My 1st Grader’s Ongoing Projects

As I look back over our school 2016-2017 school year, it’s been fun to think about what my boys’ major projects were this year. For my eldest, it was pretty much piano and gaming. But for my seven-year-old, he pursued many endeavors, and I had fun pursuing some of them with him. Yet it was so different from when his older brother was seven and I assisted him with his many building projects at that time. This has also been part of the fun — to see how these boys are both similar and different.

I used to feel that it was a bit of a shame that while my eldest son got so much of my one-on-one attention, his younger brother had to be a sidekick or share my attention. Well, the tables have turned a little bit. Now that my 10-year-old spends so much time practicing piano, I get to spend more one-on-one time with my first grader. I partly use this time for teaching lessons. The other part I let him decide what we’ll do together. Sometimes, he likes to play by himself, and that’s fine too. (Then I can be an audience for my 10-year-old!)

So what does this little guy like to do? Well, I’ll show you. The following are snapshots I took with my phone camera, but each of them reveals a bit of my first grader’s favorite pastimes!

Playing games

Truly, his favorite games to play are digital games. Both my boys adore their digital games, and much of their conversation and make-believe are inspired by digital games. So, I’m going to write a post just about their digital games. (I know I keep saying that — I promise I really am!)

My youngest son also loves to play board games, card games or dice games with me. What I love about this is that many of the games we play help him with math skills, and he’ll insist on doing the counting himself. He likes to be the banker in Star Wars monopoly! As I’ve noticed in the past, he seems to be good at math, and he’s always been a little bit obsessed with numbers. So I’m more than happy to indulge him in this pastime, although I sure wish he weren’t such a sore loser.

Serious Make-believe

While his elder brother used to like building things (but he rarely played with his creations), younger brother will build lots of little things with zoob pieces or Legos and then use them for battle. He covers the entire floor with his imaginary worlds, and for this reason, he rarely wants to go outside — the action is clearly inside! This happens on a daily basis, and I love it!

Drawing and Painting

If you’ve read my blog in the past, you’ll know my son used to love drawing and coloring. For many months, this interest went away, and I thought it was gone forever. But a few months ago, he suddenly wanted to draw and color again. Then painting came back too. He likes for me to draw with him, and I’m more than happy to. Sometimes he’ll try drawing what I’m drawing such as the mug above. I was also drawing mugs as I was working through the exercises in Drawing for the Absolute Beginner. I would love to do more exercises with him, but he resists being taught. So I just do what I want to do, and sometimes I’ll get lucky, and he’ll follow along.

Baking & Cooking

This kid loves to help me bake and make other things in the kitchen, which is a great motivator for me to cook more! (And believe me, I need the motivation in this area.) I’m planning (hoping!) to continue to bake seriously and have him help me frequently. I want both my boys to learn how to cook basic meals, but I feel that this boy may someday be a more serious hobbyist chef, at the very least!

Puzzler

My 7-year-old has always loved doing puzzles. Again, I think it has something to do with that math brain of his, but I’m not sure. He used to put together puzzles often when he was a little tyke, and this year, he got into it again. I also bought some 300 piece puzzles and one 500 piece puzzle, which were harder for him, but I helped, and even the whole family got into these puzzles a little bit because they sat out on the table for awhile. It was a lot of fun, and now I just need to talk him into letting me take them apart so that we can do them all over again!

Piano

This was my 7-year-old’s first year taking piano lessons, and he did quite well! We weren’t sure whether he would like it or not, but he says he wants to keep taking lessons, and he continues to practice once a day for about thirty minutes.

(Obviously, this is the one thing we don’t do while his older brother is practicing!)

 

 

 

 

Last But Not Least: Birds

Again, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll know that birds have been this young boy’s major passion for several years now! (See: Birds & Feathers and It’s All for the Birds) He has been carrying around his toy “Chick,” a black-capped chickadee, for well over a year. (You can see it perched next to him at the piano.) He even wanted to be a black-capped chickadee for Halloween, so I made him a chickadee costume! But mostly he’s just had me read to him — just one or two pages at a time — about birds from some bird guides at the end of his lesson time. I’m quite impressed how this has been a steady interest of his for several years now, and though it’s subtle, he continues to learn about birds in his own way.

