Category Archives: education

Why Process Over Product? {Part Three}

(Part One, Part Two)

Part Three: Realizing a Vision

In Part Two, I said that if someone hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. Learning new skills is both exciting on its own and a means to an end; sometimes it begins as one of those and progresses to the other. Do you want to re-create somebody else’s vision, or know how to express your own? I want to do the latter, and I want my kids to be able to do the latter, too. I learned embroidery because I wanted to embroider poetry on my jeans, but in the process it became another way for me to express myself, and while I embroidered some commercial patterns at the beginning, while I was learning, I can’t see doing that anymore, because I’d rather use embroidery as part of my own artwork.

Practicing embroidery

Practicing embroidery

My 8yo, who already knew embroidery’s properties so well from having watched me, and already knowing how to sew, decided to learn how to embroider so he could make his aunt a snowflake ornament, based on his own vision of the finished project. I helped him with the angles of the snowflake and transferred it onto the felt for him, but the idea was all his. And we didn’t have an example of “this is what your felt snowflake ornament should look like,” either. It was all his own thought process and design.

Following directions give us the skills to re-create somebody else’s vision. There is nothing essentially wrong with that. I have no problem with knitting a sweater somebody else designed if I like it and want to wear it. It saves me the trouble of doing the design work myself. But if I have an idea in my head, I appreciate having the ability to make it a reality, rather than trying to find somebody else’s vision that sort of approximates my own. Following directions is certainly a useful skill to have, and prevents any of us from having to re-invent the wheel. But exposure to process-based activity is essential to gain the skills and confidence to realize our own unique vision.

“Just messing around” with materials allows the space for accidents to happen, for unexpected results, for discoveries, and that is when we learn. If something unexpected happens when the goal is to re-create a predetermined end product, it can be perceived as a disaster. If it happens during a process-focused exploration of a material or technique, it is a delightful discovery, leading to knowledge that is filed away for future use. When and if we have an idea that requires that particular effect, we know how to obtain it. Process-based art is not pressure-filled. It is fun. It is play. It is essential, for children and adults.

We cannot expect children to be creative, original thinkers if we only present them with so-called “art activities” that involve following directions to reproduce an end product. They deserve (as we all do) the space and time to develop the confidence and skills to determine their own end product, and then figure out how to get there. When I said, “I’m going to knit a stocking,” having never knit before, nobody was around to tell me I couldn’t. When my child says, “I’m going to make a snowflake ornament out of felt and embroidery,” even though he’s never embroidered before, I’m not going to say, “You can’t do that.” I don’t even say, “Let’s look and see what patterns you can follow.” My response is: “Let’s practice embroidery so you know how to do it. Sketch out what you’re thinking. You can totally do this.”

The process of looking for an already-existing project that meets your criteria versus creating the project you have in your head is so very different. Children who only have experience in following directions to produce a version of somebody else’s vision may not ever make the leap into realizing they can create the steps to produce their own vision. It takes more work on the adult’s part to mentor a child’s individual vision. It is harder to have a room full of children interpreting new materials or techniques in different ways, rather than following directions all at the same time. I see my job as facilitator, and I am on my toes when we’re in the studio, especially if we’re doing something new. But this sort of mentoring is essential, because the ability to have an idea and realize that idea is essential. And one way to raise children who have the confidence and skills to not only realize their ideas but to have the idea in the first place is to provide plenty of exposure to process-based art.

Why Process Over Product? {Part Two}

(Part One)

Part Two: Knowing the Materials

When a child (or adult) has an idea and a specific end result in mind, if he or she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. I can’t stress this enough. It seems so basic, but I see so many people going about it backwards. Until we learn how to use various materials, we have no idea which one is best for the task at hand. If we have a vision in our mind but have a limited number of techniques from which to choose, we may never reach our vision.

When my children come into the studio with an idea, they have a vast array of materials from which to choose. They learned how to use these materials not by following step-by-step directions to reproduce a project designed by someone else, but by experimenting with the materials in a controlled way. Parameters are, I think, necessary when learning a new material or technique. I didn’t just give them watercolors and leave the room. We used, at different times, watercolors wet on wet, wet on dry, pan watercolors, liquid watercolors, watercolors from a tube. The different methods and materials yield different results, and we learned what they were by doing. In the same way, watercolors are different from acrylics and gouache and tempera. So when my kids say they want to do X and they need paint, I can now ask them, What kind of paint? And they will think about their desired end result and decide what they think they need.

