Curating their experience

Published by Lori Pickert on July 13, 2010 at 01:45 PM

A response to Real Hands-On Learning:

This part makes sense. I get making an environment that my child can feel free to explore and move in new directions and try things. But when do you rein things in? I know 4 is young but sometimes I feel like we just try lots and lots of things without sticking to any of them. Our small pile of unfinished projects makes me squirm when I walk by it.

How do you balance the freedom to try things with creating a calm ‘space' for exploring things deeply? Maybe it's just summer but I feel like we're at a life buffet lately and we keep taking little tastes.Stacey

Our mission is to integrate two big ideas:

1 - children owning their own learning


2 - digging in deep instead of just skimming around on the surface.

How do we combine them?

Yesterday’s post (Real “Hands-On” Learning) was about making sure that when a child confronts something new, they know

(1) it can be worked with — changed, played with, experimented with, altered, extended, turned upside down,

(2) he is capable of working with it, and

(3) he is allowed to work with it.

The first goes to experience. Has he had ample opportunity to explore materials, tools, experiences, places? Has he mostly been a passive observer, or has he been handed the building blocks of learning and allowed to play with them? Has he been given a significant period of playful exploration to learn what materials and tools can do? Has he been encouraged to play with new ideas and experiences — to literally incorporate them into his play?

The second goes to self-knowledge. For a child to become a self-confident thinker and learner, he needs ample time to develop the skills of self-directed learning through play, exploration, experimenting, building, making, sharing ideas, asking questions, and solving problems. A child who has a long history of being a scientist, artist, explorer, writer, actor, storyteller, teacher, student, organizer, etc., will continue to develop those talents as he grows and as his interests become more sophisticated.

The third goes to family culture. Is knowledge something that children are encouraged to build themselves? Do they have input into what is studied and how? Are their ideas respected? Are they co-constructors of the curriculum? Are they used to getting their hands dirty with whatever is in front of them? Is yours a culture of play, exploration, and curiosity? Are mistakes accepted as the norm so that fear of failure is replaced with determination to succeed? Is learning seen as static — a fact is a fact, memorize it and spit it back — or malleable — here is some knowledge to experiment and build with?

How do we combine that idea with letting children lead, following their own interests, with the idea of staying in one place long enough to dig in deeply? If they’re in charge, doesn’t that mean they can skim to their hearts’ content?

We curate their experience.

This is a negotiated curriculum, a shared and mutually respectful learning realtionship between learning mentor and child. Each of you plays a part in building something important — both a long-term project and, more important, a successful self-directed learner.

How do we curate their experience?

We create the space in which they work. We make the time for them to work. We give them our focused attention and support.

We draw them back, gently, resolutely, to their own ideas and questions so that these important things aren’t lost and forgotten. We put up a bulletin board, help gather research materials and constructions/drawings into one place, talk about our project and share it with others.

We name what we are doing so that it stands out as something meaningful. We are working on a project; we are studying this. We are learning about it; we are teaching others what we learn. We honor meaningful work because it is something important to us.

The work that the children do is incredibly important, but our work is equally important. We create the circumstances under which they can manage and direct their own learning. We help them remember what they wanted to know and what they intended to do — their unfinished plans. We get them the materials they need — or supply a budget and a ride so they can get them themselves. We ask good questions. We listen. We help them articulate their own questions and figure out how to find their answers. We celebrate their work so that they know it is important. We invest space, time, and attention.

The child’s role is active — playing, exploring, reading, writing, drawing, painting, building, constructing. But the learning mentor’s role is just as active. You are engaged, talking, thinking, drawing, photographing, listening, supporting, watching, asking, exclaiming, sharing — and you’re also doing and sharing your own meaningful work. You show your children what it means to be engaged and interested and working with knowledge. You show them what it means to connect with community and share questions and answers. You make your own learning — your small wins AND your mistakes — visible. You are a true co-learner and a true collaborator.

When their attention wanders (and when the world constantly peppers them with distractions), your focus helps gently draw them back to their own interests, questions, and unfinished plans.

You not only help steer them back to the questions and ideas they haven’t fully examined, you create a supportive learning environment that helps accomplish that same goal. Work space, bulletin board, books and artifacts, xeroxes and sketches — the environment also helps gently remind them of the work they are doing.

Each of you plays a vital role.

He has interests. You create an environment that reflects them and supports independent exploration.

He has questions. You help him keep track of them and find his own answers.

