Projects and the intractable child

Published by Lori Pickert on October 28, 2007 at 04:18 PM


My ten-year-old has taken our lessons to heart. He is the architect of his own learning. He can learn about anything that interests him. We will provide him with whatever help he requests. (Emphasis on requests.)

If you have ever known a child who reacts to your suggesting a book by saying, automatically, without even thinking about it, "No thanks", you are familiar with this child.

If you have ever suggested to a child an activity that simply reeks of excitement and fun, only to be met with a casual, "Yeah, I don't think so, no thanks," you are familiar with this child.

Now that he is ten, things have improved. I can suggest a book without his immediately saying no. He is reading, and immensely enjoying, Kon-Tiki right now on my recommendation. He is pretty confident now that I won't force him to read a book he doesn't want to read.

Although he still has his doubts.

When he went through a stage of intense interest in Flickr, I pulled out a big pile of Time/Life Photography Series books that I bought years ago at a library sale.

He got very excited about a story about Joseph Pulitzer and how he was the first publisher to include sensationalistic photographs in his newspaper. (This was in the volume "Photojournalism" — these books were published in 1971, btw.) He was talking a mile a minute and gesturing and laughing. Before he told me the story, however, he paused to say significantly, "I wasn't reading about how cameras work or anything. It wasn't about that." It was like he was saying, "I know why you gave me these books — I'm onto you — and I didn't do what you wanted."

The directions he took his interest in — starting with Flickr — were places I couldn't have predicted. We talked about art — what is art, what's not. We talked about how pictures tell a story — or don't accurately reflect the truth. We talked about geography and places we want to visit.

I eventually realized that to him, Flickr was a toy, and he was playing with it. He was looking it up and down and all around and figuring out what it could do. He was running around the room with it making zooming noises like it was an airplane, then he was walking it across the floor and laughing. He was turning it inside out. He was in discovery mode. He was in the zone — the flow state — calm, relaxed, completely plugged in, energetic, and focused.

Anything I did that made it seem like I was dictating what he should do would make him stop in his tracks. It would break the spell.

Over time, I've become better at how I make my offers of assistance — emphasizing it's only a suggestion, and he can take it or leave it as he wishes. And he has become better at considering my offers, not always rejecting them out of hand.

The biggest lesson has been mine. I realized that I can't predict where he is headed. It is entirely his own direction, plotted out according to his needs, his interests, his goals. And I don't want to get in the way of that, so I need to hang back and make sure I'm supporting him, but not tripping him up by trying to anticipate where he wants to go. He'll let me know where he wants to go.

Also see: The Relentless Learner and The Myth of the Reluctant Learner


Comment by molly on October 29, 2007 at 03:17 PM

You could be writing about my Avery. She is like the bird from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, "I'll do it because I want to, not because you tell me to." She rarely expresses interest in a certain topic, so recently when she told me she wanted to learn how a zipper actually works, I offered her any of my zippers to play with and observe. "Never mind," she said. It is difficult to learn when to say something, say nothing, offer or withhold, but you give me hope.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2007 at 03:51 PM

lol, i'm glad i give you hope. ;^) it reminds me of my husband, who purposefully won't park in an empty spot if i point it out. is it contrariness? need for control? i don't know, but it's definitely hereditary!

actually, i can see myself in this child so much. (not just his father. ;^) i am a total control freak and hate being managed as well!

it *is* difficult to learn, and i still mess up all. the. time. i've learned that i shouldn't impose my ideas *at all*, but try to stick with questions. e.g.: how could we do that? where do you think we could go to find that information? etc.

(and having learned that, i still manage to forget!)

Comment by molly on October 30, 2007 at 01:45 PM

this is so good lori. i think i was one of these as a child, and I think I might have one of these of my own. sometimes I feel like I am really tiptoeing around her, trying not to make her shy away from something that I think would be really great for her. It's like trying to get a wild deer to eat out of your hand!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2007 at 03:10 PM

that is a wonderful analogy. :^)

because we really are offering something we think they will like, that will be good for them, that will sustain them! we reach out .. and they shy away.

so, i suppose my method is to leave the food out, go inside, and peek through the window blinds!

Comment by Megan on April 28, 2008 at 11:30 PM


pretty hilarious to read this today...

my girl came down all breathless and exhausted, showing me her new comic strip that she has made (the kids have been totally devouring Calvin & Hobbes, and Garfield) and they are pretty good..

so like a CRAZY WOMAN I start planning in my head how this could be her "project" for May, and her eyes jsut glaze over. "No thanks, MOM" she says, "I just did it for fun."

le sigh...

so after a few minutes I came over and looked at it again, I mean REALLY LOOKED. I talked about the characters, about how I could see their personalities in the facial expressions she drew, about the funny jokes she made them tell. I could see her shoulders relax, and she slowly relinquished her "battle stance." Then I started with the questions: do you need anything from me to help you?


