Free Homeschool Coaching

Because I feel strongly that advice between homeschooling parents should be free, I am offering my time to anyone who needs a little help with their homeschool. I am especially helpful when it comes to:

  • the early years
  • project-based homeschooling
  • relaxed homeschooling
  • balancing academics with following a child’s interests
  • giving encouragement that you can do this
  • tips on finding community
  • record-keeping & portfolio
  • homeschooling laws in the state of Georgia (I can also help you find the laws in other states.)

What I can’t do:

  • Tell you exactly how to educate your child. Only you can make that decision.
  • If your child has special needs, that is not my area of expertise.
  • High school issues — I’m not there yet!

I am not a homeschooling or education expert. I am a homeschooling mom who loves to talk to parents who are wanting to know more about homeschooling or parents who are already homeschooling but need a sounding-board for new ideas and challenges. I read a lot of information about homeschooling, and I am familiar with most homeschooling philosophies. Find out more about me here. Give me a try. You have nothing to lose.

I am available by e-mail or phone. If you want to speak to me on the phone, send me an e-mail so that we can make an appointment. Please tell me a little about yourself and what you’d like to talk about in the e-mail.

shellipabis (at) gmail (dot) com

Making Time for Project-based Homeschooling

Projects and creativity are a natural part of a child’s life. They can be big or small. They may last a few minutes or many years.

Project-based homeschooling seems to be changing for us, and on one hand, it’s made me feel like I’m not doing it right, but as I sit here writing, which is how I work things out in my brain, I realize maybe it’s just growing and looking different as my child grows. If you read my last post, How do you balance supporting your child’s interests while also achieving the academic goals they need?, you’ll know that I’ve been struggling with balancing our academic goals with his many interests. This is a follow-up to that.

It was very easy to see how building the titanic and a rocket and learning about carnivorous plants and everything else my son has done is project-based homeschooling. They had a clear starting point and ending point, though occasionally he goes back to those subjects, adding more to his knowledge. That is how I felt a project should be. It should be something I have to make time for in the mornings when I’m available and alert, and it’s something I need to actively be helping my son with.

But now I realize there are many things going on that could look like projects, and we are indeed supporting them in many ways. I’m just not as hands-on anymore, and many projects have become part of our daily or weekly routine, which is ideal, when I stop to think about it.

  • My son has always been interested in science, and I guess you could say we’ve done lots of things to support this interest. There is no beginning or end to it. Now he’s interested in learning about engineering, especially robotics. Aside from buying him a robot, we’ve been able to support that by enrolling him in some nearby classes. He’s taken some STEM Club classes, a robotics summer camp, and right now, he’s taking a homeschool Chemical Engineering class, which he loves.
  • He likes working with clay, and we still do that at home on occasion with air-dry modeling clay. But now my son has taken several classes at a local pottery studio, and he can’t really work at the same level at home as he can at the studio. So this project depends mostly on our budget – when we can afford to let him take another class.
  • He is also taking piano lessons once a week, and he practices twice a day. This has become part of our daily routine so much that I tend to forget that it’s my son’s major interest right now, i.e. his project. My husband and I usually make time to sit down and be his audience, and we try to help by telling him when it sounds good, or if we notice a mistake. Our son seems to like the attention and feedback. We also watch a lot of YouTube videos of the songs he’s playing, which he requests so that he can get to know the music, and in the evenings right before bed, my son is watching pianists compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition with his father. His dad started watching it for his own pleasure, but my son wants and asks to watch it too! (You can watch the latest performances online.)
  • My younger son’s major interest seems to be birds (and dinosaurs), but as with anything, his active engagement comes and goes. Mostly, he just likes playing with his toy birds. He’s not so interested in the books about birds, though we’ve looked at a few, and he’s stopped wanting to look at the bird app every night, which he wanted to do for months. I asked him if he’d like for me to sew him a little toy bird, and he was very excited about that, so we did that, and he helped as much as he could. He hung them on our Christmas tree. We’re also planning to go out looking for real birds whenever we can, but that’s something we have to work into the whole family’s schedule.