Observing and identifying my child’s major interests helps me consider how I can continue to support his endeavors. I’ve realized I can do this effectively in these ways:

  • Give him the time and tools. Then get out of his way!
  • Don’t tell him what to do. Get out of his way!
  • But be there. And pay attention. Help him when he wants help. (He won’t always say he wants help. Sometimes he gets frustrated and cries. Sometimes he gets “bored” or tired. Sometimes he needs a break more than my help, and he’ll return to the project later.)
  • Start my own similar projects without expecting him to join me. But the magic is that he often does! 

Both my boys have showed me that these tactics work. Children will feel their interests are validated when they see adults doing the same things! There is no better expression of love than this.

***

Be sure to check out:

The Everyday Homeschooler’s Guide to Teaching the Early Years 

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

Now I’m giving Zoom presentations with Q&A sessions about project-based homeschooling. Click here to learn more about that.

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? 

Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 3

Rocket ProjectThis 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.

Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 2

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This is Part 2 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 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 is why I’ve divided the interview into three posts. (Note that I have emphasized important parts of the interview in bold text.)

PART 2: Interview with Lori Pickert on Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling with Young Children

2. As I read your book, I could see that it’s very important for children to be able to present their findings to some kind of audience. While my six-year-old is happy to show his creations — for example, the model of the Titanic — to anyone who wants to see them, neither does he want to explain what he has learned about the Titanic, nor does he want to put it into book form, charts, puppet shows or anything else.  (And, yes, I have written his questions and progress in a journal, and I have asked him what else he would like to do, etc.) Is this just his age, and can I assume that as he gets older, he’ll want to go farther with his projects? Is the model of the Titanic enough because he has decided it’s enough? How do I encourage him to share his knowledge? 

Lori: Showing his creations and talking about them is one way to share. If you have family far away, you might start a family blog just to share his project work. Kids usually really like blogging — they love getting comments from friends and family. You could transcribe what he wants to say about his project and type his words for him. He could take photographs himself if he was interested. You could video him talking about (and showing) his constructions. And as he gets a little older, he might want to type his own entries.

If he decides his model is enough and he isn’t interested in producing other types of representations, that’s fine. You can encourage him to represent his work in different ways by exploring different media (drawing, painting, clay, etc.) and by having a nice selection of materials available all the time. But if he’s not interested, don’t push it.

It’s great to share your work not just when it’s completed but while it’s being constructed. If he has friends over (just to play or specifically to make art with), he can show them what he’s made and field their questions and suggestions.

If he’s showing his work to his little brother, that counts, too!

As he gets older, he may focus just as intently on sharing his knowledge in a particular way — by making a film, say, or a model. That’s okay. Variety is nice, but it’s more important for him to own the learning process — and being very confident about what he wants to do and when he’s done is part of that. He should have abundant choices, abundant materials to choose from, and abundant experiences. Then he can narrow them down and communicate his ideas in the way that feels right to him.

There are many reasons why project-based homeschooling emphasizes sharing what you learn. You really know you understand something when you can teach it to someone else. Collaboration is a crucial life skill. And PBH is about helping children connect with their meaningful work: where their interests and their talents intersect. This is a years-long process that you are only just beginning; there will be time to explore it fully and develop it from project to project.

Helping children share what they know helps them find their place in the world, and it helps them discover what they have to give. I don’t think there’s a better goal for education than that.

3. On page 58 you wrote, “He learns to plan and make first drafts, write lists of needed materials, and adapt materials to new uses.”  My six-year-old wants a final product RIGHT NOW. I realize that it takes time and maturity for him to overcome his impatience, but do you have any advice as to what I could do and say to help him learn that it takes time to do things, especially to do them well?

Lori: Remember, he learns to plan and make first drafts — he probably won’t start off already working that way.

Every version of a draft is a final product, in a way. It’s the repetition and enlargement of the original idea that makes the earlier version a “draft.” So if he wants to make a book or a robot or a cape, he does. What turns it into a first draft is continuing to come back to that piece of work and talk about it, examine it, share it with others, and possibly decide to improve upon it. Children working together spur each other to do multiple drafts as they copy and extend one another’s ideas. I make a cape out of paper; you make a cape out of paper and add a big emblem to the middle. I make a new cape out of fabric and add an emblem to that. You make a fabric cape with an emblem and you change the way it is tied shut. And so on. But a child working alone can also be encouraged to improve upon an original design by asking him, “Is there anything you want to add? Is there anything you want to change? Why don’t you show it to your friend from next door?” Get in the habit of asking, “Are you done with this or is there more you want to do with it?”

My book discusses other ways to encourage multiple drafts, including introducing new materials, stepping up to expensive materials at the end, repeating field trips, and so on.

