindergarten
organized by a Christian church. There were 20 female teachers whose
working experiences in kindergarten ranged from 2 to 20 years. They were
all qualified kindergarten teachers. Sixteen teachers were graduates of
the Qualified Kindergarten Training Program, an inservice one-year basic
course requiring about 6 hours of study per week. Four of them had a
Certificate of Kindergarten Teacher Education, a 3-year inservice course
requiring about 6 hours of study per week. Each classroom had two
teachers and a teacher assistant. Four hundred 3- to 6-year-old children
were enrolled in the kindergarten in the school, about half of whom
attended 3-hour sessions in the morning and the rest in the afternoon.
The children came from middle- or upper-middle-class families. The 30
children who undertook this project belonged to a 6-year-old class. The
class worked on the project 2 hours each day for 3 weeks.
The kindergarten principal invited the author to be a school
consultant in a 2-year school improvement project. Working within the
context of a school improvement project in kindergarten, the author
responded to the parents' and teachers' concerns about the
children's growth and learning and conducted a case study of a
school-based initiative to engage parents in supporting their
children's learning. In the past, the kindergarten used a thematic
approach in which the teachers planned the curriculum, and the teaching
process was teacher directed. As a result of a discussion between
parents and teachers, it was determined that the teachers hoped to
strengthen the children's motivation to learn and their abilities
to solve problems, whereas the parents wanted their children to share
their school lives with them. Thus, the school curriculum changed to use
a mixed curriculum of Project Approach topics and thematic units.
Parents and teachers agreed to try a project-based learning
approach wherein the children would direct their own learning based on
their interests and would search for relevant information and materials
to support their explorations. In addition, the children were encouraged
to integrate drawing and writing daily newsletters to communicate to
their parents what they needed and how their parents could help them.
Thus, the classroom activities shifted away from teacher-centered
lessons toward an emphasis on learning activities that were
interdisciplinary, student centered, and integrated with real-world
issues and practices.
This is the first year that the teachers have used the Project
Approach. Throughout the development of this project, parents
participated closely with the teachers by collecting material and
information, and by making a site visit. The teachers sought to create
an environment wherein adults and children could learn together and
children's knowledge and skills could be extended by encouraging
critical reflection and offering feedback. In the Project Approach, the
teachers' role is complex and includes adopting the role of a
listener, prompter, information giver, and asker of questions
interesting to the communication process. During this project, the
conversations between the teachers and the children focused on
stimulating inquiry, helping children who were trying to write or draw
something they had in mind, reading back children's ideas, and
searching with them for insights that would motivate further questions
and group activity. The teachers also communicated with the parents
about the project and encouraged them to become involved in their
children's activities by finding the necessary materials for
children to use during the project.
The author was responsible for providing teacher training in
implementing a project-based learning approach and for evaluating the
The teachers at the school teamed up to discuss the curriculum,
learning activities, and evaluation of the project in six group
sessions. The first three learning sessions' themes included (1)
inquiry teaching, (2) self-reflection, and (3) parent involvement.
Teachers met every week during the project. A review time was held that
enabled the teaching team to conduct a process recall, reflect on their
experiences, and plan for the coming session. Such discussions also
engendered a knowledge-creation process. They had three sessions on
sharing and reflection. At the middle and the end of the project, a
review time was held to allow the parents to discuss and share their
As the school year began, three teachers were working on a
"China" theme. The topic was quickly moving to chopsticks and
Chinese food. During a discussion, Lee Yim shouted out, "I go to a
Chinese restaurant every Sunday with my parents. I like spring
rolls." Another boy said, "I like all the dim sums, it is
yummy!" All of the children then began to tell their personal
Lai Pui's restaurant experience was typical of the stories
Chinese restaurants begin serving dim sum as early as 5:00 in the
morning and continue through mid-afternoon. When you are first seated,
the waitress will hand you a dim sum order form/card, and you use a
pencil to mark off which items you want and the number of orders. The
food is served at the table in steamer baskets to keep it warm.