So, my sons definitely have projects. But I worry that by having such a busy schedule….the lessons and the classes, I am not giving my children enough time for more spontaneous work. Would they dig deeper, if we had more time? Well, right now, we just don’t have the time, but now that I’ve written about everything we are doing, it doesn’t look so bleak. Right now I’m realizing:

  • As for spur-of-the-moment projects and crafts that my older son used to do frequently, I can’t say I’m surprised he’s doing that less when he’s working so diligently on several interests through classes and lessons.
  • I also can’t forget that my younger son still likes to draw and color a lot. Lately he has been drawing a lot in an art app on the iPad while my older son is practicing piano! It hasn’t evolved much more than that, despite my attempts, but at six-years-old, he’s working right at his level. He mostly likes to draw dragons or prehistoric animals that are either real or made-up.
  • My older son will sometimes draw because his younger brother is drawing. When we took a break from homeschooling while my in-laws were visiting, he did a little building project too. So it does happen; it’s just not scheduled. It’s not anything I need to help with…that’s not a bad thing!
  • And before I forget, the most important time of the day to my boys is their tablet time. They get about 1 to 1.5 hours a day to play on their tablets together. Most of the time, they are collaborating on building projects in Minecraft. Throughout the rest of the day, they spend about 50% of their time discussing their plans for what they are going to build on Minecraft and another 10% of their time telling me about Minecraft. There are days when I wish they wouldn’t care so much about screen time, but gosh, I’m forgetting how much they are getting out of it, how interactive they are while playing side-by-side, and how educational most of their games are. This is important to them, so I’m glad I honor it as part of our daily routine.

Our Project-based Calendar. An imperfect solution.

Finally, I’m going to share something I came up with to help me make sure I gave those random projects – not just the ones that are part of our routine now – a chance to come to fruition.

Every month I print out a blank calendar from my computer’s calendar. (I do this in iCal by unclicking all my “calendars.” This makes the master calendar blank. Then I print it.) You could use any calendar though, and you can even print calendar pages from the web.

I keep the monthly calendar page on a clipboard on the table where we do our lessons. At the beginning of the month, I fill out the calendar with any appointments that the boys or I have. Right now, we have appointments three days a week, which only gives me three other days (including Saturday) to do lessons with the boys. So I haven’t designated any day as “project day” because there isn’t much time, and as I mentioned above, most of their interests are part of our daily routine, or either they are taking outside courses, which is on the calendar.

Every Monday morning, I show the calendar to the boys, tell them what appointments we have that week, and I ask them if they have anything they want to work on. If they do, we pencil it in on the calendar. I’ll even offer to skip a day of lessons, if they have something they want to work on.

I call this imperfect because so far this year, the boys haven’t had much they want to do. Either that, or if they do have an idea, by the time the scheduled project time comes around, they aren’t interested anymore. Still, it has worked a few times, and if they are really interested in doing something, they do follow through. Mostly I’ve been prudent enough to make project day that very day – Monday – so as not to lose momentum in their enthusiasm.

So as you can see, I am starting to learn that project-based homeschooling can look differently as my child grows and becomes more independent and capable of working on his projects without my direct assistance!

This and my last post are very long posts, so if you’ve made it this far, I thank you! How have you made time for your child’s interests and balanced that with their academic lessons?

How do you balance supporting your child’s interests while also achieving the academic goals you believe they need?

One of the main reasons I began homeschooling was so I could support my children’s interests. We all learn better and retain information when we are engaged with what we’re doing and we want to learn the subject. I have never seen much point in forcing kids to keep learning about things they aren’t interested in (notice I didn’t say to not teach at all) or forcing children to learn subjects they are not developmentally ready for.

Yet as my son turns nine-years-old, I find myself teaching him more and more, and it’s not just because he’s getting older, and I don’t want him to get behind… I admit that’s partly it. (After all, I never planned to unschool him.) But now I see a more important reason for teaching him. It’s from observing my son and supporting his interests these past few years – key components in project-based homeschooling – that I find myself doing more directed learning with him. I know that sounds contradictory. Let me explain.