"would you like to get some more books from the library?"


"what would you like to help things go better next time?"

her answer? "paper with squares on it already, and blotting paper to go under the page while I color it with my markers. They bleed alot."

I think she scents my desire to take over, and is reluctant to even ask me for materials, knowing my history of making her fun stuff into work.

le sigh again...

so, I will go get the requested materials, or show her how to make her own squares on the computer so she can print them out whenever she wants, and leave her alone...

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 29, 2008 at 12:31 AM

ah, see, you both have to feel your way - she is nervous that you are going to turn it into "work" - but if you offer without pressuring and give her what she asks for, eventually she'll grasp that it's totally hers and you're just there to support her. excellent. ;^)

Comment by Louise on May 2, 2009 at 04:39 AM

I am a latecomer to this blog and have just sat down and read and read - Lori I love what you are doing, as I also love what I know of the project approach and Reggio emilia but I have trouble translating these ideas into authentic curriculum in a preschool group - I feel that I need to learn some skills like how to foster discussion that provokes wondering - that a big area of need for me - but also how to then pick up on interests without imposing a teacher-planned activity - I appreciate what you say about questions - and I keep on coming back to that as the first step but do you have any suggestions for a group situation where the children have always PLAYED and I have encouraged that as they learn so much through it, but some, esp boys, do not want to submit to anything structured that might develop - so I have to use not so gentle persuasion - now it's time that we did such and such...if you or anyone reading this has some suggestions, I would be so grateful.
Louise in Victoria, Australia.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 2, 2009 at 12:10 PM

hi louse :^)

what you need to do is spend some time documenting *what* the children are playing at — what are they building in the block area? what imaginary games are they playing in the classroom and outside?

look for a small group of two or three children who have an intense interest. it is *they* who will pull in the rest of the children; you won’t have to gently persuade!

look for a project topic that you believe will either have enough general interest to appeal to most of the children *or* enough spread to offer many different entry points. you don’t want anything overly specific or too esoteric.

as an example, we did a very successful project that began with three boys who were obsessed (in the best sense of the word) with a book in the preschool library about dolphins and whales. the project grew from there, and the children eventually studied fishing equipment, boats, all fish (ocean and lake) and sea mammals, water, diving equipment, and on and on. representations were numerous and included a whole stage full of models that the children would “swim” through while wearing the scuba equipment they had made!

the three boys at the beginning, once they were given special attention, exploded in their work. they shared it with their classmates — *this* is how you get a whole group involved.

we *never* required project work of our preschoolers; everything they did was self-motivated. if you have children share their work with each other in your class meetings, and if you support their different ideas, they will *want* to work on the project, to be a part of it.

play is a natural part of project work. of course, the children spent part of each day playing at non-project-related things, but they also played at their project — playing with their clay models on the rug, making block buildings to house them; playing pretend with the models and representations they had made (fishing, diving, traveling in their child-size boat they’d made, etc.); acting out skits related to things they’d learned. through play, they reinforced everything they learned, and they also uncovered questions they had (which is why it is important to document their play!).

rather than asking boys to submit to structured learning, you need to turn it around so that you are offering yourself up as a trusted resource to provide what they need — materials, space, permission to build, etc.

please feel free to come back with more questions, and please let me know how it goes!

i am also going to copy this question and my answer over to this weekend’s open thread. :^)

Comment by tara pollard pakosta on October 14, 2009 at 02:23 PM

This sounds so much like my daughter, it's unreal~!
I am debating homeschooling her because I feel like she could learn so much more at home.
Your site is encouraging me to try it out. My daughter is almost 10 and in 4th grade. my other daughter is 8 and in 3rd grade.

Comment by Charmaine on August 22, 2011 at 01:42 AM

Ah yes, this is my 7yo child. We unschool, he follows his interests, I support, etc. But we don't really *do* projects in an organized way. Right now, and for the past few months, he's been really interested in countries. He looks at our world map daily and often, playing games with us that he's made up, reads our atlas, draws flags from various countries, is obsessed with license plates and tags saying where things were made - his knowledge of world geography is impressive and he has learned more than just geography - about different languages and why many countries share languages, how to read large numbers (millions for population, for example), that 'facts' are not always facts, eg size of countries can be disputed and can change, etc. So is this a project? But there is no project journal (from either of us), and I worry if I suggested a journal for him that he'd get scared off. (Well, for a while - I suspect his interest is strong enough to withstand a little meddling from me.) And what would go in the journal? So if there is no journal, is it a project? I also worry this his interest is all on the surface, that he's not diving into it, not going deeper, but I wonder if that's just because he's not doing what *I* think he should be doing next (eg looking more deeply at specific countries).

