This is Part 3 of my interview with Lori Pickert, author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed Learners. Please click here to start with Part 1.
My questions have to do with getting started in Project-based Learning with such young children who obviously don’t have the experience to direct their learning. I sent Lori six, multi-layered questions, and not only did she answer them, she gave very detailed answers, which I appreciate very much. However, they were too long to put into one post, so I have divided the interview into three posts – this being the last. (Note that I have emphasized important parts of the interview in bold text.)
You can see more questions from readers and answers from Lori at the bottom of this page. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions too.
PART 3: Interview with Lori Pickert on Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling with Young Children
4. I liked a comment you once made to me on Twitter that for youngsters, we need to “silently feed” their interests. Can you speak more about that for the sake of my readers? I think I have been doing this in many ways with my son, but it has never felt very child-led to me. However, I know if I ask him his opinion on things, he’s not going to articulate exactly what I know he’s deeply interested in. And if we “silently feed the interests of young children,” how do we transition them into doing most of the work on their own? Is this something that we can expect will happen naturally as they get older? Have you noticed an approximate age that all this gets easier?
Lori: The age at which children will take over directing and managing their own learning depends on many things — your comfort level, your child’s personality/temperament, his level of independence, and his experience doing this type of work. Some children have a stronger need to collaborate and prefer involving others in their work. If that’s the case, if you don’t provide an opportunity for him to work with other children, he’ll probably depend on you to be his co-learner. Other children prefer to work alone, even in a classroom situation.
A child of six might conceive of a project and pretty much carry it through to the end without needing you to do much more than supply resources and transportation. Another child might not work that independently until much later.
When I talk about silently feeding a child’s interests, I’m usually contrasting that to sitting down and having a purposeful discussion with a child about what they would like to study. Instead, you simply enhance their environment and support the work they’re already doing, letting them discover and use what you’ve provided in their own way.
As an example, if you know your child is very interested in dinosaurs, you might sit down and say, “Do you want to do a project on dinosaurs? What questions do you have? What do you want to learn?” Or you could silently feed that interest by bringing in a few library books, hanging a couple of posters, putting plastic dinosaurs in the block basket, and so forth. Then as your child articulates questions, you ease into project work.
This works well for children who are resistant to adult involvement, who are prejudiced against anything “educational,” who are (maybe rightfully) suspicious of your motives, and so on. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience turning something they enjoyed into a unit that they did not enjoy. Maybe they’re deschooling and are afraid of anything that smacks of school. Maybe the words “project” and “learning” have negative connotations for them right now. Or maybe they just prefer to be completely independent.
It can also work well as an introduction to project work if a child is too young or inexperienced to understand what you mean when you say, “What would you like to learn about?” If they have an obvious interest, you can begin to feed that interest and support their work immediately.
Even an older child can be confused about what you mean when you ask what they’d like to learn more about. Silently feeding their existing interest can help them put the experience before the jargon.
It is still “child-led” or self-directed — you are simply offering, without expectation or demand, materials and experiences that can provoke further investigation, play, and questions. And as they research and make and share, you begin to talk about that work in a way that introduces the ideas of doing long-term projects. Next time, they’ll probably tell you what they want to learn about next.
5. Finally, much of the time that I would like to dedicate to project time is eaten up by the demands of a particularly needy three-year-old. Do you have any general advice for moms of youngsters who are interested in PBH, but are having a hard time “doing it all”?
Lori: You can’t do it all perfectly all the time, so relax and concentrate on setting and meeting some small goals.
One of the reasons we focus on “small wins” in the PBH forum is because focusing on what’s working is usually the best way to make more of it! Alas, focusing on whatever we perceive to be lacking is not as motivating.
Younger children benefit enormously from being at the edges of project work. They can pick up the habits and routines and attitudes of their older siblings. They learn early on to be independent and clean up after themselves, and they imitate the creative work and play they observe. Give them the chance to do what their siblings are doing if they are interested. Let them experiment with the same materials as much as possible; give them age-appropriate versions to work with, and let them have their turn getting your full attention as they work on their own ideas.
Look for pockets of time during the day when you can focus on your older child — even for just a few minutes — and use that time to have him tell you about what he made, what his plans are, his new questions, and so on.
Use time and activities you already do to fold in project work. When you read aloud, choose a project-related book. Try reading aloud right before dedicated project time. If they watch a little TV, use that time to watch project-related videos from the library. At dinner, have your son tell his dad about what he did today and the newest things he’s learned, and so on.
Finally, be aware that the kids are always getting older and more mature and it’s likely that everything will be completely different in six months!
