Project-based homeschooling

Published by Lori Pickert on October 2, 2008 at 02:00 PM

What is a project? What is the difference between a project, a theme, and a unit?

A theme is just like a party theme. If you are throwing a Cinderella party, you buy Cinderella plates, Cinderella goody bags, and a Cinderella cake. If a Kindergarten class is doing a pumpkin theme, they count pumpkin erasers, cut and paste a pumpkin face at the “art” table, and read a pumpkin story during circle time.

A unit is a planned course of study including lessons and activities. It may be interdisciplinary — involving language arts (reading, writing), science, math, etc.

A project is an open-ended investigation of a topic, driven by inquiry — posing questions, answering those questions, and uncovering new questions along the way.

These terms are mixed freely. People talk of “thematic units”, “project approach units”, “project themes”, etc. People do units that are really projects, and they do projects that are really units.

For our purposes, in a project,

• the child chooses the topic to be studied,

• the child directs his or her own learning,


• the parameters are not predefined (length, breadth, or depth).

The point of project work isn’t to impart a particular group of facts, but rather to help a child master the skills of learning.

Projects provide the part of the curriculum in which children are encouraged to make their own decisions and choices — usually in cooperation with their peers and in consultation with their teachers — about the work to be undertaken. — Lilian Katz, “What Can We Learn from Reggio Emilia?”


Comment by Molly on October 4, 2008 at 02:54 PM

This is helping me. Apparently we are doing a unit on geography, not a project -- even though the unit is ongoing.

I have to admit, I've been questioning myself because I did NOT purchase a curriculum. What I know is that we are someplace between standard 3rd and 4th grade subject matter - strengthening the basics (in review perhaps) for math. In other areas, Helen is learning to drive an outboard motor and how it works -- not on the radar as a standard learning objective, but invaluable in terms of 'life learning.'

I really want to encourage her to take on a project but since she is accustomed to (and expecting) a classroom directed structure, I'm not quite sure how to open that door.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 4, 2008 at 03:19 PM

Molly, I am going to talk about integrating projects with other curricula and introducing project learning to older children. Just e-mail me if you want to talk about something specific in the meantime. :^)

Also .. “life learning” .. I don’t think you could identify a practical, usable life skill that couldn’t fit into an existing learning objective. ;^)

Comment by Naancy Gaumer on October 13, 2008 at 12:33 AM

Have you or anyone reading read "Teaching Parents to Do Projects at Home" by Judy Harris Helm? I have the book and will be reading it in the near future. I'm excited that you've been writing more on your blog-your work is so practical and interesting.
Also-did you all do much documentation at your school?

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 13, 2008 at 01:56 AM

nancy! good to hear from you. :^)

i have not read that specific book but i have read "young investigators" and other work by judy. as you know, i don’t follow a strict “project approach” approach. ;^) but i like to read everything anyway, and take what does work for me!

documentation was a crucial part of what we were doing at our school, and it was a major focus of our professional development efforts. documentation was, for me, the way that we studied how the children learned and how we could improve our efforts to support their learning. i can’t overemphasize its importance to our program.

Comment by Lucia on October 30, 2008 at 03:52 AM

Lori, just checking out your blog and finding so many things that resonate with me. I especially appreciated your distinctions in this post regarding projects and project based learning. I have also been wanting to learn more about the Reggio approach so reading through your posts is a good learning experience in itself. I'll look forward to reading more. Thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2008 at 04:23 AM

lucia, thank you very much -- i hope to see you around the blog. :^)

Comment by Jody - home day... on November 2, 2008 at 06:45 PM

Has anyone ever done a pumkin characteristics/life cycle project? I am looking for ideas to include in a hands-on activity table. I have books, videos, pumpkins, cloth tape measurers, graph paper/markers, rulers, tape recorders, blank paper, spoons, bowls, seeds, pulp, and orange clay. Can you think of any other supportive materials?

