Tips for Project-Based Learning

By Jenny Giezendanner

  1. Invest in, beg, and borrow good children’s books, rather than stocking up on standard texts for a specific grade level. (Readers and many science and social studies texts fall into the category of dispensable textbooks, especially in the elementary grades.) Newbery, Caldecott, and other library association prize winners are a good place to start looking. Biographies, historical novels, and standard reference works inspire projects worth researching.
  2. Present information/Recreate experiences in various media:
    • Drama
    • Food/cooking
    • Crafts
    • Debates
    • Games: homemade, learned from friends and books, store-bought
    • Posters, maps, charts: research or invent your own
    • Experiments, sometimes with write-ups
    • Music: on tape or make your own
    • Research reports
    • Collections: rocks, leaves, poems, stamps, recipes, brain teasers, tongue twisters, postcards, riddles, ways of counting, bottle caps, interesting junk, etc.

By using an approach other than question-answer, suddenly you are there, or at least pretending you are. We have gone on treasure hunts, eaten “grizzly bear” spaghetti, made board games of our favorite books, listened to the New World Symphony while drawing pictures of the Old West, panned for gold (shiny paper to be sifted from rice), published a newspaper, collected kilos of rocks and varieties of stamps. The stamps kept our kids in the world atlas for days.

Instead of a written history test, our kids were recently responsible to stage skits representing key episodes in the lives of world explorers between 1492-1520. Out came dress-up clothes, pillows, and “jewels” to reward the proud and successful explorers. Thinking through a skit is more work than a true-false test, but it lasts longer in the memory and is tons easier for the teacher to correct.

3. Read, study, and handle all those books you’ve been collecting in point #1. Over the past fifteen years our family has listened for thousands of hours to books read aloud. We’ve continued to read favorites like The Wind in the Willows and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch many, many times. Instead of doing “real school” on sick days, we may just read a whole “chapter book” in one morning. We always read together in the evenings and often a chapter at lunchtime. Lots of our inspiration comes from our read-alouds.

4. Include your visitors in your projects as much as possible. We have done portraits of guests, learned games and riddles, found out about places our guests have been and jobs they’ve done, learned about birds, received specimens for our experiments and collections, eaten their special cooking, and shared our discoveries with them, too.

5. As you go along, cultivate the following attitudes, which are essential for successful adventuring through new experiences like these.

First, admit none of us has all the answers, nor will we completely exhaust the possibilities for any avenue of study, not even the “teacher,” i.e., Mom (or Dad). Don’t feel like you have to try every neat suggestion in one year. There is no end to the possibilities, but start out gently and see how much fun you can stand all at once.

Second, the process of working through a topic is at least as important as the collected information or end product. A lot of skills can be developed as you hunt down and represent your learning.

Third, working through topics doesn’t mean you can’t use standard texts at all, such as math or grammar books. Don’t try to integrate every subject and every minute into one unit topic!

Fourth, learning is a respectable activity for adults as well as kids,
and no one is too big or too small to participate. Help everyone find a satisfying role. This provides a golden opportunity to develop moral behavior such as esteeming others, helping the weaker brother (or sister), and forgiveness.

Finally, we can be grateful, even awestruck, at the amazing world God has given us and some of the neat people who have lived here before us.

Final note: Unplugging the TV for extended periods encourages creativity on the part of all family members. Contrary to popular belief, kids without TV or videos are actually bored less often than those with easy access to them.

Resources we’ve found helpful:

Usborne histories often include projects to try. I buy books of experiments for science, such as the Janice VanCleave books or Science Experiments You Can Eat, by Vicki Cobb. We keep our eyes open for things like What to Do With the Kids on A Rainy Day, by Katz, or 101 Things to Make, by Slingsby (Hamlyn Pub., UK). We subscribe to Highlights for Children, National Geographic, and the Focus on the Family publications for each age. We often look at a Geographic article together or something from Time or Newsweek.

See also Project-Based versus More Structured Curriculum by the same author and Project Approach to Learning by Sharon Haag.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.