Also with the idea of a parent journal and me documenting what he does, photographing, taking notes, etc - I worry that would put him off doing stuff! Like he'd realize he's doing something I like so therefore decides he must stop immediately! Does that make sense? Did your oldest react like that at all?

Sorry for the LONG, babbly comment - just so many thoughts going on and don't know what to do with them all!

Comment by Charmaine on August 23, 2011 at 01:04 AM

Hi Lori - I was just coming here to thank you for your thoughtful response (that was emailed to me) but I don't see it here in the comments, so not sure what happened there?? Regardless, thank you - it has given me a lot to think about!

I also wanted to say I love the idea of him making flags with fabric. Last week he decorated a tshirt with friends for a soccer tournament and got really into it so I picked up some fabric markers today and as soon as we got home he found himself another tshirt to decorate. I haven't seen him get so excited about making something in a long time! But please oh please can I suggest the idea of making flags out of fabric to him please?! Or am I breaking all the rules doing that?! :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 26, 2011 at 12:58 PM

my earlier comment to charmaine that squarespace deleted:

hi charmaine. :)

you are at the point where you want to encourage him to dig deeper and
make it possible for him to do more with what he's doing. he's
basically stuck -- spinning his wheels.

some ideas:

- if you sense suggesting a journal would shut him down, trust your
instincts and don't do that.

- does he have a workspace with a bulletin board where everything can
be gathered together? reflecting his work back to him can give him new
ideas. are there maps hanging up along with some of his drawings?

- introduce new materials: since he's interested in flags, i would
make sure he has access to fabric. i would make sure he has drawing
and painting materials adjacent to his research materials. clay would
be a great thing to have available. has he seen topographical maps?

- have a brainstorming session. i assume he talks to you about what
he's doing and learning. ask him if he has any questions, then ask if
he has any ideas about where he could find the answers to those
questions. ask if there's anything he wants or needs -- or if there's
anywhere he'd like to go to see more.

- you don't need a journal to make a project; a journal is just a
tool. you do need focus to make a project and encourage deeper work.
it's all about creating opportunities to keep going, to do more.

- YOU can journal. this might help you re: what you think he should be
doing. you can record your ideas, but don't push them on him. record
what he does and says and works on and it may help you see where his
interests lie and how you might make it possible for him to travel
further in that direction.

"Also with the idea of a parent journal and me documenting what he
does, photographing, taking notes, etc - I worry that would put him
off doing stuff! Like he'd realize he's doing something I like so
therefore decides he must stop immediately!" :) if you give him a
tsunami of attention, you might make him stop. ease into it. usually,
attention and appreciation act as a self-fulfilling prophecy — you see
more of what you value. if you go crazy and paparazzi his every move,
however, you might turn him off.

you don't have to announce I AM JOURNALING YOU NOW. you can just
subtly start to record things. if he's curious, you can tell him that
you're interested in and impressed by the work he's doing and you want
to keep track of it. this is another area where you are going to have
to feel your way — you will find out if you're annoying him or
encouraging him and adjust accordingly. you know him, so you have a
head start — you have instincts about what will make him annoyed and
what might encourage him — start there!

try easing into it and doing one small thing at a time. if you don't
already have it, set up a wall space or bulletin board and hang up a
few things. leave him plenty of space to add to it as he wishes; just
get the ball rolling. get the art materials and make them available
but don't suggest what he should do with them — let him do whatever he
wants. keep things in proximity to one another — the things he's
working on now and the new materials. if he voices a question, write
it down and stick it on the board. and so you're on your way.

let me know how it goes!

Comment by Angie on September 13, 2012 at 03:48 PM

Your description of your son sound just like what's going on here. "I'm onto you..."

The best advice you've given to me is to be stealthy. In fact, I'm thinking for now, I'll just beef up the materials around the house and *gasp* not.say.a.thing.

It is hard, because in the past, I've suggested things that "I KNEW" they'd love! Things that are SO COOL and SO PERFECT and then it's like, for real? Don't these boys want to do anything? Ever? At all? It's frustrating. And this backing up, allowing, staying quietly stealthy thing is going to be hard for me. But I feel it's all I can do at this point. And really, it may be the very best thing for us all.

I also think trust is a huge part of this. I can tell my kids don't trust me yet that we aren't going back to a school way of life. Likely because I keep slipping back into that mode, usually because I'm panicked due to comparing us to other people. This is so hard.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 13, 2012 at 05:46 PM


trust is of bedrock importance. your trust for them. your trust that they will learn. their trust in you, which has to grow over time, as you prove yourself. and vice versa.

they have to learn that you really do want them to stay in control of the things they love. this doesn’t mean you can’t do curriculum, either — but i understand why you want to wait until you’re all in a better place with learning and with homeschooling.

i hope being stealthy works! ;o)

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