Restaurants that continue to use the traditional cart system, including
a major restaurant chain in Hong Kong, have made this a selling point.
Many of the dishes are either steamed or deep fat fried. Among the
former, you will find steamed buns with roast pork, shrimp dumplings
wrapped in seaweed, steamed beef balls, chicken's feet, and turnip
cake. The deep-fried treats include mini spring rolls and wonton
The teachers wrote down the children's experience and ideas in
the form of a web (as shown in Figure 1) and found that the children had
a broad knowledge base related to Chinese restaurants.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
As the children were engaged in excited discussion, Chi Wing
suggested, "We can open a Chinese restaurant." The teacher
asked what the Chinese restaurant could look like. The children all had
very positive responses to the topic. Their conversation about the
Chinese restaurant went as follows:
Hung: It is very big, has 50 tables, over 100 chairs and lights.
Wing: It has a big kitchen, also has many steamer baskets and dim
Lui: Many, many "yummy" dim sums, such as spring rolls,
steamed barbecued pork bun, turnip cake, wonton and ...
Chi Ming: And a cashier counter.
Chan: There is a hostess standing in front of the restaurant.
Sam: Yeah. Everyone wears uniforms having the same logo and name of
the restaurant on it. But we need many people to act as customers,
cooks, hostesses, and waiters/waitresses and ...
Ricky: No problem! We have 30 classmates, we can divide into
different subgroups as we played the drama last time.
Ricky's idea was well received by the children. Everything
they initiated continued to lead them to "The Dim Sum and Chinese
After many conversations, the children agreed that they needed to
find more information about restaurants before trying to open their own
restaurant. This process brought the class together as they discussed
what resources would be required. The class created a list of items that
they wanted to add to the classroom for the project and a list of
possible ways that their parents could be involved. The children decided
that parents could help them to collect the "dim sum order
form/card," "seat allocation paper," "dim sum
photographs," and "steamer baskets."
It is not easy to arrange a site visit away from school, so the
children decided to make a daily newsletter asking their parents to take
them to a Chinese restaurant on the weekend and inviting the parents to
collect materials that they needed.
The next Monday, the class gathered on the carpet to share their
new information about Chinese restaurants. Twenty-four children had
visited a Chinese restaurant with their families. They had observed all
the things happening in restaurants in more depth, including
waiters'/waitresses' uniforms, hostess's job, table
settings, table reservations, and taking orders. The discussion and
sharing turned out to be valuable because, as the children were shaping
and molding the different parts of their own restaurant, different ideas
about what they needed came up during the conversation. They noticed
that they needed space for the kitchen, the hostess table, and the
cashier counter. Liu On realized that the tables needed table numbers
and some decorations as well. In addition, some children had collected
the steamer baskets, dim sum order forms/cards, and seat allocation
papers, and they brought those artifacts back to school. Yip Wan brought
a small tray and pretend coins for customers paying the bill. The
children decided to use all these ideas to create their restaurant. They
had a lot of work to do, and there was no stopping them.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
The children were divided into subgroups based on the roles that
they wanted to have in the restaurant. Some wanted to serve at the
restaurant; some wanted to be customers. Both roles required them to
investigate and solve problems. They first needed to figure out how many
people the restaurant would serve and how many tables they could set in
their classroom. Lastly, they decided that their restaurant would have a
hostess, 8 waiters/waitresses, 3 cooks, 3 children as the dim sum
serving crew, and a cashier. The remaining 24 children were the
customers being served at 6 tables.
The children were able to role-play, pretending to be the customers
and the hostess at the restaurant. When Yu Hing was playing hostess, the
following conservation took place.
Yu Hing: Good Morning! How many people together?
Yu Hing: Table number 23, go inside and turn left, please.
Ricky & Wing Man: Thanks!
The children talked about their experience with the
waiters/waitresses on the weekend:
Jim: They were very busy. They set up the tables by putting out
chopsticks, bowls, and spoons.
Wah Fai: As soon as the customers were seated, they served Chinese
tea and took orders for the customers.
Chi: Then they went to the kitchen and filled the order.