As to helping him learn that it takes time to do things well, that is a lesson that life teaches us, right? We can try gently pointing it out. (Although that would get old fast if someone was doing it to us, so proceed delicately.) If you try some of the ways listed in the book to “deepen the work,” he will hopefully learn through experience that when he comes back to do something again, he gets a little further than before.

You can also sit down together and reflect on the work he’s done, looking it over and talking about everything he did. Then you can talk about that life lesson: that it takes time to do things well, that we get better with each attempt.

Shelli: I would like to also mention that since our Titanic Project, I have learned that showing my son how other people (artists, builders, etc.) have dealt with mistakes and gained resilience has helped him start to become more patient with his own abilities. I will write more about this in an upcoming post about our rocket project.

***

Click here to read Part 1 of this interview. Click here to go to Part 3.  You can e-mail me, if you have any questions.  I also hope you’ll subscribe to my blog so that you can join me on this project-based homeschooling adventure——->

Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 1

NEW! Please consider supporting me on Patreon where I can give you personal feedback, and depending on what level you support, you can be part of an online homeschool support group.  Learn about project-based homeschooling techniques that complements any kind of curriculum or style of home education. I’ll be writing more posts from my current perspective after having homeschooled for over ten years with these project-based techniques. I will be monitoring my messages and the chat room on daily basis. You can share your kids projects, successes, and we can work through the tough spots together. Get more behind-the-scenes information about my homeschool and follow us as my high school student begins to consider his next steps after homeschool. By joining on Patreon, you can have access to all my PDF resources and classes for no extra charge, and you can get access to a monthly group video chat too. Click here to learn more. Thank you!

Lori Pickert was the owner and director of a small, Reggio-inspired school, and she has also traveled around the country as an educational consultant “helping teachers and administrators explore authentic art, long-term projects, and Reggio-inspired learning.” Later she began homeschooling her two boys, and now she’s the author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed LearnersYou can find her blog, forum and other resources at project-based-homeschooling.com.

Last week I published my review of Lori’s book.  When I first found Lori’s blog, I was very attracted to this idea of mentoring my children, which is based on the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy.  It just felt right. What I learned on her blog echoed my own thoughts on how to homeschool my children, and I was very excited when her book came out because I wanted to understand this process better. While I loved the book, I found myself asking questions throughout it because I had already experimented with project-based homeschooling with my six-year-old. Doing it in real life is hard and messy, as I wrote about in Building the Titanic: Project-based Homeschooling. That post is my first true foray into a complicated project with my son, but it is a good example of how this process works.

My questions mostly had to do with getting started with such young children who obviously don’t have the experience to direct their learning.  I asked Lori if I could interview her about project-based learning specifically for young children, and since she is supportive and gracious, she said yes. I sent her six, multi-layered questions, and not only did she answer them, she gave very detailed answers, which I appreciate very much.  However, they are too long to put into one post, so I have divided the interview into three posts, which I will publish this week. (Note that I have emphasized important parts of the interview in bold text.)

The good news is that Lori has promised to be available to answer YOUR questions.  (Update: Since this is an old post, I will have to turn off comments for Lori, but I’m always happy to try to answer your questions, and Lori is available via her website. Also, you can see the questions and answers she gave to commenters when this post was first published on Part 3.)

(Update: The rest of this interview has been posted: Click here to go to Part 2. Click here to go to Part 3.)

PART 1: Interview with Lori Pickert on Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling with Young Children

1. In your book you say it’s very important to not make suggestions and let the children “own the work.”  However, I find it very difficult to not make suggestions to my six-year-old.  When I ask, “Where can we find out more information about this?” he always says “the computer,” so I end up suggesting other resources we could turn to.  When we were doing the Titanic project, I worked very hard at letting him try to come up with the ideas first, and then when he got stumped (which was often), I made suggestions.  Is this what you mean?  Or in other words, how do you let a child direct his own work when he doesn’t yet have the experience to know how to answer his own questions? Or even know how to articulate the questions he wants to ask?

Lori: The most important thing is to remember that it’s a process. You are learning how to mentor, and your child is learning how to direct and manage his own learning. Mentoring means slowly transferring the power to him and helping him learn how to be in charge of his own learning. You should try to stay out of his way as much as possible and leave him room to have his own ideas — but that doesn’t mean never making suggestions. It just means waiting to see if he will have his own ideas and supporting those first.

He needs an environment that supports independent working, he needs you to model how to ask questions and research and make and share, and he might need you to help him recognize and articulate his interests and questions.

Being a mentor means helping him slowly take control — and it means showing him the ropes.