The same thing is true of every material in our studio.

Non-representational creativity is often difficult for adults to understand. They think kids are just “messing around,” the painting is “random,” the activity is “aimless.” If it’s not a picture OF something, an adult often doesn’t see the point. Firstly, if the child is enjoying himself, is another point necessary? But beyond that, quite a bit is going on—or can be going on—when someone is “just messing around” with a material. The first thing I did when I bought new watercolor pencils was scribble with them and add water to see what happened. It would be frustrating to try to use a material for a specific end result if I didn’t know what the material could and couldn’t do.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

In the same way, a child learns quite a lot while “smearing” paint around. He’s learning how paint moves, how much to put on the paintbrush to get different effects, what happens when wet paint touches. If it’s quality paint, he learns what happens when different colors mix. When my middle child was about five, he spent weeks investigating different paint colors, a couple at a time. He learned about tints and shades and secondary colors while he moved the paint around on large sheets of heavy paper that I’d pinned to the wall. Limiting the color palette meant that he could see what happened when just those two or three colors mixed. This is, again, about setting parameters to help a child learn about the materials in a useful, meaningful way.

During this time, he happened to be painting while an adult relative was over, and that adult stared at the non-representational paper that held all that exciting information about tints and shades, and instead of asking my son about it (and he would have eagerly explained what he’d done to get that range of color), she stared and stared until she found something that sort of looked like a flower and pointed it out. “You painted a flower.” No. But now, when he does want to paint a flower, or anything else, he is confident that he can mix any color he needs or wants, in a variety of paint types. In fact, like me, he’d rather have just the primaries, white, and black in his palette, and mix his own colors.

For more on this sort of sequential introduction of materials (as well as how to talk—and NOT talk—to children about what they’re doing), I highly recommend Susan Striker’s Young at Art.

Next: Part Three—Realizing a Vision.

Why Process Over Product? {Part One}

Part One: Discovery vs Following Directions

Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, has a terrific forum area of her website, and currently it contains an active thread on process vs product art for children. If you’ve dug around on this blog of mine at all, you know I’m passionate about allowing children the opportunity to explore process-oriented, open-ended art. This series of posts grew out of the thoughts I shared in that thread; I encourage you to join Lori’s forums, if you haven’t already.

Playing with monotypes

Playing with monotypes

In process-oriented art, the DOING is what is important: the PROCESS of making, exploring, and discovering. Product-based art is focused on the end result. In an open-ended activity, we don’t know where we’re going to end up, while in a closed activity, the end result has been predetermined by someone else. My elementary school “art” classes were exercises in following directions, with the (teacher’s) stated goal being 30 projects that looked just like hers. Sadly, this is still true in many schools. There is no room for creativity there, for amazing discoveries and delights.

One example given in the forum thread as a possible support for product-based “art” experiences for children is that of a new knitter following patterns until she knows enough to design her own, the connection being that children learn skills by following directions rather than by process-based exploration. I taught myself to knit because I wanted to make something specific, a Christmas stocking for my first baby. I decided upon a specific skill, knitting, which I needed to learn, so I did. And yes, I followed the pattern for the stocking. Taking a class wasn’t a possibility, so I didn’t “learn” that a new knitter’s first project should be a scarf. There was nobody to tell me, “Oh no, you can’t start right off knitting a tube with four needles. New knitters don’t do that. You have to progress through this predetermined sequence of easy projects before you can attempt anything like that.”

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I figured I could do anything. That is the confidence I want for my children. I taught myself to knit in October and had a hand-knit Christmas stocking ready in time. Sure, I struggled, and the argument can be made that I persevered because I had a specific end product in mind. But—and this loops back into the goals of authentic project-based learning—I was committed to learning a new skill in order to realize my own vision and goal (and even with that first pattern, I changed it to suit me). The next item I knit was the sweater sampler from Jacqueline Fee’s Sweater Workshop. This project didn’t result in anything recognizable or a useful “thing,” but the process taught me a variety of skills. Then I either followed patterns, or not. Or I began with a pattern, but modified it to suit me, because I understood what I was doing.