Hung: They also needed to clean up the tables as the customers paid
Fung: And they spoke politely, such as "What would you like to
eat?" "What can I help you with?" "What kinds of tea
you want to have?"
Sun Wing: They stayed awake! They checked on their customers every
chance they got to make sure they had everything they needed.
The children became interested in role-playing. After the previous
sharing and role-playing, the children who were acting as
waiters/waitresses learned that setting up the tables, serving Chinese
tea, taking orders, cleaning up the tables, and giving good customer
service are parts of a waitperson's job.
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
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[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]
The customers and cashier decided to suggest names for the
restaurant. They also discussed how to make the dim sum order and record
forms. The following conversation was typical of those that I recorded
as children discussed possible names for the restaurant:
Chi: What is the name of our restaurant?
Win Man: Happiness Restaurant.
Sum Sam: No, Big Sun Restaurant.
Chan: Great Ocean Restaurant.
Lee Wing: Yeah! We can vote on the best name by the class.
After many group brainstorming and voting sessions, the children
decided on the restaurant's name: The Big Happiness Restaurant. The
name was quite meaningful to the children because they wanted all
customers to feel happy after being served.
The group of cooks and dim sum serving crew were responsible for
preparing the food. The cooks decided to serve four types of dim sum
(spring rolls, steamed barbecued pork bun, wonton dumplings, and steamed
turnip cake) so that they could prepare the food in advance. They all
made dim sum order cards out of recycled paper and even prepared
"paper" food for their customers. Some children cut the dim
sum photographs from advertisements; some drew the different types of
dim sum by themselves.
[FIGURE 8 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 9 OMITTED]
This activity seemed to motivate the children's involvement
and provided opportunities for them to use their math problem-solving
skills. Here is one of their questions:
Hung: Why is the dim sum put on a special steamer basket?
Fun: Yes, it keeps the dim sum warm and is made of bamboo.
Wah Fai: They are all round in shape. They have bigger and smaller
Sun Wing immediately added that he saw a program titled Making Dim
Sum Steamer Baskets on educational television. Teachers accessed the
program over the Internet. The program answered all the children's
questions. Children decided to make their steamer baskets as the program
[FIGURE 10 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 11-12 OMITTED]
Preparing steamer baskets.
Ming: It is 10 sticks in a row, I counted already!
Chi: Yes, and two sticks in a column. Otherwise, the dim sum will
Another conversation centered on how many baskets to make:
Oil Lan: How many dim sums do we need to make?
Ming: 4 types of dim sum, 6 tables...Hi! Hi!
Chan: We'll need 24, because 4+4+4+4+4+4 is 24.
Lee: How did you figure that out?
Chan: I counted by 4s.
Chui Yan: Oh! We need 24 steamer baskets, too.
The big day finally arrived for our grand opening. The children
were excited about their restaurant. There was a lot of work ahead of
them. The children decided to divide into three subgroups: (1) the
customers, (2) the waiters/waitresses, and (3) the cooks, dim sum
serving crew, hostess, and cashier. The three groups rotated every day,
ensuring that each child had experienced different roles over four days
of restaurant play. The waiters/waitresses needed to set tables,
including putting chopsticks, bowls, and a table number card on each
table. The three cooks prepared and organized the food beforehand in
order to offer quicker service. When the customers arrived, a hostess
greeted them. They were welcomed to a clean and comfortable restaurant.
[FIGURE 13 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 14 OMITTED]
As soon as the customers were seated, the waiters/waitresses served
them with Chinese tea. Then they took the customer's dim sum order
card, marked the table's number on it, and sent the card to the
kitchen. Just like the real waiters and waitresses they had observed,
the children would check every chance they got to make sure their
customers had everything they needed.
The cooks prepared the dim sum, and the dim sum crew served
customers based on their orders.
[FIGURE 15 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 16 OMITTED]
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[FIGURE 18 OMITTED]
The cashier had to figure out the meal total and give change to the
customers at a relatively fast pace because many customers had to go.