There are some career paths in which my husband and I feel it is not necessary to go to college, so we are not opposed to a different path, if that turns out to be in our child’s best interest, but we feel college is still going to give young people the best options in the long run. Most importantly, our eldest son’s interests, if he keeps them, will probably lead him to college.

As a conscientious parent who spends considerable time observing, talking with, and supporting my son’s interests, I have found that he is going down a certain path that I can further support by making sure he is solid in his academic subjects, especially math and science.


When I was a child, I wrote poetry. I played with my stuffed animals, and I enjoyed reading books. When I was ten, I said I wanted to be a writer, and I never changed my mind. I’ll also add that I always hated math, didn’t like science, and avoided all those classes as much as I could. Sadly, if I had been introduced to them differently, my appreciation for those subjects might have been different, but I digress.

If I had a child like me, I would be homeschooling much the same way, although my child’s interests would probably make us sit on the sofa reading books more than we are now. I would supply my child with lots of paper, pens, and pretty journals. I would take more dictation. I would want to give my child many different experiences, just as I’m doing with my boys now, but those experiences might look a little different. Maybe we’d be going to more theatre and story times and author readings than science classes. It would depend on what peaked my child’s interest the most.


In contrast, my son loves working with his hands. Whether it’s Legos or clay, he’s a natural builder, and now he’s playing the piano too. He also absorbs information about nature and animals like a sponge. He’s always seeking more information on these subjects. Though I read literature and poetry to him, he has only a mild interest in these subjects. He is also not the athletic type. He enjoys classes in which he learns something. He likes listening. He also likes teaching others. My mother-in-law says he’s a little professor.

In the course of his short life, my son has said he wants to be a “snake scientist,” “scientist,” and now “engineer,” specifically a “bio-engineer.” He also decided he wanted to take piano lessons, and he’s doing much better than we ever imagined he would. As many of you know, music uses many of the same skills as you would use in math.

We don’t care what our son chooses to do with his life as long as he continues to love learning and becomes a productive citizen who can make a living. Most kids love dinosaurs and robotics and similar things that my son likes, so he’s probably going to add many more possibilities to finish the statement “I want to be _______” before he becomes an adult.

But there’s a good chance he will go into some kind of STEM career, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to fail him by not teaching him the skills that will help him get into the best programs available. Even if he veers off this course and picks music instead, I would feel the same.

(Let me add here that I’m talking about my eldest son. He has always had a vision for his life. If you ask my younger son what he wants to be when he grows up, he’d say, “I have no idea!” which I love because of course it’s hard to know at such a young age. But my eldest son is more like his father and me, who both had clear intentions early in life.)


This is why math is a priority this year even though it’s not his favorite subject (although he does like our Life of Fred curriculum). We will also work on the other academic subjects because all of it is important, if he is college bound.

We are also willing to sacrifice some luxuries in order to put him into classes that support his interests. He takes piano lessons, and occasionally he takes pottery classes. This year, we were lucky enough to find some homeschool classes that will introduce him to the different fields of engineering. If he says he wants to become an engineer, he needs to learn more about it so that he can make an informed decision someday.

I will interject here and add that I wonder, if I had been given more guidance into what it takes to become a writer, would I have stuck with that plan? Giving children a chance to explore their interests at a young age can help them learn earlier what their limits are, what they are willing to sacrifice for, and therefore help them make wiser decisions as they choose their vocations. This doesn’t mean they’ll always make the right decisions, but I don’t believe traditional school helps children learn about the real world or their chosen vocation like it should.


But this leaves me in a place where I find it sometimes difficult to balance his immediate desires with my desire to instruct. As I make my child study math and become a more competent writer and reader, I am often tempted when the going gets tough to cut our lessons short and let him play because I know that has great value for a child. Other times I find myself pushing too hard, causing tears, and my husband comes down from his upstairs office and takes over, making the lesson funny and light, and I think, “Why couldn’t I have done that?”

Homeschooling is hard, folks.

But it’s also flexible, and I’m re-learning why I chose this lifestyle. Because we can go slow. We don’t have to do it the same way they do it at school. I can try different things. We can take a break. I have my husband to thank for reminding me of that.