Even when it feels like you aren’t accomplishing as much as you want, keep living a life that prioritizes learning, making, and sharing. It’s those underlying values that will form the foundation of his learning life. ~Lori Pickert
Thank you, Lori, for taking the time to answer my difficult and long-winded questions! I also have a couple of extra questions that might be helpful to my readers, and I’m curious too!
What are you working on now?
Lori: Currently I’m writing a book for adults who want to learn to mentor themselves (a more formal companion to my PBH for Grown-Ups series) that also folds in advice for mentoring children (without necessarily homeschooling!) as well as building a family culture that supports this type of learning and living.
Do you have any other resources to help parents get started in project-based homeschooling?
Lori: We have a forum with over 600 members. It’s a warm, supportive, inclusive community, and I answer questions and brainstorm with readers there daily.
I’m also working on a mini-guide to starting PBH and another guide for starting a project group. We’re enhancing the site with a gallery of children’s projects and a forum for people who would like to meet other PBHers in their area. And I will be publishing a series of e-books that drill down deeper into various aspects of PBH (focusing on the different age ranges from preK to teen, authentic art, journaling, and so on) so people can get more detailed information in the areas they need most.
I’ve received tremendous feedback from my readers during the last six months. My intention now is to create a foundation of supportive work that will give people the help they need to try these ideas. I’m very available on my site, in my forum, and on Twitter for people who want to make contact, ask questions, or offer suggestions. I strongly believe adults need the same type of learning experiences that I champion for children: to follow their own path, work at their own pace, explore their particular interests, make mistakes, and work within a supportive community. If we can learn this way, it makes it so much more likely that our children will, too.
Below you can read additional questions that readers had and Lori’s answers at the time that this post was published. For future inquiries, feel free to e-mail me or see Lori’s website. Thank you!
Click here to read Part 1 of this interview. Click here to read Part 2.
21 thoughts on “Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 3”
What do you do if it seems like the child has no interest in anything specific?
My second oldest doesn’t seem to want to do anything other than draw pictures and write letters, so how do you promote project based learning when the child doesn’t seem to want to know anything?
I don’t want to pressure her into doing anything, she finds it boring (And has stated as much!) if I try to get her to do anything ‘formal’ but I don’t know how to encourage a love of learning when she doesn’t appear to want to know anything specifically.
Thank you for starting off the questions, Em. Great question! Now I’ll let Lori answer.
how old is your child, if you don’t mind my asking? 🙂
She was 6 middle of January
well, in general, if a child seems to have no interest in anything specific, she either does have and doesn’t know it herself (so you might be able to figure it out) or perhaps she needs more resources/experiences — in other words, you may need to help fill the well a bit.
if it’s the latter, i would be looking at giving her some new experiences — field trips, new art/making materials, and so on.
you might try doing some focused observation to see if you can tease out an interest you’ve overlooked. is she interested in things her siblings do? what is her favorite book/TV show/film? what does she draw? what does she play? all of these can give you ideas.
however, you say that she doesn’t want to do anything other than draw pictures and write letters, so there are two interests right there! 🙂
often, we undervalue the interests children already have — sometimes because we’ve just seen so much of them already. but you can lean into them rather than away — you can help them take it to a new level. what about creating a letter-writing station for her? giving her a typewriter to use? taking her to the stationery store? the paper store? (so many neat things there — wax seals, etc. — she might get some ideas.) what about books that include letters? what about taking her to the post office to choose stamps? this is an interest you could feed and see where it went — or you might ask her if she has any ideas.
for drawing, again, there are a million different directions to go — offering some new materials (oil pastels, charcoal, scratch art, watercolor pencils, ink and pen, etc.), looking at books about artists, etc.
the most important thing to remember is that no child is really bone dry of interests. if they were, they’d probably just lie on the floor all day, limp and lifeless. ;o) try leaning in to those interests she does have — and maybe start beefing up her resources a bit so she has more to work with.
hope this helps! 🙂
I was just reading this (I’ve really enjoyed this series, btw) and I think there’s something I keep smacking into. Kai (who is five) seemingly gets distracted by EVERYTHING. He’s not really a self-starter but he’s very resistant to being told (or even suggested!) what to do. In fact, the best way for me to get him involved in something is to do that thing myself, act like I’m ignoring him, and seem really fascinated with what I’m doing!
I guess my question here is really two. Maybe I’ve not been paying attention when I’ve asked Lori about this before. Lori, when you talk about environment, do you advocate removing a fair bit of the “distractions” (ie non-project related things)? I’ve got a ton of stuff for Kai to work with, but often seems to not get around to working on it!
I’ve brought this up to Lori before, but something in her reply to question number 4 on here makes me think I’m not really “getting” what she’s saying – maybe I’m not properly listening, I don’t know.
Second, what about “abandoning” a project? What if there’s something that you, as a parent, have been supporting and thinking could be a project but you’re starting to think, “Oh. Maybe not.” But you could just be worrying. Do you continue supporting it and hope you WERE right? Or… ?
