color photo of a fourth-grade boy doing a science projectI’ve been reading a lot of posts on Twitter from parents who are not happy campers. They didn’t plan on serving as ad hoc teachers for their out-of-school students during this pandemic.  Some are discouraged, others are exhausted, still others don’t know where to start.  For those parents who have these burn-out symptoms and can manage the time involved (that is, assuming the school’s distance learning program or classes don’t take up all the available time during the day), I’d like to suggest that they explore something educators call ”project-based learning.” This is when a student (your child or teen) picks a project that has high interest for him, and does independent research on it before producing a final product (a written work, a display, a video, an audio recording, a photograph album, or some other tangible outcome).

The important thing here is that it be of high interest and come from your child or teen, not your idea of what he should be exploring.  This essentially makes it a learning oasis for your child in the midst of all his other more dreary schoolwork.  My thinking is that if your child has time during his schedule to pursue a project, then it can make the difference between a bored and stressed out student (slaving away at the programmed instruction of the school or homeschooling program), or a fully engaged and excited learner.  Here are some steps to help make the project a success.

  • Let Your Child or Teen Pick the Topic.  This topic could be anything, and in any subject, or even across disciplines (they often make the best projects).  Some possibilities include:
    • create an app that meets a need;
    • develop a set of criteria to distinguish ”fake news” from ”authentic news” and provide examples of each;
    • build a toy that a young child would enjoy playing with;
    • investigate an era in history that fascinates you;
    • pick a country you’d like to visit, find out as much as you can about it, and (optional) even plan a virtual visit;
    • develop a project that seeks to tackle some ecological problem in your community;
    • plant and take care of a garden, and document what you learn about tending it (e.g. what works and doesn’t work in caring for it)
    • create an ideal town or city, using materials to make buildings, clay or other pliable materials to make people, trees, etc.
    • write a novel of any length telling the story in any particular genre or combination of genres (e.g. science fiction, thriller, graphic novel, etc.)
    • choose an animal to study (either in your neighborhood or else somewhere in the world) and become expert in knowing all about it;
    • publish a family newspaper or magazine on a weekly basis to cover the happenings of parents, siblings, pets, visitors and others;
    • create a video documentary on any subject of your choosing;
    • build a blog or website;
    • pick a hero, learn about his/her life, and then (if you feel up for it) plan a performance for family members where you take on the personality (and even the clothing), of that person
  •  Gauge Your Child or Teen’s Interest Level:  Make sure that the project comes from your child or teen and is something that they REALLY want to do.  If you end up coercing him into accepting a topic, then it’s not really going to work very well (he may end up sabotaging or simply keep putting it off).  But make allowances for the fact that he may change his topic, maybe even several times.  That’s okay.  As long as he’s really putting thought into what he wants to do, and is not simply procrastinating, then this period of choosing can be as valuable as the project itself.
  • Provide Advice Only if You’re Invited To Do So.   Once your child or teen has started working on the project, it might be tempting for you to want to chime in with resources, suggestions, materials, ideas, and other forms of encouragement. But unless your child or teen is open to your input, try and let him find his own way.
  • If Your Child or Teen Hits a Roadblock, Offer Gentle Encouragement.  Your child may have trouble getting started with the project, or run into problems or obstacles midway through.  In cases like this, it can be really helpful to serve as a coach, or even a cheerleader, to lend your support (and at times like these, your gentle encouragement may be enough to tip the scales in favor of his maintaining his momentum in completing the project).
  • Once Completed, Make a Time for the Whole Family to Listen to the Results of the Project.  Depending on the kind of project, the project’s outcome may take any of a number of shapes.  It may be a paper he reads, a performance he does, a video he shows, a garden he takes the family to look at, a chart he’s made, a set of photos he’s put together, or any of a wide range of other formats.  Avoid being critical when your son or daughter displays the fruits of his or her labor. Since this is something the child or teen is doing from the heart, it’s best to offer genuine appreciation for the many things he’s managed to put together to make a complete project.
  • At the End of the Project, Ask If They Want to Plan Another Project.  This makes sense generally only if the first project was perceived by your son or daughter as a success or at the very least as a valuable learning experience.  If they’re reluctant to pursue another project, let the matter drop (they may change their mind later on).  If they ask for help, you can discuss with them how to improve the next time around.  Remember that these are supposed to be ”passion projects,” so park the critical educator role outside the house, and ask if they truly want to evaluate what they’ve completed.  Everything should come from the child or teen and not be imposed from without if it’s truly going to reflect your son or daughter’s innate love of learning.

The real benefit of engaging in student-centered project-based learning is that it connects a child or teen with their inner sense of curiosity and imagination–qualities they were born with.  What they do in their project could even have a profound effect on their later life.  The Brontë sisters used to fill the hours during their childhood by making up imaginary communities with their own maps and newspapers. They grew up to write some of the greatest novels of all time (e.g. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc.).  Winston Churchill used to arrange toy soldiers in miniature battles as a childhood hobby, and that helped to fuel his expertise as a leader during World War II.  Your child may not be a Brontë or a Churchill, but at the very least, with project-based learning, you will have helped to facilitate some bright moments in your child or teen’s learning life, memories that they’ll probably cherish for the rest of their lives.

For more information on providing learning experiences that come genuinely from a child or teen’s own interests and experiences, see my best-selling book In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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