With the holiday season upon us, I’m going to go slower and begin emphasizing the things that are most important to me – creativity, nature, books. It’s a good time to take a break from the harder stuff.

I don’t know if I have it right. Striking the right balance is hard, and sometimes there is no balance. I will keep observing my son, and I will try to make sure he learns what he needs to know so that he’ll have plenty of good options when he becomes an adult. But I’m going to try different speeds and sometimes different resources until I get it as close to right as I can. Learning can be challenging, but it shouldn’t be torture.


Stay tuned. I’m going to write about how I am trying – though not always well – to make time for my children’s projects in an upcoming post.

Project-based Homeschooling: My five-year-old’s Grocery Store

INK Museum’s pretend grocery store

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take my five-year-old to the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, or INK Museum, in Gainesville a few times. It was fun going there with him without his brother (who was attending a class next door). We also had the opportunity to meet a friend of his there a few times too, so that was extra fun.

It’s important for my youngest child to get to do some things without his brother because big brother can certainly influence him. Sometimes this good, but sometimes, it isn’t. For example, when my oldest was this age, he did not care a flip about playing make-believe in INK’s exhibits. Instead, he was more interested in the trains, airplane, musical instruments and building supplies. However, his younger brother liked all that and the opportunity play pretend, although he was very specific about where he wanted to play pretend. Mostly, it was in the grocery store.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. He is a great help to me and his dad at the real grocery store! He wanted to shop twice, and I think he would have been content to stay in the store, if I had not reminded him we had a short time to see the whole museum.

After going to INK a few times and seeing how much he enjoyed the grocery store, I asked him if he’d like to make a grocery store in his room, and he was thrilled about that! So we worked on this for awhile, saving some recyclables and adding to the store whenever we could. He got a little carried away, and eventually I had to tell him he had enough groceries!

We also have a toy cash register, which isn’t in the photos. I had some baskets that I gave to my son in lieu of shopping carts. He also wanted to make some shopping carts, and we worked hard on that one day. We never finished because after trying out different supplies, we couldn’t figure out how to make the wheels work. But we may try again, if my son wants to.

We added more groceries (recyclables) over time. Now those shelves are full!

Big brother mans the pizza parlor in the grocery store. Later we wrote all the pizza specials on that big easel.

We played grocery store a few times, and our friends enjoy playing in it when they came over. Now it’s a little messy and neglected. But I’m sure we’ll clean it up and play again.🙂

Project-based Homeschooling: A Mushroom Project Teaches Mama When to Let Go

mushroom project-1Last year when my seven-year-old told me he wanted to learn about and grow mushrooms, I was excited. This was something I could sink my teeth into. Though I’m a novice, I love plants and gardening, and mushrooms fascinate me. We see so many cool ones around here, and they never fail to excite me. My boys love looking at them too. So I was looking forward to learning about mushrooms alongside my son.

I had visions of learning how to identify mushrooms, creating a mushroom poster, and learning how to grow them at home. But I was a good PBH Mama. I didn’t mention any of that. 

Instead, I sat down with my son and asked him what he wanted to know. This is what he said and how I wrote it down in our project journal:

Mushrooms — “I want to grow them in the house or in a terrarium.”

  • Where are their spores?
  • Are they made of spores?
  • What are they made of?
  • How do they grow?

“My idea is to crumble mushroom into a terrarium.”

We’ll experiment with layers of dirt and scraps from woods. Mushroom from outside, but we need to identify.

1) Learn about mushrooms –> books from library

2) My idea to use terrarium. (I gave him an old venus flytrap terrarium we had.)

Don’t worry if that doesn’t totally make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I need to take better notes!

We checked out some books about mushrooms from the library, and when we got them home, my son enjoyed looking at the mushrooms in the field guides, but he wasn’t as interested in listening to me read about mushrooms. Despite the questions he asked, he mostly wanted to grow mushrooms. I knew his idea to crumble mushrooms into the terrarium would not work because I had looked up some videos on how to grow mushrooms for my own knowledge, and I showed him at least one video too.

I realized two things. 1) He wanted to do it his way, and I just needed to let him try that, and 2) growing mushrooms isn’t simple, but letting a seven-year-old try out his way of growing mushrooms is simple, and that’s what I needed to do anyway.