[FIGURE 19 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 20 OMITTED]
Being a waiter or a cashier at the Big Happiness Restaurant
involved solving mathematical problems. A teacher had the following
conversation with a cashier and one of the waiters:
Jun (teacher): Do you have a problem?
Chi Wai (cashier): The customers are three types of dim sum. Each
type is 3 dollars, 3 + 3 is 6, 6 + 3 is 9.
Jun: It's right, good job.
Chi (waiter): Here is the money.
Chi Wai (cashier): 20 - 12 is 8, here is the change.
Chi (waiter): Exactly, you are a good cashier.
After the customers had paid the bills and gone, the
waiters/waitresses were also responsible for cleaning up the tables.
[FIGURE 21 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 22 OMITTED]
Katz and Chard (2000) point out that the Project Approach
introduces opportunities for children to engage in investigation as part
of the work undertaken in their classrooms. The early years are
important years for all aspects of development. Children's natural
dispositions to be intellectually curious and to investigate their
environments emerge (Katz, 1995). They learn about the uses of reading
and writing, and they become motivated to develop and use a wide variety
of related skills. It is therefore important that they have an
opportunity to experience active, engaged learning.
In this project, the children were learning a lot about the
different areas in a Chinese restaurant and ways of serving customers in
their establishment, the Big Happiness Restaurant. They began to
represent concepts and ideas through sharing their actual
experiences--their visits to restaurants with their families and their
work together to make a restaurant in the classroom. The project work
also strengthened the children's motivation to read signs and dim
sum order forms and cards to find information and to answer the
questions generated in the project. The project provided a purpose for
representation. As the children's conversations demonstrate, it
caused many children to want to represent their ideas, observations, and
solutions to problems that arose.
The children were consistently challenged during project work to
solve mathematical problems and think scientifically, for example when
they calculated the total amounts of dim sum and the bills, predicted
the number of customers, and considered spatial relationships as they
set up the tables in the classroom. This project created a reason to
quantify information as they gathered it and to represent quantities
with numerals. The children learned to use a variety of tools for
investigation (including firsthand observations and the information from
a television program) and to experiment and observe the results (e.g.,
the special design of steamer baskets).
The children displayed a variety of social skills as the work
progressed. They exchanged ideas and opinions, shared responsibility for
posing questions to others, and offered suggestions, corrections, and
encouragement to one another to try something again if they were
unsuccessful the first time. All of these interactions took place during
genuine encounters about things that mattered to them.
The day after the Big Happiness Restaurant culminating activity,
teachers asked children if they wanted to share their experience. Here
are some children's reflections:
Chan (Cook): I had a lot of fun. I loved being a cook. I found that
some waiters/waitresses forgot to write the table's number. It
brought us a lot of trouble. We didn't know where to send the food.
Ming: Yeah! After we found the problem, we checked all the details
as waiters/waitresses sent the order to us. If they (waiters/waitresses)
forgot, we asked them to go back and write the exact table's
number. Everything is solved.
Choi Wai (Waitress): The waiters/waitresses were having a lot to
remember, including serving tea and taking orders. After working for a
while, I could do very well. I really enjoyed serving the customers. I
had a wonderful time doing it, and with my team.
Sum (Customer): The dim sums were tasty and yummy. The
waiters/waitresses were polite. I like the restaurant.
Chi Wai (cashier): I had nothing to do at the very beginning;
however, customers asked for their checks all at the same time. I had
difficulty figuring out the meal total and giving change to the
customers at a relatively fast pace because many customers had to go
back. If I had a calculator, it would be very helpful.
Wing: I have a calculator. I can bring it back tomorrow.
[FIGURE 23 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 24 OMITTED]
Two teachers also reflected on their experience after the project.