I can tell you with much assurance that only following patterns doesn’t teach a knitter much except how to follow patterns. It is the same with any other skill. Only following somebody else’s directions only teaches you how to follow somebody else’s directions. If you don’t truly understand your materials and how they behave, you won’t recognize when the directions are wrong. Or if you do, you won’t be sure how to fix it. Learning how to design knitted items doesn’t come from knitting a whole lot of them, following directions slavishly. It comes from experimenting with different stitches and techniques, different weights and needles, and comparing the resulting fabrics. It comes from playing with the materials.

And that will be Part Two: Knowing the Materials.
Part Three: Realizing a Vision

{I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how important a mentor is, even for adult self-taught learners. My sister, an accomplished knitter, loaned me several of her books, including The Sweater Workshop and Knitting in Plain English. These are not pattern books. They are think-for-yourself knitting books, and I’m sure being exposed to that sort of philosophy right from the start helped shaped my attitude towards knitting and every handwork skill I added thereafter.}

{PBL} Monster Project

“…zero in on what interests your child and stay there as long as she is interested.”
–Lori Pickert, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

I feel I should begin this post with a discussion on how any and all topics are valid project material, but I’m struggling with it because I’m having a hard time understanding the position that there would be invalid topics. If I, an adult, am free to focus on what interests me without external judgment—without anyone telling me, “No, that’s frivolous, that’s a waste of time, go do something I’ve decided is meaningful,” then it seems obvious that my child have the same opportunity to pursue an interest without judgment. (Keep in mind that rarely is project work the sum total of all learning. In our homeschool, it is part of what we do. My son also has required work.) Part of why I homeschool is because I don’t give a fig about state standards. Whoever is writing those standards hasn’t met my kid. So, unlike a teacher in a public school, I am not concerned if topics of study fit into a pre-determined state-mandated box. We have no box.

So when I saw we’d come to an end of Egypt-as-project, and we’d moved forward into other areas of ancient history but nothing there was causing enough momentum to turn into project work, I turned my mind to my son’s interests. What had been occupying his attention lately? Monsters had been dominating his pretend play, and not nebulous in-the-closet monsters, but things like vampires, werewolves, and the like. The types of monsters that have appeared in stories and legends around the world, for years. “Would you like to find out more about these monsters?” I asked. “Would you like to do a project on them?”

A selection of books used so far in the monster project

A selection of books used so far in the monster project

Several months in, my son has a better understanding of what I mean when I say project, versus what his teachers in school meant, so he was excited about the idea. He decided, too, that he’d like to create a field-guide type book with the information he gathered. So far he’s read a huge stack of books, made a list of twenty monsters he wants to include, decided the information he wants to include, if possible, about each one, and completed two entries (Mothman and Vampires) using Microsoft Publisher and my assistance. He is researching, sorting through information, prioritizing and organizing, taking notes, and arranging the information, as well as drawing a picture of each monster to scan into the computer and drop into the page as a jpg file. I am reminding, prodding, helping him set (and stick to) his goals, and assisting him with the computer and with research and note-taking.

Reading is not a struggle for him, but writing sometimes is. I am doing quite a bit of scaffolding. There was so much information on vampires that I wrote down his notes as he dictated them to me. I told him note-taking involved reading information and putting it into his own words so he didn’t forget what he wanted to remember. That’s all it took—he read, formulated his own words, and dictated notes. The physical process of writing is still, at age 8, something that slows him down. I can see that he is processing the information, understanding it, and rephrasing it, and that’s more important to me than whether he is writing it down himself or not. Because he is interested in this topic and completely excited at the look of his finished work as it comes out of the printer, motivation is much higher for him to work through the challenging bits. This is a child who has told me outright, “I didn’t care if I did a good job in school because I didn’t care about what we were doing.” Mind you, this was part of a larger conversation in which I learned that he was feeling overwhelmed at the thought of starting his monster book because it was so important to him. We worked through that enough that he felt able to begin.

“Without [a child’s authentic interest], learning is like pushing a boulder uphill. With it, we’re pushing the boulder downhill.”
–Lori Pickert, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

My eight-year-old is interested in monsters. I’m rolling the boulder downhill.

Project Shelf

Inspired by Kate at An Everyday Story, I cleaned off an existing shelf in the living room in order to display some project creations.

I already talked about G’s map of Egypt and N’s cartouche and cat statuette, in the claywork post. I’m happy to report N’s cat stayed together just fine; we had to glue one paw back on. I haven’t talked about G’s mummy or the pyramid, which she created after the mummy, because that’s where mummies go. No matter the mummy and pyramid aren’t to scale; not the point. She cut out the base and triangles (using guides), let them dry, and then glued them together. It’s all a bit fragile, but it’s a pyramid. N also has plans to make a pyramid, but I needed to get more clay (which I did, over the weekend), and now I’ve commandeered the art table for a day or two to sew a Halloween costume. (We are challenged by needing to share project work space.)