“Lori, when you talk about environment, do you advocate removing a fair bit of the “distractions” (ie non-project related things)? I’ve got a ton of stuff for Kai to work with, but often [he] seems to not get around to working on it!”
i’m assuming you mean he doesn’t get around to working with the materials you have for art/making/building/writing and he is “distracted” by toys?
if he has a strong interest in trains or LEGO, for instance, you can enhance/feed that interest and work with it instead of against it. but i need more information! 🙂
“[W]hat about “abandoning” a project? What if there’s something that you, as a parent, have been supporting and thinking could be a project but you’re starting to think, “Oh. Maybe not.” But you could just be worrying. Do you continue supporting it and hope you WERE right? Or… ?”
if he is interested in it, he’ll be talking about it, playing it, making it the focus of his artwork, etc.
if he seems no longer interested, a quick test is “are you done with this?” and if he says yes, you can clear out the old material (say, take down the space stuff and put it away) and if he says no, the next logical question is, “what else do you want to know/do/make?”
if he says he’s not done but shrugs about what to do next, then you need to sit down and brainstorm with him — go through his books, plan a field trip, and so on. and you should also start looking for that next interest. if there is none, then i would consider yourself between projects (or between strong, deep interests) and start doing things to refill the well — go on a field trip, learn a new art skill, etc.
he needs rich resources to work with — books, experiences, materials, skills — so when you’re between strong interests, you can look to enhance those things. then when he has an interest or a question, you go back to feeding that focus.
“Kai (who is five) seemingly gets distracted by EVERYTHING. He’s not really a self-starter but he’s very resistant to being told (or even suggested!) what to do. In fact, the best way for me to get him involved in something is to do that thing myself…”
a few things:
1, remember that it’s a process and you are working on helping him stick with an interest longer — so rather than thinking he’ll suddenly spend hours doing X, think about ways to help him return to an idea or interest and do it more often and slowly build on that foundation.
2, it’s hard to distract a child away from an authentic deep interest. they may not work for hours, but they *will* want to work on it/play with it/draw or paint or sculpt it, and so on. if they don’t stick with it *at all* then they probably just aren’t that into it.
3, temperament matters. a child who is a natural actor/singer/dancer is going to express interest and learning in an entirely different way than a child who is a natural scientist. whatever a child’s natural way of working is, they will probably apply it to everything — whether they’re a serious little person who wants to take things apart and organize them or they’re a fanciful little person who wants to tell stories and build worlds. so when you’re journaling/observing to uncover interests, you should also be thinking about things like: how does *my* child focus on something he wants to learn more about? how does he express his interest? what is his natural way of digging into something new? how does he prefer to work? and so on.
if you haven’t yet found something that really lights him on fire, it might be his age, his temperament, or the fact that he just hasn’t run across something that really ignited his interest for longer than a few days. that’s okay! you can still lay the foundation of meaningful learning and you can keep exposing him to new experiences, new ideas, new skills — eventually you will hit pay dirt with an interest and he’ll be all set to take off with it.
hope this was helpful. 🙂
Can math be explored in a PBH way?
you can definitely incorporate mathematics in an *authentic* way with PBH — say, measuring to make a paper shark as long as the actual shark you are drawing. i know a child who built a scale model of shakespeare’s globe theatre and had to use a lot of math to make it all come out right. with the youngest children, there are abundant opportunities to explore pattern, measuring, computation, and so on. PBH creates a circumstance where a child has genuine reasons for needing all kinds of skills, including math.
the question as to whether *anything* can be explored in a PBH way comes down to — is it authentic? does it arise out of the child’s genuine need? is it required? if not, it should just be taught separately, if necessary. and since math especially requires a lot of repetition and rote to learn, it is something that can be *used* authentically in PBH (and children may even learn new math skills to accomplish a goal), but you probably aren’t going to learn all your math that way — unless math is your project. 🙂
Ah, Lori, I think you pretty much answered my question in this one too! My daughter will be five next month. She generally flits from interest to interest and does not stick around one too long or too deeply, even when I try to “feed” her interest or outright make suggestions. I’ve been thinking she’s just too young and it will come. But now I’m realizing that her real strong interest right now is in math – she recently learned how to count to 100 on her own and frequently asks me to give her simple addition and subtraction problems. I guess math Is our current project! Now I just have to think of ways to feed it I guess!