He gathers facts. You help him put them into a larger context and see their relationship to one another.

He has ideas. You help him explore and articulate and share them.

He has plans. You help him make them happen.


Comment by Lori Pickert on July 13, 2010 at 02:50 PM

stacey, thank you so much for asking such a great question that inspired an entire post!

i’ll now try to more specifically address your question: “sometimes I feel like we just try lots and lots of things without sticking to any of them. Our small pile of unfinished projects makes me squirm when I walk by it.”

i would sit down with your unfinished projects and go through them together. “are you finished with this?” if he says yes, set it aside. if he says no, ask what he would like to do with it. write down what he says. ask if he needs anything from you (paint, tape, help) and note that as well.

when you are finished, move the “done with” projects out of your work area.

turn to the “not done” projects. do they go together or are they unconnected? choose the most promising piece of work and say, “tomorrow we can work on this.” that is a good starting point.

i strongly recommend using a project journal to keep track of what is happening so you can spot connections and keep track of his questions and plans.

set aside some focused time to work together. pull the project out. pull together any materials he requested. take photos of him working. write down what he says. look for questions, further plans, new ideas.

the things you need to make projects work are dedicated time and focused attention.

if he says he is uninterested in all his unfinished projects, that's fine — get rid of them and you will have a clean slate. clear the entire work space and bulletin board/wall and then start documenting his play and free art, looking for a promising idea to follow up on.

i hope these concrete strategies are helpful! :^)

thank you again for sharing your story and asking such great questions.

Comment by Stacey on July 14, 2010 at 02:34 AM

Thank you so much for this post. In reading it I am starting to understand my role in his learning better. I also am realizing that he is getting to an age,4, where he is changing and he needs are changing too. It seems to me that the biggest project right now might be to get myself into the right "setup" to start working with him. So that I can be prepared to nurture his learning.

We tend to forget that even in a learning process that is child based that there is a lot that the parent has to do to make it a good environment for this.

Comment by Kelly on July 15, 2010 at 01:51 AM

I love the mental image I get when I think of being the curator of my girlys' learning!
I was wondering if you have any advice about helping my spouse understand this way of schooling? Don't get me wrong. My hubby is very supportive (especially when I ditched the curriculum last year and attempted my start in this unschooling adventure) However, it was a rough year for us, and he'd rather I just order a curriculum package that lays everything out for me. Change is never easy, but I am not ready to give up yet. Any words of wisdom?

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 15, 2010 at 03:07 PM

stacey, that sounds like an excellent plan.

if you stay with journaling and observing/documenting, it can help you see where he is changing and developing and growing, so you can keep up with it. i recommend continuing to do this even between projects; just because he isn't in the full throes of a passionate interest doesn't mean he isn't throwing out all kinds of interesting clues about his interests, his questions, and how he learns.

we *do* tend to forget what a big role that parents play .. and it's a crucial role. children can do a lot on their own but so much more with thoughtful attention and support.

thank you again for your great questions and input!

kelly, great. :^) it is difficult to explain to some parents the delicate balance between letting children learn to direct and manage their own learning .. and not just leaving them completely on their own. this metaphor works best for me!

re: your husband, i would sit down with him and make up some family goals for your children's education .. putting special emphasis on your values and priorities about what they learn and what kind of people you want them to be when they become independent. write them down and use them as the guidelines for whatever you do. these are *your* learning standards.

talk about what you think it is important for them to learn and *how* you want them to learn. if your husband says he feels it is important that they "keep up with" publicly schooled kids of the same age, that is a valid concern. add it to your learning plan.

when you have all your goals, values, and priorities laid out, talk about how you can best take full advantage of your homeschooling/unschooling situation. if one of your goals is having the kids be authentically engaged in the work they're doing, you can talk about how projects can build all their thinking and learning skills and still check off public school learning standards. your husband may be much more comfortable if he knows you are paying attention to this; and if you do look at the standards, you can see where you are greatly exceeding those benchmarks.

it always helps allay vague worries and concerns if you sit down and really examine the nitty gritty of what the kids are doing and what you *want* them to be doing.

journaling can be a powerful tool here as well -- it gives you the data you need to show what they have accomplished. days blur together and you forget what they've done; a journal and a folder of sketches, drawings, etc. (basically a portfolio of work) gives you something concrete to look at together.

one of the major advantages of unschooling/homeschooling is the flexibility and lack of time constraints. you don't have to learn to a schedule. you could talk about how allowing the kids to hyper-focus on science this year is possible when you know they can "catch up" with history next year.