The mummy was created early on in our project work, beginning in early September, and despite all good intentions I haven’t shared about it yet. When I told the kids my job was to make sure they had the materials necessary for their work, G jumped right on that. One morning she told me she had “a mummy in her head” and she would need paper, drinking straws, and paper towels. I provided these, and she asked for other items as the need arose.

Working on her mummy

She drew a sad face on her mummy. “He’s sad because he’s dead.”

(It’s hard to photograph white against white, and I used my phone for some of these.) When her mummy was complete, which took time as she worked out how she wanted the various pieces (including the straws; they’re in there too) to go together, she used the paper towel to represent linen wrappings.

During a later session, she painted and colored the squares that she then attached to both sides of the paper towel wrapping–you can see that in the first picture. This represents the paintings on the coffins.

Is this an artistically accurate modeling of an Egyptian mummy? Not at all. Does it demonstrate that this three-year-old understands what she’s been studying? Absolutely. I am blown away (again!) by the way in which she has translated her learning into her own project representation.

N’s planned pyramid will be too big to fit on the project shelf. We’ll have to come up with some other way to display it. My kids are used to seeing their creations displayed around our house and on our walls. I have many, many of their artworks (and my own) framed and hanging. They didn’t react in any particular way to seeing their project creations on the shelf, although my son did point out to his brother that I’d cleaned a shelf off just for them. I think they all consider the house their own gallery, as I have a high tolerance for random stuff taped to the walls–they do their own displaying, too. I think that’s a good thing.

There is a lot I’m not doing–dedicated display or bulletin boards for project materials in individual work spaces (which we don’t have) would be great. I’m not so good about scheduling in blocks of project time on multiple days per week. But I’m doing what I can, and as is often the case, it turns out that that is enough until I can do more.

{PBH} Identifying Interests

My daughter was very direct in saying she wanted to learn about mummies (and I do have more to show you on that project), but I’d observed her interest in maps and, in fact, jotted that down as a possible project topic before she informed me she’d be studying mummies. As you saw, her map-making interest found its way into her mummy project (her 3-dimensional map of Egypt in this post). I think–but am not sure–that we may be winding down on Egypt here. Meanwhile, my daughter has been drawing maps.

Map by G, age 3

Her maps are of her pretend park; she has been playing a “park game” with our blue rug as a pond and the play tent as her camp site.

Map by G, age 3

(I can’t help it–I adore the trees.) I think this interest in map-making is quite common at this age; at least, all my children have drawn make-believe maps. Because this interest of hers has been present for a while now, I am doing my own research at the moment, seeking ways to encourage and support it. To start, I borrowed Mapmaking With Children by David Sobel from the local university library. I’ve requested a couple of children’s books relating to maps from our local library, to simply have around and share. I’ve only just begun reading the Sobel book, but it’s fascinating. I’ll keep you posted!

So how and why am I focusing on her interest in maps? After all, she has told me she wants to learn about space, dinosaurs, fish, the sun…really, she has jumped on this “project” idea and wants to take advantage of it! And she has not told me she wants to learn about maps. However, maps is what she does. She draws them, she looks at them, she asks about them. It’s where she is quietly focused–her attention is already there, and that’s why I feel it’s a deeper interest that can support deeper investigation. I am watching what she does, rather than just listening to what she says. When presented with the whole wide world to learn about, she’s listing everything in sight, and no wonder. It’s all so interesting. But I want to brush away the surface and see where she places her focus. That’s the best I can do in explaining how to identify an interest that will support a deeper project.

{PBL} Claywork in the Egypt Project

I hope I can do this morning’s project time justice in this post. Way back when at the start of this project, my eight-year-old, who internalized a different meaning of “project” from school, decided he’d make a pyramid. I worried he’d jumped to this, that he was approaching this backwards, and we talked about it some, but I also figured I’d let this ride. We picked out some air dry clay and he worked with it a bit to get a feel for it. We talked about how he might want to make a model of a pyramid to make sure the different pieces fit together. (Ok, I talked. A little.) We continued to read about Egypt and the other topics he’d mentioned besides pyramids–King Tut, gods and goddesses–and we visited the MFA, which sparked more interests.