You keep the ball rolling by making gentle suggestions (or offering choices) when necessary. You use a gentle touch, staying alert to his questions and ideas (even if they need some digging to uncover) and letting him lead whenever possible.

I’ll quote from the book:

At the beginning, your child might need you to model how to wonder aloud, ask questions, consider alternatives. He looks to you as an example of how to approach learning as a researcher and investigator. As times goes on, this approach to learning becomes second nature to him. He is accustomed to asking questions, seeking out experts, collecting research materials, investigating first-hand, and creating original work. He looks automatically for ways to share what he learns with others.

He will look to you to set the tone, get the ball rolling, and keep it rolling. In time, he will take over. He knows what to do and how to do it. He knows what to expect from the process, and he has a firm goal in mind.

But he will still need you to be that trusted resource. He will still need you as his first audience, his best collaborator, and his mentor. He will still need the support of a family culture that celebrates and supports meaningful work.

There are times when he might get off course, lose steam, hit a dead end. He will benefit from your input and suggestions. —Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners 

You learn to observe carefully and wait to offer suggestions only when and if they’re needed. It takes practice to be patient, to support his interests without directing how he explores them, and to prioritize his ideas. You have to give yourself the gift of time and allow yourself to slowly but steadily acquire these mentoring skills, just as you respect his setting his own learning pace.

You focus on giving him the tools, experiences, and skills he needs to work as independently as possible. But it doesn’t happen immediately. If it did, he wouldn’t need a thoughtful mentor! It is a slow and steady transfer of control and decision-making.

If your son is stuck in a Google/Wikipedia rut (like most of us adults), remember that research is multilayered. Finding one answer should turn up new questions (if an interest is deep and engaging enough). Google results can offer up books on Amazon, which can lead you to checking your library to see what books they offer. Reading a National Geographic Kids article on sharks might spark new questions he’ll need to look up in books or online. Or it might remind you of a show you saw on Animal Planet. And so on.

Children can’t reference things they are completely unfamiliar with. They can only work with the raw materials they’ve been given and the experiences they’ve already had. So we need to make sure they get plenty of experience at the library, looking through reference books at home, and even asking friends and family for help. We need to visit places in the community that offer knowledge and skills — universities, libraries, museums, park districts, events. We need to start making a connection between the things that interest us and how we can explore them. Then, when they are puzzling out where they can find information they need, you can ask leading questions like

  • Where else could we find out about this?
  • What kind of people might know about this?
  • Are there any places in our town where we might go to find out more?

and so on. If they get stuck, you can gently nudge them in the right direction, both by modeling (“I remember Grandma showed you that book about birds…”) and gentle suggestion (“Maybe we could ask the librarian for help”), then back off as soon as they articulate a plan.

If he keeps suggesting the computer, ask, “Where else could we look?,” then sit down and brainstorm together. You can make a game of it: Let’s think of ten things we could do to find out more about igloos. This is a good learning step to master: instead of just working on one idea at a time until you figure out it doesn’t work, have a brainstorming session and come up with a whole list of ideas, then let him decide which is the best one to start with. You might brainstorm about materials he could use to build a model of the Mars rover, places in the community where you could learn about cats, and so on.

It also helps to build a habit of talking about your own learning. Say out loud, “I wonder what kind of bird that is at the feeder — I’m going to get the field guide and look.” Say, “I’m totally stuck on the sweater I’m knitting — I’m going to ask one of the women at the yarn store to help me.” This can feel awkward at first, but you’re making your own learning visible. He can see you using different resources to find your own answers, and it gives him ideas for his own investigations.

Finally, don’t ignore or slide over suggestions he makes that seem silly or useless on the surface. Let him try his ideas. They may take longer; they may even fail — but you don’t want to shorten the learning process or make it easier. Make long work of it; slow learning leads to authentic understanding.

While it’s always optimal to stand back and let your child lead, when he gets stuck, it’s fine to help get things rolling again — just do as little as possible and then step into the background again.

Mentoring self-directed learners is like rolling a hoop down a hill. You want to let the hoop roll on its own, only touching it when necessary to keep it upright and rolling, and even then as lightly as possible. — Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners 

Overall, remember this is a slow process. You are helping him develop these abilities by living this way yourself (and sharing as you go), by deliberate modeling, by making suggestions but letting him lead as much as possible. It’s not a hands-off process — it’s actually very hands-on. The more aware you are of his thinking process, the more carefully you observe his play and conversation, the better you can help him take control of his own learning.

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