Rockets and the Benefits of Failure: Project-based Homeschooling

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 6, 2013.

Rockets are all the rage in my house. When my six-year-old asked for a rocket for Christmas, I thought he would fly it around the house a couple of weeks and then throw it in one of the plastic toy bins, a.k.a. the black holes where the less dazzling (not new) toys end up.

Fortunately, the little set of U.S. rockets that my husband ordered him has captivated his imagination. On the back of the package there is a description of each rocket, and my six-year-old decided he liked the Apollo Saturn V the best.

As with most subjects my son becomes interested in, I’m learning just how ignorant I am. Not knowing much about the space program, I didn’t know that this was the rocket that took us to the moon, but I’m having fun learning about it.

My son wanted to make a model of the Saturn V just like we did with the Titanic a few weeks ago, so one day we set out to do that. It took all my will power to not find a long mailing tube that would make the task much easier. Instead, I listened to my son’s idea on how to make it.

Building a rocket proved to be much harder than building the Titanic because he wanted to use the recycled cereal and frozen pizza boxes we had saved. I knew that they would be hard to roll up since they had creases in them, and I can’t say I was enthusiastic. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to be crafty that day. I really wanted to find some tubes.

We finished part of the rocket, but then it sat in a corner of our activity room for a few weeks. I asked my son occasionally if he wanted to work on it, and he always said no, so I wondered if he was losing interest or was he picking up on my lackluster attitude?

Finally, he did want to finish it. It took two mornings, and I did most of the work because it was complicated. What held me back in the first place was wanting my son to do more of the work, but after awhile, I realized it’s okay to take over when he really needs me to. It was his idea, his materials, but he didn’t know how to make it work.

The finished product looks cool, and it’s almost as tall as my son. We painted it too. After all that work, I appreciated learning about the Apollo missions even more. We read books from the library about rockets, being an astronaut and the infamous Apollo 13 mission.

I was delighted to find a Discovery Channel’s documentary series on Netflix about the NASA missions titled “When We Left Earth,” which starts from the beginning and takes the viewer all the way to the creation of the International Space Station. (Netflix is a homeschooling mom’s best friend.)

My husband and I watched it with both boys. It was complicated, and the three-year-old busied himself with toys through much of it, but the six-year-old watched all of it and seemed to get something out it.

I was riveted. The only direct experience I’ve had with the NASA missions was watching the Challenger blow up live when I was home sick from school at the age of eleven.

What impressed me most about the missions is how they are a perfect example of project-based learning, but in this case, I guess you could call it project-based Life. NASA started with sending up unmanned rockets. Then they sent up a chimpanzee. Then they sent one man, Alan Shepard, into space. It was a slow yet steady process of trial and error until we made it to the moon. Now we have a robot on Mars and a space station where astronauts work year-round.

Little by little, they experimented, tinkered, made mistakes — huge, fatal, catastrophic mistakes — but they learned from them, and they kept improving. It’s a lesson I’m trying to teach my son: just because you fail, don’t give up. Just because you don’t like your artwork, don’t scream and cry, think of a better way to do it. Learn from your mistakes.

I’ve been trying to find examples of adults who have worked through problems so that my son could see that this is part of life, and I can’t thank NASA and the Discovery Channel enough for giving me a perfect example.

My son probably won’t grow up to do anything as lofty as working at the space station, but I want him to know that whatever he choses to do, life will throw obstacles in his way. Mistakes and failure are inevitable, but we must keep going. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed,” says Michael Jordan.

After completing the Saturn V model, my three-year-old asked us to build him a rocket too. Having lost all enthusiasm for building rockets, I insisted on using a tube, but drats, it keeps falling over. “My rocket is wider, Mommy, so it doesn’t tip over. That’s why we should have used the cardboard like we did with mine.”

I’ve learned my lesson. Next time I’ll listen to my little rocket scientist.

Top two photos: You can see the final product and my son documenting his work with his camera.