Earlier this week, I hung up the hieroglyphs poster I purchased in the museum gift shop and left out the hieroglyph stencil on the art table. My son was excited to come across this and immediately drew his name in his project notebook and surrounded it with an oval to make a cartouche. This morning he decided to use the air-dry clay to do the same thing.

Using the stencil in clay.

Using the stencil in clay.

Here is his full name, before he cut out the oval:

hieroglyphics in clay

Knowing his interest in the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, I made sure to point out the statuettes when we came across them in the museum. I wondered if he’d want to try to make one out of clay? I hadn’t taken pictures of any of the statuettes, but we do have several books on Egyptian mythology out from the library, and he looked through those for pictures. He decided he wanted to try to make a cat statuette.

Cat statuette in clay, drying.

Cat statuette in clay, drying.

Although he has played around with this clay before–just exploring, to see what it does–this is the first time he’s tried to make something like this, with different parts. He began by trying to carve out from a chunk of it, then switched to making pieces separately and joining them. I showed him how to scratch the surface of the clay at the join and moisten it, but I’m not sure how well this will hold together. I probably would have worked more of it in a piece, but we’ll see how it goes as it dries. I made sure to tell him: we have plenty of clay. If this first attempt doesn’t end up the way you’d hoped, you can try again, using different methods. That’s how you’ll learn how to get the clay to do what you want.

While all this was going on, my daughter was working with Model Magic, which is what she’d picked out when we went shopping for clay-type stuff. She’s been cutting out pyramid pieces for her mummy (which I haven’t even posted about yet!), but they weren’t dry yet–not that I think Model Magic gets really dry, not like the clay, but it was definitely still not-dry. So she began, rather without much notice from me, to work on…something. I figured she was just, you know, playing with the Model Magic. Occasionally she’d ask my help in cutting a chunk off or she’d ask for a certain tool. I was playing with a water-soluble graphite stick in my notebook and puttering around the studio area, not really paying attention. And this is what she ended up with:

G's map of Lower Egypt in Model Magic.

G’s map of Lower Egypt in Model Magic.

She made a map of Lower Egypt out of Model Magic. Now, you probably can’t see it, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is she sees it. She pointed out the Nile River, and a boat on a hill, ready to sail. She made a couple of small mummies and put them near a statue of a dead person who is not a mummy, probably influenced by a statue we sketched at the MFA. She worked on this for at least an hour. I’ve already noted her interest in maps and mapping and had considered it as a possible project area before she informed me she’d be studying mummies. Lately she’s been asking me to point out Egypt on our wall map of the world, and she’s seen the map of Ancient Egypt plenty of times in books. Now I am thinking I need to find a larger map of Ancient Egypt that I can hang up for her.

In some ways, when these convergences happen, when the kids are following their own interests and clearly doing such deep work, I’m tempted to think that project-based homeschooling is almost cheating on my part. It seems so easy! Then I remind myself that I am doing quite a bit of work documenting, paying attention, providing materials, connecting dots, reminding the kids what they wanted to work on (more so with my son, who is still deschooling; my daughter tells me all the time what she wants to learn next and what she needs from me, step on it, Mama!). I write myself lists so I don’t forget what I need to do. And I still feel like I’m not keeping up.

But a morning like this? So, so sweet.

Field Trip: MFA Boston

This post is not really about what we did at the MFA Boston. It’s more about how we ended up there. You see, in project-based learning, the child is leading the way. The adult is mentoring. My job is to help the kids get where they want to go, not by drawing the map and marking the trail but by helping them draw their own map. I’m not picking a theme and setting up activities. They’re picking the theme, and they are figuring out what they want to do to support their learning. Right now my kids’ projects are overlapping. My eight-year-old hasn’t quite settled on one topic right now; he is researching various topics with Ancient Egypt that interest him. I’m keeping track of what he mentions and reminding him of what he’s said he wants to do or learn. My daughter has been diving into mummies, mummification, and Ancient Egypt’s ideas of the afterlife and the importance of mummification to these ideas. So in this regard, field trips are simpler because they’re bound, at this point, to apply to both projects.

However, it’s not my job to plan the field trips. No!! I simply make sure the kids know that I am able and willing to take them places to support their research. My son got onto the computer a couple of weeks ago to research real-life Ancient Egypt resources.