Jun, who had over 15 years' experience in teaching young children,
Esther, who had four years' teaching experience, said:
The parents were a great resource in this project. Most restaurants
rejected the school site visit application because they felt that it
would not be safe having many children at the restaurant. From
children's sharing, it was obvious that children picked up much of
what they learned at the weekend family site visits. The family
collaboration increased the quality and quantity of children's
learning; their involvement kept the children's interest alive and
promoted their observation, questioning, and logical thinking. Two
parents' comments were recorded during the parent meeting:
Mrs. Lee: My daughter was excited about the project. She observed
all the things as we ate at the restaurant last weekend. She was
non-stop asking questions, including the decorations, the names of dim
sums, the jobs of the waitresses and the dim sum crew. ... She was
bravely asking the hostess for help collecting the "dim sum order
form" and "seat allocation paper." I found it was the
most meaningful visit and felt I was truly contributing something to the
school and her learning.
Mr. Tse: My son was interested in the types of dim sums; he had
high motivation to read and write the names of dim sums. We had very
good learning time together. ... Lastly he decided to design his
"ideal" dim sum order card and showed it to the class on
Monday. ... I do recall his talking about the project all the time after
it was completed. I enjoyed participating and sharing his school life. I
think that the children did an awesome job on this project. I really
support this teaching approach.
The Big Happiness Restaurant was a big success! The Dim Sum and
Chinese Restaurant Project was truly a valuable experience for all the
children. The children began this journey learning all about restaurants
and serving people. The children demonstrated enthusiasm and motivation
throughout the whole experience. Most importantly, they were empowered
by their ability to have a say in their learning.
Katz, Lilian G. (1995). Talks with teachers of young children: A
collection. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Katz, Lilian G., & Chard, Sylvia C. (2000). Engaging
children's minds: The project approach (2nd ed.). Stamford, CT:
Yuen Lai Ha (Freda)
Hong Kong Institute of Education
Dr. Yuen Lai Ha (Freda) is an assistant professor in the Department
of Early Childhood Education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
Dr. Yuen has taught a variety of modules at both certificate,
undergraduate, and postgraduate levels, including Home-School-Community
Partnership, Child Development, Early Mathematics and Science, and
Counseling and Guidance. Dr. Yuen has been involved in a number of
publications, research studies, and projects related to
home-school-community partnerships, child learning, and teacher
education. She has also been invited to give talks at schools and served
as a consultant on projects in supporting children's learning in
Hong Kong classrooms.
Yuen Lai Ha (Freda)
Hong Kong Institute of Education
Department of Early Childhood Education
10 Lo Ping Road, Tai Po, Hong Kong
Telephone: 852-2948 7596
Fax: 852-2948 7160
Sunday, I always go to a restaurant with my parents and
grandparents. When we are seated, Dad often takes the order for us.
He "clicks" the dim sums that we want to eat on the dim sum card.
Dad knows I like spring rolls and granddad likes wonton dumpling.
About 10 minutes later, a woman brings the dim sums to our table.
Then we are enjoying the hottest dim sums and talking together.
When we are finished, Mom pays the bill. And then we go home or to
I found that the more-experienced teachers struggled to adopt our
teaching model as they attempted to facilitate and scaffold the
children's learning. Every day brought confusion and presented a
brand new challenge. I maintained that my primary role as teacher
was to lead and challenge children to develop the ability to puzzle
over and question their work and to move toward a deeper engagement
with their interests. In the project, children were motivated to
learn because the topic was meaningful to them. I believe that this
motivation should be sustained throughout the project as the
children raise questions and plan activities and outcomes. ... I
know that children learn best by exploring their world directly.
The project places emphasis on firsthand experience before
secondary sources of information are introduced. Children can make
more sense of secondary information if they already have experience
with a subject through discussion with peers and adults,
questioning, and a workable vocabulary. ... I learned more than the
children--as we were teaching the children, they were teaching us!
I think that this project is going to be very beneficial both for
the children and me.
I really agreed with the child-centered approach. Our project
allowed children to use all the skills and dispositions that they
will need in order to tackle any problem or question throughout
their lives. ... We must listen to children and be more responsive
to their ideas, feelings, and the exciting new ways of perceiving
the world that they can offer us. We must respect children as
partners in inquiry. I think this project and the Project Approach
are going to be beneficial. I cannot see teaching any other way.