So, over a month or so, we tried some different things. I found a few notes I took in our project journal:

Sept. 13, 2013

He wants to chop mushrooms smaller and put under dirt. (Current project is very smelly.)

Later, I tried to sum up the few things we did in the journal. (I’m not very good at keeping this journal on a daily or even weekly basis, but I do manage to update it now and then.)

Oct. 8, 2013

We took old carnivorous plant terrarium with its dirt and added wood chips. (Because the seven-year-old knew that mushrooms needed a substrate.)

1) Bought button mushrooms, cut them up, put them on top of wood chips. We kept dome on and left it on front porch — they just rotted. We also put some of the mushrooms on leaf litter in the woods – nothing happened.

2) Seven-year-old found mushrooms with yellow caps in yard. [Since we’re not sure which mushrooms are poisonous and which are not, we never touch wild mushrooms with our hands. My son managed to gather these using two small sticks.] He put that in the pot and left dome off. They were gone in the morning. We think squirrels got them!

3) We bought Bunapi mushrooms at Dekalb Farmer’s Market. 2 days in refrigerator. We put them in terrarium, left dome on, and we’re keeping it inside house. Mist with water.

Unfortunately, my notes stop there, but nothing ever happened with those mushrooms either.  Eventually the terrarium ended up back in the garage, and my son’s other interests kept taking precedence.

However, something serendipitous happened! During the summer we were given some sundew seeds to try to grow. Remember my son’s carnivorous plant project? We kept them in a little cup with another plastic cup over it because it needed to stay wet and humid inside. Though the sundew never grew, we did find this one day when we were checking them! It was unintentional, but we did grow a mushroom!

For a long time, I thought this project was a bust. I felt like I did something wrong because he didn’t pursue it further, but actually I did ask him about it, and he didn’t seem interested in pursuing it further. That’s actually the whole point in project-based homeschooling: you let the child decide when he’s finished with a project. As I began looking back over this year to create an end-of-the-year review and write some of these end-of-the-year blog posts, I realized that we did, indeed, do a mushroom project. It just didn’t look like how I envisioned it would be.

Trying something and failing at it is one of the best ways of learning. Deciding not to pursue it further is a worthy decision. Though my son may not be able to identify the mushrooms that grow in our yard, and he doesn’t know how to grow mushrooms, he has actually learned quite a lot about mushrooms. He’s learned everything he’s wanted to learn about them. At least for now.

When I realized I needed to write this blog post, I thought I would ask my son one more time. He was standing next to my desk as I was looking at some of the photos we had taken of his mushroom experiments.

“Do you remember how you wanted to grow mushrooms?”


“Do you want to do anything more with that?”

“No.” A definite shake of the head. He walked away.

As I’ve written, learning is like a chain-link fence. We build our knowledge one link at a time; it expands and grows in different directions. My son has several links in his knowledge about mushrooms. If it ever matters to him again, he can build onto that knowledge, but it won’t mean much unless he wants to learn about it.

I think it’s neat that he had an idea, and he tried it. That’s what I want to encourage. Questions. Curiosity. Getting excited about attempting things he doesn’t know. 

As for me, I know that if I want to, I could do my own mushroom project. I could learn how to identify and grow them and share my interest with my boys, but as it turns out, all I really want to do is take photographs of them. So, for fun, I’m sharing my photographs of mushrooms here with you in this slideshow. Aren’t they beautiful and amazing?!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What are you learning about today?


Project-based Homeschooling: Steps I Took to Support My Son’s Interest in Carnivorous Plants

This is a very detailed account of the steps I took to support my sons interest in carnivorous plants. There is much more to project-based homeschooling (PBH) than what I illustrate here, but I hope it gives you some ideas as you proceed to mentor your children.

Since my son was young (7) when this occurred, I did make suggestions to him and showed him how to do research. It’s important to model to children what they can and will do as they become more capable. However, I never forced anything on him. He was beside me all the way, telling me what he wanted to learn. 

To learn more about project-based learning, see my post What is Project-based Homeschooling?