(All photos in the post are small cell phone photos, because that’s how I take project documentation photos, so I can upload them into Evernote. Right now, this is my method because it is convenient and easy and thus more liable to get done.)

After quite a bit of research, he had a list (which I wrote down for him) of places he’d like to go to support his study. This list isn’t constrained by distance or budget; everything is allowed.

It might be hard to read; it says: King Tut’s treasure, Egypt, Oriental Institute-Chicago, Yale Museum-New Haven, Met Museum of Art-New York (Sphinx of Hatsheput), RISD Museum, MFA Boston. I told him that three of these destinations were reasonable day trips for us: New Haven, Boston, and RISD (which is in Providence). He’s been to RISD many times before, actually; it’s the closest. We brought the Egyptian collections at all three museums on the computer, and he compared them to decide where he wanted to visit first.

He originally thought he’d want to go to New Haven, because he’s never been to that city, but after viewing collections online, he decided to visit the MFA in Boston first. (Link to their Egyptian collection page.) The next decision was how to get there–we could drive or take the commuter train, which is newly present near to us. It only runs all the way down here on weekdays, though, so that factored in.

He definitely wanted to take the train (as did his sister), so the next step was to figure out how to read a train schedule, which I showed him. Which stop did we need to get off at in Boston? I suggested that the MFA’s site might have that information for us. Together, we navigated the site to find out all he needed to know; he needed less and less of my guidance, and eventually he knew where we had to go, what time the trains came, whether we could sketch in the museum (yes), with what materials (just pencils), if we could bring in a backpack (no), a stroller (yes, but we didn’t), and if there was a place to leave our lunch bag while we toured the museum (yep). Together, we talked about which days of the week were possibilities given our other commitments, and he decided upon a day. Finally, he emailed his dad at work to see whether he could take the day off and come with us and/or be available to meet his brother’s school bus if his brother decided he’d rather go to school than come with us.

Eventually, it was decided the whole family would go. My daughter was elated about the train ride.

The MFA has an entire room of mummies–my daughter was quite pleased. My son, who has a strong interest in rocks (so much so that geology was a possible project topic, too) was thrilled to see alabaster in person. I suspect this will open up a further area of study and his interests might converge to provide that focus that’s been missing. He’s also interested in the gods and goddesses, though, and brought a list of names with him to the museum. We saw many statuettes of gods and goddesses, and we’ve talked about using our air-dry clay to try to make some.

Because he’s mentioned hieroglyphs, I purchased a poster of hieroglyphs and a hieroglyph stencil in the gift shop (along with all the postcards of Egyptian pieces they had–only four, alas). Tonight he mentioned making a cartouche with the clay. And we came across something in the museum that we hadn’t in our books–false doors, which allowed the ka to pass through. This will surely lead to further research.

In other words, our trip to view the Egyptian galleries at the MFA Boston was not the culminating event. It is part of the process of the kids’ research, and we came home with more interests to pursue, more leads to follow. And most importantly, this field trip wasn’t something presented to them, already planned, already decided. They both had a hand in planning it (my son more than my daughter, but she was involved as well). They have ownership of this learning.

I have so much more to share about their projects, but I’m not always able to blog by the end of the day. But I’ll do my best, because how else to get across how amazing this type of learning is to witness?

{PBL} This is Serious Play

Last week, I received a strong signal that we are on the right track with project-based learning. My kids transformed the living room into an Egyptian tomb, using their imaginations and materials at hand, and then spent a goodly amount of time using it as a set and spark for dramatic play. I’m used to finding elaborate set-ups in the common areas of the house (such as this). And this isn’t the first time the kids have incorporated what they’re learning into such a set-up.

For a long time, my middle child was fascinated with Mt. Everest, and to some extent, he still is. (I don’t think a strong interest like that will ever really go away.) The Top of the World became his guidebook as he planned his own trip to climb Mt. Everest. He would gather his tools, making them (with preschool-sized Legos; he was that young) if necessary. He’d pack the tools in a bag, explaining to me each tool and its purpose, and he’d set up base camp in the middle of the living room, making sure to visit the monkey temple first. In thinking about this post, I realized that this interest in Mt. Everest could be considered a project, and I could have done more to extend and deepen it. But instead of beating myself up over that, I’m choosing to acknowledge the things I instinctively did right: I didn’t take it over. I didn’t seize upon this interest to impose an adult-led “teaching moment.” I didn’t search the Internets over to find a child-size play set of mountain climbing tools–which would have taken away all of his joy in searching the house for equivalents and building them when necessary out of what was at hand. It’s important, as we try to embrace a new way of thinking and learning, to acknowledge what we are doing and have done right.