re: the "rough year" .. i would talk about how doing anything valuable takes time. *you* are learning. if you give up because it wasn't easy, what lesson does that teach the kids? on the other hand, if you persevere and dedicate yourself toward meeting your own goals and ambitions, you send a completely different message -- and not a "do what i say" message, but a "see me walking my talk" message.

you might tell your husband that you are making mistakes but you are learning from them, and you care about his concerns and what he wants for your childrens' education. (you might even get him involved in learning with them, too. :)

i hope some of this is useful; it's all off the top of my head! feel free to come back and comment again or email me if you want to talk more about it. and don't give up! :^)

Comment by David on July 16, 2010 at 12:55 AM

I can relate to Kelly's post. Not because I have a spouse who doesn't quite understand it all but because I work in a school setting where you not only have to 'convince' one person of how and why you are trying to work in a certain way but rather a whole class full of questioning parents - many of whom have experienced a joyless education themselves. Couple that with sceptical colleagues and it can be very disheartening at times. I think though that having that 'concrete evidence' (photos, sketches, journals etc) is what helps to make it real and accessible and open the questioner's eyes to a new way of looking, listening and understanding as well as valuing the possibilities.

Comment by Elizabeth on July 16, 2010 at 01:19 AM

Hello Lori,

Thank you so much for this post. I had been putting all of her unfinished projects in a basket. As I was helping her sort through it one day, I realized that maybe they were unfinished because they were all piled up in a basket. We sorted her projects into categories and then I put each category into a labeled magazine file, which we keep on our bookshelf. So for instance, her sewing projects file has a sewing book, fabric, stuffing and the dolls she was working on. Her fairy book file has a book by Cecily Mary Barker (her inspiration) colored pencils, stapled blank books and a separate manilla file folder for each of the fairy stories she is working on. She has 6 of these magazine files and they sit on a shelf at her height. It's been a great solution that has helped her remember her projects.

I can't wait to give her own project book and bulletin board.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 16, 2010 at 01:40 AM

hi david, i've been through that as well .. i was owner/director of a small private school with a reggio-inspired, project-based curriculum. :)

you are so right about the "joyless education" .. yet that doesn't seem to weaken parents' resolve that their children repeat the same experiences! somehow they believe it is a necessary part of learning/growing/maturing. it's like an urban legend of dismay.

it is very difficult when you are alone among colleagues who are using traditional means (especially when you inherit their students and pass yours along to them) .. when they say "oh, you'll learn" (if you're young or new) or "that won't work" even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

kudos to you for fighting the good fight!

elizabeth, thank you.

so true about the basket! putting things out on shelves or otherwise displayed not only reminds them of what they're working on but shows that you value the work.

if you have bulletin board or wall displays that document particular work, that can also create a circumstance where children are gently reminded of what they were doing .. it can help them want to finish their plans.

update me when you start journaling & a bulletin board! :^)

Comment by David on July 16, 2010 at 03:05 AM

Thanks Lori. Unfortunately Australia has just brought in a new National Curriculum which not only creates an 'urban legend of dismay' but a nation wide one. Very depressing. I keep coming back to Loris Malaguzzi's quote - "Nothing without joy"...that keeps me motivated and energised to keep doing what I know is benefitting the kids I learn alongside. (Your blog does too!) :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 16, 2010 at 01:23 PM

david, i am so sorry to hear that. and surprised! years ago (2003?) my team and i were so impressed by the new basics project -

their learning goals matched up so well with our own philosophies. we talked and talked about how disappointing it was that the u.s. was lagging so far behind in remaking education for the 21st century.

niente senza goia - nothing without joy. i keep this on my desktop & in our studio. i hope that teachers and educators who care can keep bringing joy into the classroom even while government and some administrators are pushing the standardized testing agenda.

thank you SO much re: your kind words about the blog. :)

i'll leave off with a quote from daniel's blog (

'I love this quote from Edward De Bono, an Australian arguing that his government’s supposed education revolution is “the same old stuff again”:

"Teaching thinking gives youngsters the ability to take charge of their lives, the ability to make decisions, make choices and so on … the focus should be on the world today, what you need to know now rather than what happened three- or four-hundred years ago. Education is way behind where it should be."'

Comment by Barbara in NC on July 18, 2010 at 10:50 AM

I'm so glad to read this post because it speaks to what I'm struggling with!