1. Recognizing the interest

I don’t remember when my son first acquired an interest in carnivorous plants, but I remember buying Step Into Reading Hungry Plants and reading that book to him because he wanted to learn about them. We also spent a long time looking at photos on the Internet. We learned that some very big carnivorous plants live in Borneo.

That was probably a year ago.

2. Supporting the interest

Sometime last spring we were shopping at Home Depot when I saw a little Venus Flytrap. I could have ignored it, but I knew it was an interest of my son’s, so I wasn’t going to do that. My son was thrilled to see a real, live carnivorous plant, and making him happy makes me happy. For less than $5, we bought the plant and started a project.

That little plant was fussed over at home. I looked up information about how to care for Venus flytraps on the Internet, read about it to my son, and he took good care of the plant. He had a lot of fun finding bugs to feed it too.

I asked my son if he wanted to learn more about carnivorous plants, and he said yes.

We went to the library and checked out their books about carnivorous plants. Whenever we’re at the library, I make a point of showing my son how I’m finding the books on the computer, and often, I ask the librarian to help us. I encourage my son to ask too, but I don’t force him. I know that if he observes how I use the library, he’ll grow up knowing how to use it!

Unfortunately, before we could read those library books, a family emergency sent us to Chicago for two weeks. We had to return those books, but once we were settled in Chicago, we decided to visit the local library there (wonderful library – sigh). There, we found a very good book about sundews for young adults, and I read the whole book to my son.

(The Venus flytrap came with us to Chicago too!)

In that book we learned all about sundews, including how to grow them. You mean WE can grow other carnivorous plants? This was a new idea to my son and me. I had never considered trying to grow more than the little Venus flytrap, which is a favorite for lots of kids. My son said he wanted to grow them, and I agreed to help him.

3. Field trip

While we were in Chicago, we visited the Chicago Botanical Garden. (Since we are members of our local botanical garden, we got into the Chicago Botanical Garden for free. Since we love nature, and it’s obviously a deep interest for my son, it’s been a no brainer to invest some money in memberships to such places. It has saved us a lot of money. You can read more about saving money with family memberships here.)

We had been to the Chicago Botanical Garden before, and it’s impossible to see it all in one day, so we made a mental agenda. One of our missions was to find their carnivorous plant collection. It was not a disappointment. You can see more photos in the slideshow.

When we returned from Chicago, we checked out the books at our library again. These are all the books we have read regarding carnivorous plants:

  • Hungry Plants by Mary Batten
  • Bladderworts: Trapdoors to Oblivion by Victor Gentle
  • Carnivorous Plants by Elaine Pascoe
  • Sundew Stranglers: Plants that Eat Insects by Jerome Wexler
  • Nature Close-up: Carnivorous Plants by Dwight Kuhn

4. Creating representations of the subject

During this time, my son made several representations of carnivorous plants. I was happy he did this completely on his own. I didn’t know he was drawing these pictures until he showed them to me.

Don’t underestimate any artwork your child does while pursuing a project. To draw, build or sculpt something, the child has to study and observe that something in a way he hasn’t done before. It’s another level of learning.

Venus Fly Traps

He did this one more recently. A big mouth bass swims by a bladderwort!

Yep, those are supposed to be human legs dangling out of the mouth of a carnivorous plant.

This happened a little differently from his first two significant projects. For his Titanic project, I had suggested he make the Titanic out of clay, and when that didn’t work, his dad suggested he try cardboard. For his rocket project, he came up with the idea to build a model of the Saturn V, but I was closely involved. After doing those two labor-intensive representations, it was refreshing for me to have him draw these pictures!

This one I found on the Atlanta Botanical Garden website (click to download).

5. Supporting the project

At the end of each school year, I am going to do a brief end-of-year review and reward my sons with a gift – something educational that supports their studies. (We buy them plenty of fun, non-educational toys for birthdays, Christmas and occasional times throughout the year.)

This summer at my kindergartener’s end-of-year review, I gave him a beautiful poster I found of carnivorous plants. He was thrilled. It’s hanging in his room, and we have read it thoroughly and referred to it a few times.

