What Is Project-Based Homeschooling?

{Project-based Learning} {Reggio-Inspired}

NEW! Learn even more about project-based homeschooling with me on Patreon.


Over a year ago, I found Lori Pickert’s blog and the terms “project-based homeschooling,” “project-based learning” and “reggio-inspired” started to dance in my head. What I read on her site echoed my own thoughts on how I wanted to homeschool, but she defined the terms better for me. I think many homeschoolers can relate to this method of homeschooling, and you may find you’re already doing part of this in your homeschool like I did. What I find helpful in Lori’s advice is how she spells out exactly how to “mentor” my child. 

After reading her book, interviewing her, and especially after trying to implement the strategies she has outlined with my own child, I’m starting to “get it.”

When I was going through some rough spots during my son’s Titanic project, it was hard to foresee the value of letting a child direct the course of a project. Sure, I’m all about doing a child-led approach in our homeschool, but letting him make all those mistakes in a small building project and then endure the temper tantrums when it didn’t work? Shouldn’t I direct him more? But as Lori has said, it’s a process, and we have to learn how to become mentors just as our children are learning to direct their learning.

This process is about learning how to step back and see the value in letting your children take the lead. It’s also about learning how to “step in” to support their interests by helping them learn how to find answers to their questions, solve their own problems, achieve their own goals, and watch them become deeply engrossed in their work. 

Children don’t get personal mentors in traditional school, but every child – homeschooled or not – has the opportunity to be mentored by a conscientious parent who knows him/her best, who is with him through it all, and who can guide him to the resources he needs to become more than passive learners.

Lori has been busy making additions to her site so that those new to Project-based Homeschooling can have help getting started.  She is my mentor in this process, so if you want to go to the source, go to her website, and be sure to check out 10 Steps to Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling and her FAQ.

But here’s a bullet list of what I have learned…at least, this is how I view project-based homeschooling for my family thus far.

I’m not numbering them because all these elements work together to create this lifestyle of learning. Project-based homeschooling is like putting together a puzzle. It doesn’t matter which piece you start with, but as you lay them all on the table, you’ll start to see how they fit together to make the whole picture.

  • Create an environment where all questions and interests are honored. All projects should stem from your child’s true interests – not yours or a prescribed list of what a child should learn.
  • Create an environment where your children can freely access a variety of materials to create and learn with. As long as it’s safe, let them make a mess! Also, don’t plan so many crafts. Show them how to use the materials and let them experiment and get to know them. Sometimes a planned craft may be helpful for this, but you should allow your child to experiment and create according to his whims. (See The Power of Time and Materials.)
  • PBH is not “arts and crafts.” By making representations of the Titanic and the Apollo Saturn V, my son had to inquire, study and really ingest those structures. He learned a lot of problem solving skills in the process of making the models, and I’m hoping the stories of the Titanic and Saturn V will stay in his memory much longer!
  • Also part of this “environment” is giving them rich experiences: field trips, meeting and speaking to experts, showing them how to use the library, exploring the computer. Teach them how to use the resources that are available to them to answer their questions.
  • Think out loud as you go through the process to find answers to their or your questions. This is part of modeling the behavior you want them to use later when they are more capable of working independently. (This is something I need to work on.)
  • In the beginning, you may need to “silently feed” their interests.  If you know your child loves tigers, lay out a book about tigers. Take them to the zoo. Find a show for them to watch about tigers.  Suggest they make a tiger out of clay or paint one for the wall.  Or fill a notebook with tiger facts.
  • Observe what they do, how they play, and note what their questions are. Keeping a journal is helpful.  If you can’t answer a question, try to go back to it. Show him you’re writing it down, and schedule a time to work on answering his questions.
  • When you think they’re ready, ask, “Do you want to make a project out of this?”
  • Start asking them, “Where do you think we could find the answer to that question?” Or as Lori suggested in my interview with her, write down a list of several places you could look and ask the child where he wants to start first.
  • When assisting them with their creations, always go with their ideas first. Let them make mistakes. Let them make a mess! Only make suggestions when they get stumped or ask you for help.
  • Sometimes a well-placed suggestion works wonders. Don’t get hung-up like I did thinking you can never make a suggestion. As Lori said, “It just means waiting to see if he will have his own ideas and supporting those first.” (Our Titanic project was jump-started by my suggestion to make the Titanic out of clay, and when that failed, my husband suggested he make it out of cardboard.)
  • To help him work through his frustrations, start looking for real-world examples of artists, makers, builders, and entrepreneurs who have failed and had to start over again.  Talk about the process of goal-setting, rough drafts, trial and error. (If your child is old enough, the NASA Missions are a perfect example of this.)
  • Start sharing your work/hobbies/goals with your children. Think aloud when you’re working.  Share with them your frustrations and how you’re working through them. If you need help working on your own projects, see Lori’s PBH for adults.
  • Schedule project time.  There’s no right or wrong to how much time or when – The important thing is making time for it, and making it a regular part of your routine. Schedule time to show your child fun building or art materials and follow their direction. Schedule time to go through your journal and answer their questions.  Schedule time to work on their ideas.
  • Get in the habit of asking, “Do you want to do more with this? Do you want to learn more about this?”
  • If they don’t want to do more, be okay with that. Later you will ask them again as you continue to refer to your journal.  Some interests may peter out quickly. Others may become deep interests.
  • You don’t have to make a project out of every interest your child has. Pick and choose according to your thoughtful knowledge and observations about your child. Of course, older children will tell you what they want to work on.
  • Your homeschool can be all project-based, or project-based learning could be part of it. For example, currently I’ve also created a reading and math program for my son. Follow your instincts. Whatever you do, it shouldn’t cause you a lot of stress. Although PBH is a lot of work for the parent, it should be rewarding and fun too.
  • Remember this is a slow process.  Build it up over time. Create the environment over time. Learn how to mentor over time. Let your children take control slowly as they grow.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the interview with Lori Pickert on Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children. The last post is open for your questions about PBH. Be sure to read the great questions and answers that commenters have left already!

