PBH: How to start

Published by Lori Pickert on October 4, 2008 at 01:43 PM

The most important part of learning through projects isn’t amassing knowledge about any particular subject, but mastering how to learn.

So we start by asking children, “How can we find out about this?”

Running concurrently with our study of any particular subject is the study of learning itself: Where is the information? Who knows about this? Where can we go? What can we see? Meta-learning: learning about learning.

We gather knowledge and acquire skills: What do we want to know? What’s important and what’s not? What do we want to do with what we’ve learned? How do we explain what we know to others?

“How can we find out about this?” Children may suggest books; they may suggest the internet. They may make surprising suggestions, like “Let’s ask Grandma!” They may make really interesting suggestions, like “What about that place we went last summer? I saw something about it there.” We are investigating our deepest interests and we are learning the process by which we acquire knowledge. We can look things up in books, we can look at websites, we can watch movies. We can visit the places where things happen in real life; we can interview experts in person or by phone, letter, or email. We can ask our friends, our family, our neighbors, our community members.

There are myriad ways to learn about something. Rather than handing these resources over to our children as a fait accompli, we help them to discover their own resources. Rather than supplying them with readymade activities, we help them pursue their own ideas.

You’ve heard about slow food; this is slow learning. You could bring your child a stack of books from the library and take a trip to the museum  — or you could let your child go to the library and talk to the librarian about how to find books, let your child decide which books look like they have the best information, wait for your child to suggest visiting the museum then let her plan the trip ... well, it’s going to take a lot longer. But they are digging deeper, exploring outward in more directions, doing more of the work themselves, discovering, solving, and planning.

Even something as simple as talking to the librarian themselves is a huge accomplishment for a young child. In our adult world, we always want to race ahead; getting there first is seen as a win. Doing more is seen as accomplishing more. When we mentor children to be self-directed learners, we slow down to their pace. We take our time and savor every step of the process, because when our child really knows it, they own it, and they can access it whenever they choose.

More important, [we] had developed guidance strategies for promoting behaviors in the children that enabled them to begin to become self-directing, self-disciplined, able to make choices, and to engage in projects for sustained periods of time. — Ann Lewin, Model Early Learning Center


Interested in learning more about PBH and self-directed learning? Start here: 10 Steps to Getting Started


Comment by melissa s. on October 4, 2008 at 06:21 PM

love this (yet again). the first thing that comes to mind is my own education experience (early childhood through college) where the prominent teaching style relied on memorization and regurgitation of information rather than the process of learning/troubleshooting/problem solving and self direction. I'm finding that I'm relearning HOW to learn, right along with my kids!

Comment by Megan on October 5, 2008 at 01:46 AM

It IS slow learning - and the roots of their minds are getting deeper and stronger, but all under-ground, hidden away from view... and I have to trust that they ARE growing under there, and sometimes it is hard to sit tight and let the roots do their job...

I only get glimpses of what is going on under there by the connections and insights that unfold themselves in their play and in our conversations. This kind of learning does not bear up well under a traditional teaching model that relies on "assessment" to measure learning.

But I am used to relying on an assessment model to assure myself that I am doing a good job for my students. I have used it to measure my teaching, and it is just as woefully inadequate in this capacity as in the first.

Once again I am forced to trust the unmeasurable - and relax in the hope that although I cannot measure it I can experience and benefit and learn from it. I am looking forward to putting out new roots of my own through Lori's inspiration and the challenge of exploring project based learning with my kids.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2008 at 03:37 PM

You *can* assess your children’s project learning. You can, for example, download your state’s learning standards for your child’s appropriate grade and keep track of what goals and benchmarks your children meet as they progress through their project. Then, if you wish, you can cover the material unmet by the project in other, more direct ways.

Most schools use the standards to plan what they will teach, thus breaking learning up into pieces that correspond to the different subject areas (math, language arts, science...) and even to the specific benchmarks. This is where we get the phrase “teaching to the test”.

Project learning is holistic. Reading, writing, researching, drawing, constructing, measuring, computing, experimenting, comparing, contrasting, discussing, reporting... But you can still identify work done during the project as meeting those original learning standards. You just do it as you go along, and you plan to make up for anything that isn’t covered.

Allowing children to learn this way requires trust – trust that delving into a long-term project really will give children what they need. In a school setting, it requires the administrators to trust the teachers — that they will make sure the students are meeting the learning standards and that they will address any areas that aren’t satisfied during the project work. It requires allowing classrooms to do different work — because every group of children will create a unique project. Usually, schools are not comfortable with this. In homogeneity is safety.

