Rockets and the Benefits of Failure: Project-based Homeschooling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story: Lego Boy

Since I don’t have a column to share with you this week, I thought I would share one of the silly stories I made up for my son one night during our nightly storytelling ritual.  If you want to start a storytelling ritual with your children, please see The Storytelling Advocate for a list of resources.

Storytelling tip:  Pick something that your children are interested in, and make it the main character or setting for a story. This story was inspired by my boys’ nascent interest in building, especially with Legos.  In it, I also tried to touch on something that my son had been dealing with recently: his frustrations when he couldn’t do something the way he wanted to. I wanted him to know that set-backs are part of building and creating, and part of life!

Lego Boy by Shelli Bond Pabis

Once there was a little Lego boy who lived in a big, Lego city.  The city was built by two brothers, and it was sitting up on a table in their room where they always left it.

At night, while the brothers slept, Lego boy would wake up and explore his city and play with his Lego cat.

“I think,” the Lego boy said to his cat, “I could build this city even better!” And he went about rearranging the Lego pieces. He built himself a nice, cozy room for him and his cat to sleep in during the day.

But that night when he woke up, two walls of his room were gone, and he had to put them all back. He also built himself a bed and a chair for him and his cat.

The next night, he was happy to wake up and find that his room was just like he had left it, but there was another place in the city – his other favorite place – that was gone!  It was the park where he liked to go with this cat, sit on a bench and look out the window at the moon.

So that night he worked hard to remove all the blocks that had been put right in the middle of his park, and he found the flowers and put them back. He built a bench, and he and his cat had just enough time to sit there awhile and watch the sunrise out of the window before the two little boys woke up.

The next night was Lego boy’s happiest night because when he woke up, he found that nothing had been changed in Lego city. The two little boys must have been busy doing other things that day. So Lego boy and Lego cat sat on the bench in the park and gazed at the moon all night. Just as the sun was rising, they hurried back to their room and went to sleep.

When they woke up that night, however, Lego Boy was heartbroken to see that his room was gone. Everything had been changed! “It’s going to take me all night to fix it again!”

He was very frustrated. “There must be something I can do. Something I haven’t thought of before.”

Lego Boy thought and thought and then realized he would have to go on a journey. He’d search outside the city. He and Lego cat left the city and walked to the edge of the table. He looked out into the room. The two brothers were sleeping peacefully in their beds. He also saw a shelf across the room. On it there were paints, paint brushes, paper, scissors, and…..the answer to his dreams!  GLUE!

With the help of Lego Cat, Lego Boy made it across the room, climbed the shelf and got the glue. When they pushed it off the shelf, it made a soft thud on the carpet, and one of the boys turned over in his sleep!  Lego Boy and Lego Cat held their breath! Luckily, the boys didn’t wake up.

When they got back to Lego City, Lego Boy collected the pieces he needed to build his walls again, but this time, as he was building them, he poured glue between the pieces. It oozed out as he snapped the pieces together, and he smiled in satisfaction.

It took him all night to build his room again, and right at sunrise, he couldn’t even make it back to his bed! He fell right to sleep on his doorway!

The next day, the little boys were busy doing other things and didn’t notice the glue bottle sitting inside Lego City. But their mother came into their room that afternoon to put laundry away. She noticed it, and she frowned as she tried to pull Lego Boy’s walls apart – they wouldn’t budge.

She called the boys into their room and showed them the glue. “You need to take care of your toys!” She scolded them. “I’m not buying you new Legos if you are going to glue them all together!”

“We didn’t glue them together,” the boys cried. But, of course, the mother didn’t believe them.

When Lego Boy woke up that night, he didn’t know anything about the scolding that the two boys got. He was just very happy to see that the walls to his room were still there, and, in fact, while Lego City got changed around quite a bit over the years, his room always stayed right where he glued it.


I apologize in advance if this gives your children the idea to glue their Legos together. 🙂

Remember: Please respect copyright laws. While I’m happy for any parent or teacher to borrow this story, I hope no one is stealing it for other purposes. Don’t plagiarize.