The Human Body: A Child-Led Reggio Project

We took a short break from project learning this spring because, well, Baby. But, in May, Silas was starting to feel a bit restless, so we knew it was time to pick a new topic and forge ahead. I asked him what he was curious about and he said (in classic Silas fashion) that he would "get back to me." The next day, he said that he wanted to learn about ribs. And so, our investigation into ribs, bones, and the human body was begun.

The first thing that I did was to set up a provocation for him to start a conversation about what he already knows about bones and what he was curious to learn.

I opened up The Wall Chart of Human Anatomy to the skeleton page and laid out a black piece of construction paper, glue, cotton swabs and some cotton balls. First, we looked at the book and chatted about bones. This book is really fantastic because it has simple, clear images that are large enough to be detailed and with only one system to a page, it's easy to isolate focus. He said that he was surprised to see that we had more than one rib. When we turned our attention to the art supplies, I asked him if he'd like to make a skeleton. Just to look at the product of his creation, it seems very random and haphazard, but he was incredibly focused and deliberate in his placement of the swabs and cotton balls. When he was finished he said that it was a dinosaur skeleton and asked me to label several of the bones.

We read some more bone books and put together a bone puzzle and then after a trip to the chiropractor where he saw a life-size replica of the human spine, he said that he wanted to make a model spine.

We pulled out The Wall Chart of Human Anatomy again to take a closer look at the page on the spine. I told Silas that he needed to study it and identify what parts of the spine he wanted to represent in his model. Almost immediately he called out to me, “Mommy! I noticed something! There is something in between the bones!” So, we talked about the discs of cartilage. There were several detail drawings of individual vertebrae, which we looked at closely to know how to represent them. 

We listed the three elements of the spine that we wanted to represent: vertebrae, cartilage discs, and the spinal cord. He suggested a pipe cleaner for the spinal cord, but he said that he didn’t have any ideas for the other two. I suggested that we look in the nuts and bolts drawer to see if we could find any inspiration. He found some washers and said that he wanted to use them for the cartilage discs. I pulled some wooden beads out of the craft drawer and asked him if he thought they might work for the vertebrae and he said that, yes, that’s what he wanted to use.

I suggested that he count the number of vertebrae and cartilage discs in the picture so that we would know how many of each we would need, and he did. He counted out the corresponding number of washers and beads. I affixed the first bead and then handed it over him to thread the rest on.

He alternated beads with washers. As a last minute addition, we added a plastic bag tie sacrum.Then we played with the model spine and observed what it could do.

He noticed that it was easy to bend and I asked him why he thought that was. He said he didn’t know. I suggested that we do an experiment. We took another pipe cleaner and threaded on a long piece of penne pasta. I asked him if he could bend it in the middle of the pasta. He tried and said that, no, it didn’t bend. He made the connection that his spine bends because there are many small vertebrae and discs.

The next day I asked Silas if he would like to draw a picture of the spine model that he made. I brought out a sheet of paper, colored pencils, and introduced him to a special writing utensil: a fine tip sharpie. I told him that it was a special tool for drawing. It makes permanent marks and we use it when we want to create images that are very detailed. I asked him to look closely at his model and to try to draw it in such a way that someone could re-build his model just by looking at his drawing.

He used the marker to represent the spine and the cartilage disks and the colored pencils to draw the vertebrae. He was very proud of his drawing and wanted to draw it a second time. He got a fresh sheet of paper and did so.

There were more books, a magnetic body...

Experiments to answer questions, such as, "why is there liquid around the brain?

Play dough skeletons...

A request to learn the names of the bones and some resources (life-size skeleton and nomenclature card print-outs) to help him do so...

Using the light table to get a peek at some real bones and how they fit together, which sparked a conversation about x-rays and how we know what we know about bones...

A trip to the Natural History Museum to draw some real bones...

Building a model skeleton...

After building it, Silas was showing Theda the skeleton model and was telling her about the bones and what they do. He asked me what he could use to make a brain to go inside the skeleton. I told him to think about what a brain is like and to look around the house and find something similar. He found a rock that fit inside. He seemed excited to have found something that worked, but didn’t seem yet satisfied. Without telling me what he was going to do, he asked for some colored paper, which I got for him. He also got out his scissors and glue stick. He used these supplies to make a brain, lungs, and “digestive system,” which he put in their proper places in the skeleton.

There was more drawing, including veins and arteries...

And muscles.

“I want to make a whole muscle man. I’d also like to make a whole vein person.”

As The Human Body project was coming to a natural close, I told Silas that when we’re doing projects, it might be a good idea to think of one big final “last thing” to do at the end to demonstrate what we’ve learned. He decided that he wanted to make a series of models of the different body systems (as expressed in the quote above.)

He began with the skeletal system, which he made with wire. He fashioned each individual part (ribs, knees, skull, etc.) and asked for my help to wire them together.

Next, he wanted to use clay to make his muscle man. This he accomplished completely independently.

He decided to add red paint to simulate muscles...

Finally, he wanted to make a "vein person," which he wanted to be a collage.

This was a really exciting project. Not only did he joyously learn a ton about the human body, but the everyday figure drawing that he does has taken a huge leap.

There are a mountain of books out there to help kids learn about the body. I think I checked every single one of them out from the library. I wanted to share the ones that we liked best. I favored those that had photographs or scientific illustrations rather than cartoons and even though it didn't come up in our investigation this time around, I wanted to make sure that the reproductive system was included (it's left out of most "body" books for kids).

These are the books that we loved and that I would recommend:

The Wall Chart of Human Anatomy by Thomas McCracken
Bones by Steve Jenkins
Skeleton by Parker
Your Brain by DeGezelle
Bodyworks by Graham and Walker
Body Bones by Rotner

At the time of this project Silas was 4 years old.


  1. What an inspiring project! Thank you for sharing here--it gives me some ideas to try at home. Is the approach you take with these projects specifically Regio, or just your natural style? Do you have recommendations on resources to learn about this approach?

    1. Hey there, Annie! Thank you for your kind words! I am very influenced by Reggio, but have had to make some adjustments (Reggio learning usually takes place with a multi-age group of kids - I currently just have one kiddo who is homeschooling) and I also include some Waldorf and Montessori elements as well. At the top of the page there is a link to "Learning Resources" which has a list of books that I highly recommend.

  2. What a neat topic for this age. How did Silas get so big?!?

  3. Wonderful, thank you for sharing!!!