The need to assess varies greatly among homeschooling parents, but is uniformly very important to institutional educators, who at every level are required to meet standards imposed from above. This need has created a situation where students are learning facts and skills that are disconnected from each other and from real life.

Authentic learning requires authentic assessment.

Comment by JoVE on October 5, 2008 at 07:19 PM

In my experience as a university professor gettting young adults to go and talk to a librarian is a mammoth task that many are unwilling to undertake. Any parent who raises children that are fully comfortable asking librarians questions has done a good job right there.

Comment by Jill Billington on October 5, 2008 at 08:05 PM

You are an amazing and intelligent woman. Your boys are VERY lucky!

I like the new look of your blog too. Very classy!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2008 at 08:25 PM

JoVE, i completely agree! it's another part of being a competent learner -- comfortably negotiating the process of

• identifying there is something i need to know

• figuring out who has that information

• communicating my needs to others

and etc.

jill, thank you! you are too good to me. :^)

Comment by molly on October 6, 2008 at 02:23 AM

This fits in perfectly with one of my biggest desires of motherhood: that my children would always be curious.

thanks for this post, Lori. (I took notes in my journal....it was THAT good!)

Comment by Megan on October 6, 2008 at 03:21 AM

Lori -

It sounds so simple when you say it that way... feel rather sheepish I hadn't thought of it myself...


Comment by Lori Pickert on October 6, 2008 at 01:12 PM

molly, thank you! you are too kind. :^)

megan, i have years of working on this, after all. ;^)

Comment by Carletta on October 8, 2008 at 03:12 AM

Excellent advice! I tend to plan projects for my children without getting them involved in the planning stages. I will definitely ask my children the "how can we find out about this" questions in the future.

Comment by Alison on October 8, 2008 at 05:05 PM

I like the idea of slow learning. Slow and steady wins the race!

Comment by Shannon on October 11, 2008 at 03:53 AM

What a great reminder! I especially can relate to the need to race ahead in our home education.
Thanks for the encouragement to "slow down to a crawl".


Comment by Lori Pickert on October 11, 2008 at 04:41 PM

thank you, carletta, alison, and shannon :^)

Comment by Nancy Gaumer on October 13, 2008 at 12:49 AM

So at least TWO early childhood professors read this blog! I do think it's best to teach students (i.e. college ece students) in the way we want them to teach children. I'm really still working on this! I teach so many different classes that sometimes it's just too much to be as active in all of them and still have a personal life. This semester I'm on sabbatical and trying to do some project work with my granddaughter who spends several days a week with me. Lori has been a great inspiration to me! If you have any ideas on college coursework ideas, I'd love to hear them! My big issue is that I don't teach the activities courses except for infant/toddler, only practicums, child development, families, etc. Okay-enough chatter on my part.
Re: libraries and librarians-I'm so proud of my Mikayla for feeling totally excited to ask the librarian to help her find a book about birds. When they got to the books, she figured out that "No, I really want a book about cardinals, red birds!" So cool.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 13, 2008 at 01:58 AM

nancy, it’s great to hear from you — how wonderful to spend a semester with mikayla! and thank you so much for sharing the library story! so glad things are going well. :^)

Comment by brynn on December 4, 2008 at 03:53 AM

Hi there! I am still reading , absorbing, and waiting. I am familiar with project-based learning in a larger, less student-driven context, with older kids (I taught math at Expeditionary Learning Schools--elschools.org) But I am stuck. My two sons love to play. They play imaginatively, creatively, productively, but free from my direction. Our days are structured in the sense that we get into the wild every day, and we go through rhythms and rituals everyday, but how do I insert the time to develop this project-based learning without imposing "school" on them. I am struggling with where to begin. Maybe I need to view this more organically as being enveloped in their play (they are 4.5 and 2.5), or should we try to establish, gradually, a sense of project time?

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 4, 2008 at 02:40 PM

brynn, i would love to answer this question on saturday’s open thread -- do you mind if i post it & answer it then? i think it would be of, as they say, *general interest*. ;^)

Comment by rachealb on January 31, 2009 at 07:19 AM

I am interested in how 'saturday's open thread' unravelled....I have only recently found your blog/website Lori....and find it inspiring and encouraging. I am considering homeschooling...but am really unsure as to what that will look like when my son gets to be school age. How one would insert a project into one's day without it seeming imposed?

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 31, 2009 at 01:32 PM

hi racheal, thank you. do you really mean unravelled? ;^)

if you want your children to do projects, you must make time for them to work on them .. that could be time each day or time a few days a week, but it must be consistent. are you suspecting you want to do a more traditional curriculum (due to the use of your word “imposed”)?