I feel like we've got the stuff from the first part of your post covered--experience, self-knowledge, and the family culture. My kids (now 5.5. and 9) have had (and continue to have) lots of space to play and explore. But I'm having trouble making the transition from free-flowing self-directed play to a rhythm that includes focused work. This is not to say that none of that older daughter in particular certainly hooks into things and works very hard at them, in that joyful play-work sort of way. But it's sporadic and I don't feel like I'm doing everything I should be to support her. She at times is clamoring for meaningful work, and a lot of that urge has been channeled into real family work--helping around the house, sewing, caring for animals, etc. But she is really ready for meaningful work of the project variety, and I still don't seem to have the framework in place to support that in the way that I'd like. Like the pp described, we start lots of things (there is no shortage of interests and questions around here), but struggle with sustaining them, with going beyond the surface. And I know she's ready!

It's the nitty gritty that's escaping me in a way. Like I don't know how to start. I'm interested that you describe part of the process as naming the project as such. Does it make sense to sit down with her and talk about the things she is working on now, and has expressed interest in (there are so many) and help her pick a couple of projects to explicitly work on?

And I confess to being at even more of a loss with her younger sister, who is still young enough that I don't think that kind of conversation would be helpful?

I'm also considering setting aside specific chunks of time in our week that are project time. Naming it for all of us. This is definitely a departure for me, since I tend to take a "all life is learning" sort of approach. But I'm wondering if it will help all of us give some focuses attention to doing project work together.

Okay, enough highjacking of the thread with my own homeschooling angst! I hope it's obvious that this thread provided a lot of food for thought! (And now, in the spirit of the earlier post on inspiration, I need to just do some DOING, not just thinking about it...)

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 18, 2010 at 02:26 PM

barbara, i think you start when you begin to work purposefully to support her work and help her extend it as much as possible. when you pay focused attention to what she is doing and begin to reflect it back to her -- with conversation, with your journaling, with making her space reflect the work.

you could sit down and ask her if there is something she especially wants to work on. or you could choose what looks like the likeliest prospect from among her varied interests and sit down with her and say, "what else would you like to do with this? where could we go to learn more about this? what questions do you have? do you have any other ideas?" and etc. -- being sure to write everything down and then come back to those questions and ideas one at a time.

if you don't think that kind of conversation would work with your younger daughter, then i would just begin to document what she's doing and asking her the same kinds of questions, one at a time. hang things up, pull things together -- make a space that reflects that strong interest and exerts a natural magnetism for her. ask what materials she needs/wants; take photographs and let her hang them up/label them. and etc.

i think dedicated project time is a great idea. you can always let go of it if you outgrow it. but it is a gift to the children -- you're saying, here, during this time i am giving you my full, undivided attention and we are going to focus on this thing that you care about. i'm going to watch you and photograph you, take notes about what you're doing, ask you questions, brainstorm with you, work next to you. i will take you places to find information and people that will help you. and etc.

all life *is* learning, and all life is exciting and interesting and compelling. you are simply making a purposeful effort to help your children dig down deeper and do some more challenging learning .. exploring their own interests. they can then take the thinking and learning skills they develop and apply them wherever they choose.

you didn't hijack the thread at all! great questions and it's always helpful when we talk about our personal stories. i appreciate your taking the time to share!

let me know how it's going. and you're right .. the best thing is just to begin. you'll find your way!

Comment by Elizabeth on July 19, 2010 at 05:54 PM

"you're saying, here, during this time i am giving you my full, undivided attention and we are going to focus on this thing that you care about. i'm going to watch you and photograph you, take notes about what you're doing, ask you questions, brainstorm with you, work next to you. i will take you places to find information and people that will help you. and etc."

Lori, what do you mean by "work next to you"? Do you mean the parent does their own project work next to them?

I was really touched by one scene in The Young Victoria when the young queen ordered that her desk be placed directly in front of her husband's, Albert's desk. They did their work facing eachother. I thought I would do that with my daughter's and my own desk.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 19, 2010 at 07:24 PM

hi elizabeth :^)

by "work next to you", i mean you will do your own work side by side. that work might be documenting *their* work, but it also might mean drawing, painting, knitting, researching, reading, etc.

i have often sat down with my sons while they were working and spread out my own project next to theirs .. pasting up copies of photos in my project journal, reading education-related books & making notes, or just painting while one of them was painting. really, i can't watch someone collaging without wanting to do it, too. ;^)

my main ongoing project remains the same -- to study how my children learn and how i can best support that learning. that is the work i am usually doing when we are working side by side.

there is a one-piece desk called a partners' desk that is basically two desks fused together, facing one another. i have always wanted one! :^)

the boys and i share a large work space and an art studio. there is enough room that we can be doing different things and have plenty of room yet still see one another and talk. it works well for us. if someone needs more peace and quiet, they can take their work elsewhere. but really we are all three pretty quiet when we are concentrating!