6. Serendipity

Okay, so serendipity isn’t exactly a step you can take to encourage deep learning, but it is helpful when it happens. And when you start thinking about a subject, it’s surprising how it starts to present itself to you!

The first case of serendipity occurred when we returned from Chicago. My son was enrolled in a week-long summer camp at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. One day in camp, the facilitators talked about the carnivorous plants at the garden and showed them to the campers.

But that’s not the best part. One day after I dropped my son off, I was walking back to the car with my youngest son, and we passed the gift shop. Outside, there were some pitcher plants for sale! I had been looking on the Internet to find out if any local business sold carnivorous plants, and I was coming up empty. Finding them at the botanical garden was very lucky!

After consulting with my husband, and talking to my seven-year-old, we bought the pot with the white-top pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) and another bog plant, white-star sedge (Rhynchospora colorata), as an early birthday present for my son.

7. Speaking to Experts

One part of project-based learning is encouraging your children to seek out and communicate with experts on the subject. My son is still young and sometimes shy, so for right now, whenever possible, I speak to the experts. Experts aren’t plentiful, but I got lucky that day. I asked the lady in the gift shop if there was anyone around the garden we could speak to about caring for the pitcher plant. She pointed to a man who was just outside the window trimming some trees.

The man was definitely an expert. He grew carnivorous plants at home and at the garden, and he explained how he cared for them. I asked him several questions even though I had already learned most of the information on the Internet. I wanted my son to see me speaking to him, asking him questions, and getting more information. We definitely learned more! I was very happy that my seven-year-old piped up with a question or two of his own. Hes not so shy when hes talking about something he cares about!

When we got home, my son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant and white sedge. The Venus flytrap had been losing its trapping ability inside the house – I don’t think the light coming through our windows is bright enough. It recovered and flourished outside in the pot with the other plants. Both carnivorous plants have been catching lots of prey in our yard, so I’m hoping they’ll reproduce!

8. Documentation

An important part of project-based homeschooling is documenting your child’s work. Michelle, at Raising Cajuns, has a great post about documenting, and Lori Pickert has good posts about keeping a journal – this should not be mistaken for a portfolio of your child’s work. In a PBH journal, you document and refer back to your journal frequently, reminding your child of their questions and the goals they have. To be honest, I haven’t been good at doing this intentionally, and I want to get better. But I do document in these ways:

  • As a photographer, I can’t help but take lots of pictures.  I use them on my blog and most importantly, in our end-of-year-review that I share with my son. (He looks at my blog when it’s open in my browser, and he loves to see photos of his projects.)
  • I keep a journal where I write down his progress in his projects, and any questions he may have, but I need to get better at referring back to this!
  • We display his work in the house. Drawings and paintings are hung in our “art gallery” in the kitchen. Sculptures and other creations are displayed in our activity room until it gets too cluttered. Then my son takes him up to his room where he has some shelves to display his treasures.  (I’m in the process of framing some of his art to display in the house too.)
  • Again, I take photos of everything. As Lori wrote somewhere, this simple act of documenting sends your child a powerful message that his work is valuable. Pay attention to what you want your child to do more of!

In our carnivorous plant project, I took lots of photos, and I’m happy to share a slideshow of them with you (and my son).

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9. Follow-up

After awhile, there didn’t seem to be much else my son could do with this project. This isnt to say that there isnt more my son could do, he just wasnt talking about it as much.

Finally I asked my son, Is there anything else you want to do with carnivorous plants?  His answer was that he wants a sundew to add to his collection.  I told him wed get one, but I wasnt sure when.

Then serendipity happened again, and if you read my column last week, you’ll know the rest of this story. We went to Insect-ival, an annual event at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and there was a guy there with two heaping tables of carnivorous plants! It was an impressive display! And he gave us some sundew seeds for free! That was really special.

We’ve been nursing those seeds for a while, and I gotta tell you, I’m not sure they’re going to grow. I’ve never had luck with seeds! If these don’t grow, I’ll find a sundew somewhere somehow, and my son and I will try to cultivate more carnivorous plants.