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 2, 2008 at 07:21 PM

Jody, I think you have plenty of materials to start an open-ended investigation. I recommend you set out what you have and then document how the children use them, any questions they ask, their plans, etc. Take photographs of them working. Set aside time after working for them to share what they did with each other; ask them what they plan to do next and record what they say so you can remind them the next day. Try not to have too firm an idea of where they will go (e.g., life cycles), and leave room for the direction they are most interested in taking it. That would be an excellent start.

Comment by Pam on January 21, 2010 at 01:41 AM

I am so, so, so intrigued by this post and all of your others on project-based learning. I would love to do projects instead of units or theme. I really want my kids to be thinkers. BUT, my name is Pam and I am a control freak. I am trying, though.

We made a list of things my daughter (4) wanted to "learn about when we are in the schoolroom". Painting, Barbies, and flying ponies all were on the list. I am steering her towards the painting aspect, because of your post about the topic having to be tolerable to me too. We also had a "moment" last night where little brother (almost three) came across a photo of a volcano and asked what it was. There was a bit of discussion about what came out of a volcano ("goo") and that volcanoes sometimes sleep (Go, Deigo, Go), but definitely a spark of interest.

My problems -- how do I explain brainstorming to them? When I ask what would you like to learn about ______ I mostly get a blank stare. On our trip to the library, they mostly wanted to play with the toys the library has out in the kid's section or color the pictures of the Bratz dolls the librarian has so graciously made available. (The kids' librarian wasn't in today -- they were all prepared to ask for books.) So, I ended up gathering a ton of resources and bringing them home. When we sat down with the resources and post its they would flip to a page, stick on a post it, close the book and grab another. I think they barely looked at what they were marking (they had a couple of books about volcanoes, art books, and some painting project books -- I told them to mark a painting project they saw they might want to try).

I think my problem is they have no experience whatsoever with what we are trying to do. Should I model the process? Should I become a co-learner in the topic and model how I would find resources, flip through and mark interesting tidbits, create a project journal, etc? I realize the idea is to let them lead, but really there IS a process there that is followed. How do I get them moving in the right direction? Am I making sense? Am I totally missing the point?


Comment by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2010 at 02:37 AM

hi pam. :^)

i'm going to suggest you read through ALL the project-based learning posts:

Things should become clearer.

In the meantime, I'll give you a few pointers to get you started in the right direction. :^)

With younger children, it really doesn't work to sit down and ask what they want to study -- unless they already have a few major projects under their belt.

Rather, you should begin observing their play, conversations, questions, etc., and documenting everything in your journal. Take copious notes and review them after you have documented several different segments of time. Look for patterns and possible project topics -- interests, questions, etc. This is a *much* more reliable way to identify possible project topics with very young children -- and even older children who have no experience with projects. (Children aren't always the best at identifying their own authentic interests .. especially if they haven't had any experience learning in this way.)

You don't need to explain brainstorming to them. You simply need to model being the type of learner you want them to be. Wonder out loud. Have ideas. Ask questions.

You'll find advice on here about NOT bringing home a ton of resources at once. :^) It's overwhelming, as you have probably figured out. :^) Instead, when you're at the library, pull a half dozen books and let your daughter pick out what she wants to get. Over time, she'll learn to ask the librarian for help finding books on her topic. Get her started on making her own decisions. (Even when you think they're wrong!)

Let things move s-l-o-w-l-y. Concentrate on just a few books. Read them multiple times. Let her pore over them herself. Set them out with drawing, painting, and collaging materials (on separate days! s-l-o-w-l-y). Hang up xeroxes and her drawings. Talk about everything.

Finally, remember that your children are very young -- but perfectly capable of doing deep project work. Simply take your time and allow them to very slowly begin to explore something that interests them -- and don't let yourself hurry on.

Remember that the most important thing for them to do at this age is learn the habits and attitudes of a successful learner. Don't get too hung up on making an impressive project, especially the first time. Simply start to experience all the parts of a successful project -- curiosity, exploring resources, posing questions, expressing ideas in multiple media, etc. etc. etc.

Good luck, and let me know how it's going!

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