Comment by gina on March 5, 2009 at 05:19 PM

This sounds like what I have as a goal in mind for our homeschooling. I called it unschooling but this psot fits. Interesting what you wrote about talking to adults, because I sit back and let all of my kids learn to navigate libraries, museums, stores, etc. themselves and often the adults working will look at me funny, like I'm being lazy or say - isn't your mom here? Have her show you. It can be a bit frustrating but I am determined to let the girls learn how to navigate their own worlds.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 5, 2009 at 05:34 PM

gina, oh, i get those looks all the time! :^) the librarian who keeps looking and looking at me, like she’s checking whether i approve of what my son is asking for. the person at the store who tries to fake-talk to my son (who is asking permission to draw something) by talking to him while looking at *me* and making expressions at me. it reminds me of when i went with my husband many years ago to buy a car for me, and the salesman kept talking to my husband instead of me! except now it’s my child who’s a second-class citizen.

Comment by Alex on June 26, 2009 at 02:31 AM

I have really enjoyed reading through your posts. I am still a little unsure how to actually "start" a first project. How do you go about introducing the idea? My son is 4, and he is very into locations. Every animal we talk about, every person we talk about, comes down to "where do they live?" He wants to see it on the map. It seems like a great place to start a project, but I don't know what to DO.
We have some maps in the house, and I just bought two books on the desert at Goodwill (he hasn't seen those yet). We look things up on the maps all the time. Do I just leave it there? Or talk to him about 'doing' a project? Start keeping a journal without talking to him about it?
I'm sorry I need this spelled out so much - I am really excited about this approach, and really nervous as well. It seems so in line with what I am already doing and wanting for our family, I'm almost afraid I'm going to mess it up. :/

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 26, 2009 at 11:42 AM

alex, rather than “introducing the idea”, you should start keeping a journal and begin keeping track of his ideas and connections, looking for opportunities to support his interests.


there is no need to put a name on it yet — simply start getting used to the process. introduce the tools (his journal, his work space, his bulletin board, project-related books and other items gathered in one spot) and the way of thinking (discussing his ideas, making plans together, imagining and wondering out loud, keeping track of questions, talking about where answers can be found).

there is a lot of material here on the site for you to read and re-read (often it makes more sense once you have begun to do the work yourself!) — and always feel free to e-mail me with questions! good luck! :^)

Comment by Alex on June 26, 2009 at 02:41 PM

Thank you :). That's the basis of what I was wondering; do I talk about 'doing a project', or something along those lines - or just start doing it. As I'm rereading my questions and your answers, I think my biggest issue is that I am scared to just start doing it. I want to kind of sort of do it, and pretend I'm not.
Partially because up until this point I've been really hands-off with any kind of homeschooling. We learn all the time, and talk about everything; but I have felt pretty strongly about just playing and talking.
This approach feels like the obvious natural extension of that, and really is just taking what we are already doing a little bit further.
But I think the biggest reason I am hesitating is because I am afraid I'm going to mess it up. If I'm just kinda sorta facilitating a project, I can pretend I wasn't ;).

Comment by chawannud on February 1, 2012 at 11:30 AM

I am homeschooing my son 8 and 11 years old in Thailand and looking for the website like this. Luckily, I found your.
Nud, Thailand.

Comment by Diana on February 19, 2014 at 07:40 PM

I am fairly new to homeschooling. My son just turned 7 and us in first grade. He seems to hate everything we do unless its some kind if project. I guess my question is.....by doung project based homeschooling, how do you teach a child the basics? My son despuses the time we sit and try to learn to read. I use the program Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Hes constantly complaining its too hard. When writing, he complains his hand hurts. How can math be taught?
I'm desperate and need help.
I also have a 5yr old daughter who was born with Down Syndrome. She's currently in preschool at the public school. I want to bring her home in the Fall and homeschool her too....I'm jyst so scarwd.
ANY advice is appreciated!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 19, 2014 at 07:57 PM


by doing project based homeschooling, how do you teach a child the basics?

pbh works with any general homeschooling approach from classical to unschooling. children are very motivated to practice their basic skills within the context of their deepest interests — and anything you want them to learn that isn’t covered naturally can be taught separately!

this post talks about how we personally use a negotiated curriculum:


when it comes to reading, again, it’s up to you whether to teach it deliberately or not. if you join the forum, you can check out this thread talking about strategies for learning how to read within a project:


and here’s a nice recent thread about math!



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