At seven-years-old, I have to remind my son to water them because I know he’ll be upset if he loses them. He still doesn’t talk as much about carnivorous plants, and I’ve put the drawings away, but I know it’s something he’s still interested in. He’s going to be happy about having the plants, caring for them, and whenever we go to the Botanical Garden, we’ll take a look at them.

I consider this a long-term project that will happen slowly and in spurts. Maybe hell continue the interest. Maybe itll peter out. Whatever happens, Im here to support him!

If he continues to grow them, and if we can get them to reproduce, he’ll become an expert in them himself. If not, that’s okay too. The kid has me hooked on them, so if he completely loses interest, I’m going to take over!

UPDATE: Two years later (at the age of nine), my son is still caring for his carnivorous plants. (I help sometimes too.) His pitcher plants bloomed for the first time this year. He also has a healthy sundew, and a thriving Venus flytrap. He doesn’t actively read about the plants anymore, but he still thinks they are very cool plants, and he enjoys observing what they devour! 

How to Make a Terrarium

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 27, 2013.

If you’re eager to plant some greenery, but you’re still waiting for the threat of frost to pass, you might enjoy making a terrarium for inside the house. My plant-loving six-year-old found instructions in First Nature Activity Book by DK Publishing, and he asked if we could make one. I didn’t see why not.

Luckily for me, it’s fairly simple to make.  Here’s what you need: a clear container with a wide neck and an air-tight cover, small pebbles, charcoal, peat-based potting soil, small ferns, different types of moss, lichen-covered twigs or bark.

We had the charcoal, and we had plenty of moss, lichen and small ferns growing in shady spots in our yard, but we didn’t have the other ingredients. At the garden store, I bought a bag of pebbles and the peat-based potting soil. At the pet store, I found a medium-sized Kritter Keeper, and I lined the top with cellophane to make it airtight. A decorative glass container would be prettier but more expensive, or you could easily use an old aquarium.

When you let the kids do the work, they have fun cleaning up after themselves. (Sometimes.)

First, line the bottom of the container with enough pebbles to cover it evenly.  The pebbles are there for drainage. Next, add a layer of charcoal. We put in a fairly thin layer, but we covered the pebbles completely and evenly.

This is not the way I recommend you put in the charcoal. By pouring it in, it covered the walls with black soot and we had to clean them. Just be more careful.

My six-year-old had fun when I put some pieces of charcoal in a baggie and let him pound them on the sidewalk with a hammer to break them into tiny pieces.  The charcoal is supposed to act as a filter, keeping the terrarium smelling good. I have read different opinions online about whether it’s needed or not, but for a closed terrarium, it’s probably a good idea.

Next, add a thick layer of the peat-based potting soil, but leave plenty of space for the plants. Now the terrarium is ready for the plants.

We had to do some trimming.

We found all our plants in our yard. There was a small, pretty wild plant growing next to our house under the monkey grass, and I never had the heart to pull it out. I thought we’d give it a chance in the terrarium even though I have no idea what it is.

I also found an offshoot of some Japanese painted fern, which I had planted years ago near our front porch.  My six-year-old and three-year-old had a great time going around the yard collecting moss – much more than we needed.  We also found a small piece of bark with lichen growing on it.

As we arranged the plants inside the terrarium, I decided my son needed a lesson in garden design so that he wouldn’t crowd everything together. Later, I also read that we shouldn’t put too much moss into the terrarium so that the moss doesn’t overpower the small plants.

Once the terrarium is finished, you need to water it well, but after that, you only need to use a spray bottle once in a while to mist the plants and soil. Keep the lid open until the sides of the container have no more water droplets on them, and then shut it tight.

The terrarium needs to sit in a well-lit area, but no direct sunlight should fall on it.  Remember, these are shade plants.  Fertilizer isn’t needed either.  You don’t want the plants to grow too big, and when they start to get too big or the leaves touch the sides of the container, you’ll need to trim them.

After a few days, I noticed our plants looked a little brown and yellow, so I snipped off those leaves and hoped for the best.  Now, it’s looking good, and I’ve noticed some new growth on the wild, unidentified plant and the moss!

This was a fun, easy project, and it’s a perfect for children who enjoy planting or who are learning about plants.

Have you ever made a terrarium?