Collage: During the process – We used recycled cereal and pizza boxes, toilet paper tubes and some thicker poster paper for the body. Later, we covered it with white paper. The tip of the rocket is an old, plastic straw from a sippy cup…an idea my son had before we even started making the rocket!

Left: We also made a rocket one day out of blocks!

Below Right: The three-year-old’s rocket that, thanks to me, falls over.

Intentional Reading Using Georgia’s PINES Online Library Catalog

This is a follow-up to my previous post Fostering a Book Time Ritual.


I love the library.  What homeschooler does not like the library!?  However, I noticed over the past year that we were not going to the library as much as I had imagined we would when I started to have children.  Play dates, errands, chores…everything piles up, and it’s hard to find time for something extra.  On top of that, we have plenty of books at home.

But then one day I overheard a homeschooling mom say that she would bring a small wagon to the library to carry the books that she and her children checked out.   That image stuck with me, and I asked myself, “Why am I not using our library more?”

We have a wonderful, little library less than a ten-minute drive from our house.  NOTHING ELSE is that close to use!  I have to drive twenty minutes to the grocery store and close to thirty minutes for everything else.  Sometimes I complain about that, but I have no excuses when it comes to the library.

Even though this library is very small (probably no bigger than the downstairs of my house), it has a great selection of children’s books.  But even better, it’s connected to the PINES Online Library Catalog, and libraries throughout Georgia are part of the Pines System.

If you live in Georgia, you need to learn more about this wonderful service.  You can place books on hold through the PINES website, and they will be delivered to your home library at no expense.  You can return them to any library in the PINES system.  This means you get to browse books at more than 275 libraries!  Waiting for the books to arrive may take some time, but I have not had a problem with that.

I also learned that I can checked out up to 50 books on one card! I’m sure systems like this are available in other places, so be sure to ask at your local library!

There are other, larger libraries that we visit too.  We call the Athens-Clarke Library the “big library,” and my boys love to go there.  This is what I have decided when it comes to using the libraries:

  • If you are searching for books on a specific topic, such as “planets” or “weather” or “math” then go to the library and search for the shelf with those books.
  • However, if you are searching for a specific title, go to the Internet and order it through the PINES catalog.  Because I have trouble finding specific titles when I’m at the library.  One of the books the librarian searched for me had been missing from their shelf for over a year.

Intentional Reading/Generating Reading Lists for Your Children

So what books am I checking out for my five-year-old who is a homeschooled kindergartener?  I already explained how he loves non-fiction books in my last post, and I’m using book time to cover certain “kindergarten” topics such as the solar system and the weather/water cycle, etc.

But I’ve decided I wanted to be more proactive about what kind of literature I’m going to chose for him too.  Don’t get me wrong – the best way to start using the library is to go there and let your children pick whatever books they want!  I’m just adding to that.

To get me started, I found two resources that I love:

  • DAWCL or Database of Award-Winning Children’s Literature – Lisa R. Bartle is a librarian who came up with the idea for this wonderful database.  The best part about it is the search parameters.   You can search by age, setting, historical period, ethnicity of protagonist or tale, languages, genre and more!  If you are studying a specific topic, this is a wonderful resource!  I generated a list of multicultural early readers for my son because one of my goals is teaching international education.
  • The second resource is something I had been wishing for: 75 Books That Build Character was put together by Allison McDonald on No Time for Flash Cards(I thank Ahimsa Mama for tipping me off to this list….Click on her link for other good reading resources.)  Not only have I been wanting to be more selective about the books I pick for my son, I had also been wanting to find a resource for character building – teaching him how to be good, humble, honest, etc.  So I’ve started ordering a few of these books through the interlibrary loan.  We already read the first title, Shelia Rae, The Brave, by Kevin Henkes, and my son loved it.

I’m sure I could accomplish the same goals just by reading as many books to him as I can get my hands on, and I’ll continue to do that.  But I am a planner/organizer, and as I think about our homeschool mission, it feels good to have goals and lists to work through.

Do you have any resources to share on generating great reading lists for children? 

(And psssst…..There will be a free give-away later next week on my blog for mothers who want to nurture their creativity! So stay tuned!)