Comment by Lisa on August 2, 2010 at 10:04 PM

My son often forgets he has started things (we all do). I'm getting better at not saying "So, are you going to finish this or..." When I haven't seen him writing any new songs I'll ask him to play one of his favorite cds in the car [which I hate--we have radically different taste!]. Usually that sparks some interest in writing again without me asking. Same with drawing. Here I CAN be less subtle "Got any cool new drawings" usually gets me "no--they were just so-so" and they get hauled out from under the bed or out of his trash can. Usually I'll see his light on at about 2 am and he's still drawing. Sometimes, too, a delay with resources makes him mad and he claims he no longer wants to do it. Usually I'll ask his sister if she wants the stuff and then he HAS to have it! lol....... It does amaze me what all he's learned in this manner.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 4, 2010 at 02:28 PM

lisa, i'm glad. :^)

we *do* all forget! that's why i have to use my journal, so *i* don't forget. it's like a forgetting landslide. it starts with me forgetting to remind him or get the materials i promised or talk to him about X that i promised we'd do next time. then he forgets. then the potential is lost.

the art of gently redirecting children back to their work is an important one. :^)

after all, we're not coercing them to produce something for us .. we're simply reminding them -- and hopefully helping them get in the habit of reminding themselves -- about their plans, about doing the things that matter most to them.

Comment by Stacey on August 11, 2010 at 05:38 PM

Okay I have the next stage of the question. I've been keeping a "learning" journal for my son for about two months now. But I have found that it is more reflective than active. Pretty much I sit down every week or so and write about what we've been doing and what we want to do, need to change, and some new ideas. But it hasn't really become part of the daily life I know it should be. I've read the project/ learning journal post but I wonder what people have done internally to make the practice more consistent.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 11, 2010 at 07:49 PM

stacey, this would be a good post for this weekend's open thread .. i'll repost it then if it's okay with you, and maybe we can get some discussion going.

in the meantime, i think what you need to do is start putting things in as they happen instead of when you sit down and try to remember .. try to put more notes, questions, etc. in before you have to remember them, if you know what i mean. ;^)

try documenting some play and mealtime conversation -- just write down what happens, what is said, without trying to edit it or frame it; you can reflect on it later.

try doing some photo documentation or even video documentation when he's playing and very engaged .. again, you can look at it later, to reflect, but you can also jot notes to yourself as they occur.

i think the missing element is documentation *as things are occurring* .. collecting daily data.

i'll think some more about this...

Comment by Deirdre on January 27, 2014 at 12:34 PM

Thanks for sharing this oldie but goodie today. Just what I needed as we are wrapping up our 10 week Comic Creators Club, and I have often felt a little lost as to what my role is...since I didn't want to be leading/directing. I love this line: "the art of gently redirecting children back to their work." Since we only meet once a week, that is exactly what my role is.

It's been great fun, and I love meeting other kids, but mostly it leaves me grateful for my own boys---who know what they want to learn and do and read and make. A good portion of my time is spent with kids who don't know or remember any of those things and are so used to having someone else set the agenda or tell them what to do.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2014 at 12:49 PM


mostly it leaves me grateful for my own boys---who know what they want to learn and do and read and make. A good portion of my time is spent with kids who don't know or remember any of those things and are so used to having someone else set the agenda or tell them what to do.

been there, friend.

when i was running my tiny independent school, we had our all-day project-oriented kids and then we had public-school kids join us for our after-school and summer programs.

the difference was striking.

the first group would jump feet first into any opportunity, grabbing the reins and taking off with it. many in the second group would wait to be told what to do, do the minimum required (even though it was all for THEM and really nothing was required — but they were always trying to figure out the least they *had* to do), and be done with it. they had no concept of their own power to initiate, investigate, or manage their own learning and doing. even with free play, they waited for an adult to tell them what to do and how to do it.

some kids in that second group caught on fast and were thrilled to be able to finally run with their own ideas and take over activities. but we often talked about the second group — whether they (and their idea of what learning was) could be “saved.”

hope you email and tell me more about your experience! :)

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