Creating the circumstances in which authentic learning can happen: the power of dedicated project time

Published by Lori Pickert on July 13, 2012 at 09:37 AM

I got an interesting e-mail from a reader who said (I have her permission to repeat her statement here):

I’m slightly uncomfortable with the idea of setting “project time” — it feels like I’m forcing it when it should happen naturally.

Are you forcing things when you dedicate regular time to working on projects? It depends on how you use that time.

When you set aside blocks of time to do project work, remember:

— It’s work your child wants to do. Dedicating time to it means you are supporting it. You are supporting her and her ideas, her goals. Everything you gift with time and attention has a better chance to flourish.

— You aren’t forcing her to do anything: she can spend that project time doing whatever she likes. You are creating possibilities. If anything, you are forcing yourself: to focus, to pay attention, to offer dedicated support. From the book:

If you do set aside scheduled time for working on projects, children should never be forced to work on their project during that time. It should simply be an option; it should be a time when you're available and able to give your child your full attention, when materials are ready, when plans are recalled and possibilities are discussed. Coercing or forcing a child to do project work removes the most important criteria — that it is self-chosen. During project time, a child might work on something else, read, create art, play, or simply think. Over time, however, scheduled project time tends to draw children to their work … because you are ready, available, interested, focused … because his space and his materials are ready … because he has built a habit of returning regularly to his work … because he is reminded of his plans and his excitement … because he enjoys it. — Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

— By setting aside those blocks of time, you are making it more likely that she will be able to do the work she wants to do. You are helping her turn her ideas into reality. From the book:

If project work is left to simply happen when it happens, it may not happen at all. Your focus and attention create a gentle gravity that pulls your child back to his work. And remember: it’s work he wants to do. Setting aside time for project work is a way of honoring it and making sure it happens.ibid.

Can you force a child to learn? You can set them down with a workbook or a table of multiplication facts and require them to work. You cannot, however, force them to retain. You can’t force them to understand. You can’t force them to grasp when it’s appropriate to apply the information that’s been lobbed at them. All authentic learning comes when a child is fully engaged, intellectually and emotionally. Dedicating some of your time to helping them explore their own ideas gives them the chance to experience that authentic learning.

Project work is self-chosen, self-motivated work. You aren’t forcing your child to learn — you’re creating the circumstances in which authentic learning can happen.

“We’re creative all day long. We have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page.” — Mary Oliver


Comment by Marisa on July 13, 2012 at 10:32 PM

I agree! I have to be intentional about carving out time to fulfill my own creative goals. It's not always fun, and sometimes hard work, but if it's truly important to me, progress must be made. Sometimes I wish that my mom had been a little more encouraging to me about my participation in orchestra or guided me into other activities that suited me. She let me give up on everything. My children are young enough still that the extent of their personal goals is to acquire more Lego sets and beat the Harry Potter game, but one day I hope I will strike that balance of loving support that isn't afraid to encouragingly challenge them to push through the apathy, boredom or frustration of reaching a goal or learning a skill.

Comment by Kate - An Every... on July 14, 2012 at 07:02 AM

I have a little person (3yrs) who has a few long standing interests - percussion, space & rockets and volcanoes. I too was wondering about the dedicated project time but I see what you are saying and I think I agree. A time to focus his thoughts, building that habit, is extremely important.

I think I will have a look at our days and try to shift the rhythm a little to include some dedicated project time.

If you have any suggestions on including a rather rambunctious 15 month old too that would be greatly appreciated :D


Comment by Lori Pickert on July 14, 2012 at 01:10 PM

marisa underlines an important point — if it’s truly important. because we’re helping our children learn to prioritize; we’re helping them build a habit of making time to do the things that are important to them.

people are always talking about being busy (witness the recent article in the NYT, “the busy trap”) and they often say wistfully that they wish they had more time for X. but why don’t they make more time for X? it’s a life skill to make time for the things you really want to do, so you have an actual chance of doing them.

i think, kate, that some people see that “dedicated project time” and feel it morphs from being a free choice to a required thing. but dedicating time doesn’t make it a requirement — it makes it a priority. big difference, i think — the difference between making work mandatory and honoring the work that the child already wants to do.

re: a rambunctious 15mo :) i’ll point to some of what i’ve written about younger siblings before:

and there are some conversations about this happening in the forum as well:

in a (very small) nutshell, my advice is include the younger sibling, give him or her a version of the same work, let h(im/er) be *near* the project work and also get a chance to participate while teaching the foundational elements: don’t touch your brother or sister’s work, clean up your own mess, use the materials respectfully, make your own decisions/choices, etc. and remind yourself that your toddler is zooming ahead and will soon be able to do more/control themselves more, etc. :)

Comment by Kate on July 18, 2012 at 06:45 AM

Thanks for all these links Lori, I have had a think and I have spoken with my husband and he agrees that a focussed time to concentrate on project work would be beneficial. I've also started to include my daughter a little in some of this work over the last couple of days using some of your suggestions. She is quite erratic and seemingly destructive (at least through my son's eyes) but I agree that these experiences will help her to control herself as she becomes familiar with the materials and the experience.

Thanks again.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 18, 2012 at 02:38 PM

you are very welcome.

erratic and destructive .. mm .. that does sound like a toddler. ;o)

i think keeping the younger siblings at the edges helps a lot in a few different ways. one, they become familiar over time (as they grow in their abilities) with all of the foundational values of project work. two, they want to emulate their older siblings and they see them doing the work you want them to do. three, it honors the fact that they *wish* they could do everything their older sibling does. i’d rather see them hanging out and drinking it in and doing some version of the work and slowly becoming more able to participate rather than put in the corner with a puzzle, which a lot of hs’ing blogs seem to recommend! ;)

Comment by jacinda on July 14, 2012 at 05:09 PM

I totally agree Lori. We "gather together" and it means that we can make progress on the things that we want to do. Without that dedicated time there was a feeling of disappointment as we never seemed to make much headway with all the exciting ideas we have. And so we dedicate time but not content. Making the dedicated time has given me the support to develop the discipline "to focus, to pay attention and to give dedicated support."

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 14, 2012 at 08:30 PM


dedicate time but not content — PERFECT. thank you, jacinda. :)

there is an element that is hard for people to trust — the fact that children will begin to fill that time purposefully and meaningfully with real work. many adults think that if children are given the choice, they will *never* choose to work hard. this is why the "image of the child" is so important in reggio-inspired education: if we think children are lazy and don’t want to work, we plan a certain kind of education for them. if we believe they are strong and capable and want to work hard on things that matter to them, we plan another sort.

Comment by TJEd meets Reggio on July 15, 2012 at 08:34 PM

One of the main principals of Thomas Jefferson Education/Leadership Education is 'Structure Time, Not Content'. Exactly as you are saying...


Comment by Sandi on May 30, 2013 at 04:54 PM

I was wondering what you do if your child has no ideas about what they want to do? I have a 9 yr old boy who is pretty resistant to "school" and I am working at structuring our time for way more open ended learning. Anyway, outside of math I tell him he can learn anything he wants and all he wants is to do nothing. Any thoughts?

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 30, 2013 at 06:32 PM


hi sandi, take a look at this list:

and then join the forum and we can talk about it more. :)

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