So, back to the Egyptian tomb. My daughter is a mummy here.

representation of Egyptian tomb

They’ve created a tomb wall, and the play silks and blankets represent the different wrappings and coffins. All this was explained to me. The box in the back with a handle, which is the kids’ treasure chest, is representing (obviously!) treasure. Later they added toys and books to use in the afterlife, just as the ancient Egyptians buried themselves with items to use in their afterlife.

books + toys for afterlife

The stuffed cat to the left in the photo is representing a cat mummy. (Cat Mummies is one of our library finds, and we’d just read it.) They told me they tried to cover our real cat with a play silk to represent a mummy, but he didn’t cooperate. (Which is strange, because all he does is sleep anyway.) Eventually, my daughter reported that her ka had found her again–her ka, she told me, recognized her by the clothes she was wearing–and she was able to play with her afterlife books and toys.

I can’t think of a more powerful expression of deep understanding–as well as the desire to deeply understand–than incorporating learning into play such as this. Creating a world and then acting within it, distilling what has been learned and processing it through play–it is amazing to witness, and powerful for me, too, to recognize it for what it was: serious play, child-led, and an authentic demonstration of deep interest and learning.

Beginnings: Project-Based Learning

In her book, Lori says that preschool age is the ideal time to introduce project-based learning. This might seem counterintuitive–aren’t older kids more capable of more extensive work?–but so far, the experience in my house is falling right in line with this advice. My daughter, who is almost four (!), has taken right to the idea of learning and expressing. My son, at eight, is struggling a bit more, but I chalk this up as much to the way in which his school used these same terms to mean very different things as I do to his age.

I have to admit right up front that my grasp of project-based learning is still–not shaky, but not firm, either. Our environment could be better organized. My documentation could be better. But we’re beginning where we are, and even with small steps, big things are happening. You just need to know where to look.

We started with a trip to the library.

We’re beginning history at the beginning, and my son mentioned several aspects of Egyptian history he’d like to learn about. (We’ve since added to this stack through interlibrary loan.) He also, though, has a strong interest in geology and thought that might be a possible project topic, too. I wrote down everything he mentioned so I could remind him about them later.

My daughter wants to learn about mummies. Now that she understands the general plan, she has a huge list of things she wants to learn about, but the mummies seems to be a deep interest, tied in with an overall interest in death and dying and what happens to people when they die. Not too long ago, she made the connection between “dead” and “never coming back” and melted down completely about not wanting to die, ever. It was heartwrenching and one of those unexpected epiphanies that occurred as we drove past a cemetery–nothing planned, with no precipitating event. I suspect the interest in mummies may be tied into this mulling over about death that has been going on in her mind.

Once we had the books, we read. My son read to himself, and I read out loud to both of them. He decided to focus in on pyramids, although I reminded him of his other initial interests. He does not see “project” as the entire process–learning, documenting, and sharing. He connects the term “project” with a thing, something tangible that has been constructed: a model, a poster, a diorama. I’d recognized this over the summer and had intended to call our projects “investigations,” but the word project slipped through anyway, and he is, at the moment, a bit hung up on the doing. His former school purportedly has a project-based curriculum, but we are using many of the same words in completely different ways. I explained to him: “I am not going to tell you your topic, what you have to learn about it, and how you have to share that information (which is how “projects” seemed to be handled in his classroom last year). You get to choose the topic, you get to learn what you want, and you share it how you want. My job is to make sure you have the resources you need, help you figure out how to find out what you want to know, and get any materials for you.”

So it comes back around to what Lori was saying–to my daughter, who has spent her entire life soaking things up like a sponge (that is what babies and toddlers and preschoolers do), it’s entirely natural to explore a new subject in exactly the same way. My son needs to relearn to trust his natural curiosity. I could tell we were making progress when I told him that he wasn’t going to have a set amount of time, like in school, to finish a project. He could take as long as he needed to learn what he wanted to know.

“So if it takes me five months, that’s okay? Five months on the same thing?”

“If that’s what you need, that’s what we’ll do,” I told him.

In an upcoming post–because I realized this post would be super long if I included it all here!–I’ll share more photos of how our reading transformed our living room and how my daughter distilled some of what she’s learning into her first representation.