Thank you for your comment, Peggy. It can be hard to figure out exactly what a small child is really interested in. My 6yo still goes through various interests, and I’m not even sure our Titanic or Rocket projects are even long-term projects for him. What I really see as his deep interest is nature and/or animals. Or just science in general. So I just keep getting him out into nature (which is easy for us), and he takes all the classes at the nature center. Our stories and books are usually about animals, nature or science. We’re watching all the nature/science shows available to us on Netflix that we feel he can get something out of (some of them are too far above his level). It’s not like we’re working real deep every day or even every week, but over the years, we have slowly learned so much about our natural world. And I haven’t shielded him from the harsh realities of nature – he doesn’t get too upset as some children do (though I don’t take that as him being unfeeling about it). He just looks at the world with a scientist’s eyes. I would say he is far ahead of most children his age when it comes to just a sensibility about our natural world (and now learning about the universe). It’s really exciting to see this interest blossom, and I can’t wait to see what he ultimately does with it as an adult.
hi peggy, sorry i missed your comment earlier. 🙂 just some ideas for feeding a 4/5yo’s interest in math — my son at that age loved doing simple addition and subtraction problems; i used to fill huge sheets of drawing paper with problems for him to do! 😛
manipulatives you might look into: geoboards, unifix blocks, unit blocks (basically building blocks that work together mathematically, e.g., 1 large block = 2 medium blocks = 4 small blocks), stamps and strips of paper for making patterns (you can make patterns for her to figure out; she can make her own), a scale with weights (there are weighted bears in the school catalogs); play money…
I am ordering your book so maybe you answer this question there…we are transitioning from a struggling classical method to a more relaxed method of homeschooling…my oldest is 12. How do you start an older child? And what about ADD types? When it is time to research or work on a project, there are so many distractions and everything is quickly derailed. I am thinking that over time PBH could help redirect this?
hope you enjoy the book! 🙂
“[W]e are transitioning from a struggling classical method to a more relaxed method of homeschooling…my oldest is 12. How do you start an older child?”
i would sit down with them and come up with a plan that incorporates time for them to focus on what they want to learn about. then start guiding them to choose the materials they need to get started. rather than trying to gather everything up front (as you might for a unit), let it build slowly. start with some library books, gather some questions, have them figure out on their own where they want to look next, etc.
i’ve written a bit about how we do this in our home:
“And what about ADD types? When it is time to research or work on a project, there are so many distractions and everything is quickly derailed. I am thinking that over time PBH could help redirect this?”
i have ADD, so i get you. 🙂
first, distractions aren’t as intense when you are very engaged in what you’re doing. certainly they’re not as intense as when you’re doing work that you find boring and uninspiring.
make sure you build a workspace that supports your goals — clean, organized, materials ready and waiting to be used and sitting in plain site, a bulletin board and etc. that display what the child is working on (a gentle reminder to them: this is what you’re doing and what you care about).
set aside a specific project time. i wrote about that here:
if you have specific time set aside and you are there to support your children during that time, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. the time, the materials, the attention and support all come together and the work tends to be drawn gravitationally toward that time.
because PBH is about helping a child explore their deepest interests and their own personal strengths and talents, it is really like (as i write in the book) pushing a boulder downhill rather than uphill. your child gets to focus on whatever it is they care about, whether it’s fashion design or music or astronomy or baking pastry, and you are going to enthusiastically support that interest and help them set and reach their own goals. it’s a process and it requires focus and time and building up new habits, but really, it’s a pretty easy sell. ;o) deep interests = deep engagement. you don’t have to coerce a child to work on their own meaningful projects. they are self-motivated.
come visit us in the forum after you read the book if you have any questions or need extra support!
Do you have any advice on how to keep up with several children’s projects simultaneously? I feel stretched a bit thin trying to keep up with everyone. While my children share some similar interests, they also have some write varied interests.
hi kristin 🙂
i would suggest keeping a separate notebook OR a separate section of your notebook for each child — throwing all your notes and reflections together gets confusing fast.
IF you are doing dedicated project time, keep track of what each child is working on, what their plans are for next time, and whether there’s anything they need from you (materials, help), then try to stay on top of getting everyone what they need.
if they are willing, begin each project period with them sharing what they’re going to do that day and then end with them sharing what they accomplished; this will give you a chance to jot notes.
if they are working on constructions, you can use sticky notes (post-it notes) to jot down what they plan to do next time and just stick it right to their project before putting it on the shelf. then YOU can help THEM remember what they wanted to do.
you can keep a single list in your notebook (maybe in the front or back) of what YOU need to do (e.g., “xerox book pages for A,” “get more white paint for B,” “C wants to paint — make a smock” etc.)
encourage the children to ask each other for help before asking you.
i worked with a great teacher who had a little handmade open/closed sign she would set on the table in front of her; when she was working one-on-one with a student, she would turn it to indicate “closed” so the other children would know not to interrupt them. if they needed help or had a question, they would help each other. then she would turn it to “open” when she was done. this way, she controlled the flow of kids coming to her for help! 🙂