Okay, so what do you think? Would you add something to this list? Or eliminate something?

Book Review: Project-based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert

PBH book coverNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 27, 2013.

How many children realize that education is for them, so they can do whatever they want to do in life…?  ~ Lori Pickert, author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed Learners.

Friends of mine know that I’m a fan of Lori Pickert’s book Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners.  I had begun following her blog before her book came out, and it peaked my interest in this style of homeschooling that is based on the Emilia Reggio Approach, an educational philosophy for early-childhood that began in Italy shortly after World War II.  Now there are Reggio-inspired schools around the world.

I don’t like that Pickert titled her book with the word “homeschooling.” To me, it’s a manual for every parent who wants to become a better mentor for his or her child.  Though homeschoolers have the luxury of time, any parent can use the strategies in this book, especially since the work you would do with your child would have no time restraints.

If you want to understand how you can support your child’s interests and foster independent thinking and entrepreneurship, then you need to read this book.

Broadening our perspective about how our children should learn is a good idea anyway. According to Cathy Davidson, author and professor at Duke University, “65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”

I got that quote from an interview with Davidson on Mindshift, an excellent education blog, and one of her suggestions to parents is to have students embark on meaningful community projects. “Dreaming big, taking risks, and scaling back if and when you have to are fantastic skills. These skills are hardly ever taught in the school room….” she writes.

This sounds very much like the kind of learning Pickert writes about, though projects could be big or small. They could be shared within your family or outside of it. Whatever the size, they are going to give students a chance to direct their own education.

Adults and children learn best when they are studying subjects of their choosing, and with a good mentor, they’ll take their learning to a higher level and find ways of sharing it with other people. After all, teaching what you know to others is the final stage of learning.

What Pickert has done with her book is explain in an easy-to-read and practical manner what parents can do at home to ensure that children will take charge of their own education and gain essential skills. If that sounds far-fetched, I suggest you read the book.

Project-based learning (PBL) is for any parent who wants to be involved in their children’s education. What I found inspiring in the book is the way she insists parents must live the lives that they want their children to aspire to. After all, to be a mentor, you must be doing the work yourself.

One way to teach your children how to fulfill their goals is to show them how you work toward your goals. Your children will learn from your example. Your goals don’t have to be lofty – Everyone has work, hobbies or other interests that they can share with their children, and sharing your disappointments are just as important as sharing your victories.

In PBL, children chose their projects and make long-term deep inquiries into their chosen subjects.  Unlike traditional school where students have time restraints, PBL students can take the time they need to dig deep.  They could take months or years to complete a project. It may branch off into other projects.  Letting them make mistakes and learn from them is a key component in PBL.

As mentors, parents will be writing down their questions, reminding them of what they wanted to know, documenting their work, and most importantly, scheduling dedicated project time. You will ask them what materials they need to do their work, and you’ll make suggestions when they get stuck.

What you don’t do is take over the project or push your agenda on the child. That’s not easy, but Pickert gives practical advice on how to do it. I love how she includes lists of “things you might do” which includes materials you might have on hand. (Environment is considered the “third teacher” in the Reggio Approach.) She even suggests things to say to your children when you’re trying to get out of the rut of doing things for them.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten from Pickert is that parents need to pay attention (vs. giving empty praise) to what they want their children to do more of. By writing down their questions, recording their progress, photographing their work, hanging their artwork on the wall, you are sending them a message that this is meaningful work. If you do this (and don’t give attention to the less desirable acts), kids are going to want to do more of the good stuff.

After reading the book, I had many questions about how PBL would look for young children like mine, so I asked Lori if I could interview her on this topic. She said yes! Please come back next week for my three-part interview with Lori Pickert on Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children. (Yes, she’s so thorough I had to break it up into three posts!) Lori will also be available to answer your questions at the end of the interview, so I hope you won’t miss that.