Camp Creek Blog

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

Reinvent the wheel

Published by Lori Pickert on October 3, 2008 at 03:27 PM

When we grown-ups set out to do something, we always want to stand on the shoulders of those who went before. We don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel.

With project work, however, we do want to reinvent the wheel.

We want to start at square one and not a bit past it.

It’s easy to inadvertently squelch a child’s budding interest by simply answering a question.

A question is a beginning. If a child says, “How?” or “Why?” and we give them the answer, that is the end.

No, you can’t give every question a coronation. Children ask a lot of questions.

But a question, given the chance, will turn into two more questions. And so on, and so on, fed by interest, until a whole world opens.

Imagine the whole of knowledge in the form of a globe. You touch anywhere on the globe, and it connects to everything else, eventually.

Six magic words: “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” Whether you know the answer or not. Those magic words are the equivalent of swinging open a door for your child and letting him, or her, step through. Then you follow.

No, you can’t open that door to every single question an intelligent, inquistive child will ask. But you can open one.

Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors or inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasure of inquiry, their motivation and interest explode. — Loris Malaguzzi

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?”

Traveling light

Published by Lori Pickert on October 2, 2008 at 01:05 PM

Homeschooling isn’t just an educational choice; it’s a lifestyle choice.

We have been trying to make the most of our available freedom, especially since we are also self-employed. We can go to the movies on a Monday afternoon, and we can take vacations in September.

(A friend just told me that her public school no longer accepts travel as an excused absence, so she and her husband won’t be able to bring their children on a great work trip this winter — ridiculous! What is more educational than travel?)

We approach travel in the same way we approach learning — with enthusiasm, a strong interest in an area, no set plans, and not knowing exactly where we’ll go or where we’ll end up. We have a few tools at our disposal — guidebooks, cameras, journals — and we look forward to exploring and finding out things we didn’t know before.

This summer we stood on a bluff above Lake Superior at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore listening to my 11-year-old explain plate tectonics (his project last year was geology). Then, on a tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, he raised his hand to answer the guide’s question about one of the cave’s early owners, nephew of one William Clark of the Lewis & Clark expedition (a project topic from three years ago). And so, another similarity to our approach to education — everything is connected.

How long is a project?

Published by Lori Pickert on October 1, 2008 at 02:46 PM

I used to advise that projects could last anywhere from a week or two to several months.

Now I just say, “Projects begin. They never end.”

Every fall, Jack chooses a new project to begin studying. Then he lists every project he’s studied since the beginning of time as well. It’s like that game, “I’m going on a trip and I’m bringing ...” So, this year, he’s going to study biology (a bit broad? his choice), and comics, and Greek mythology, and birds, and cooking, and ...

When we were using projects in the classroom, we had a group of preschool students who studied their topic for a full year, then came back after summer vacation and wanted to pick up right where they left off. Children and their short-attention spans...

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” — Pat Conroy

Inspiring children’s rooms

Published by Lori Pickert on September 20, 2008 at 09:07 PM


Inspiring children’s spaces, via mopu42. Featured room by Delson or Sherman Architects, New York.

Control issues

Published by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2008 at 01:19 PM

We love visitor centers.

For one thing, they have taxidermy. I prefer my taxidermy to look like it was done in the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and most visitor centers are accommodating.

Actually, while spiffy new visitor centers can be awesome too, there is nothing that thrills my heart like 1970s-era headphones and a row of colored buttons. That droning voice — the same guy who did the voice-overs for film strips in the 60s — telling me about the eating habits of this mammal or the significance of that geological formation ... that's my idea of fun.

When we pull up to a visitor center, our kids burst out of the car and race in. They grab free hand-outs for their trip journals. They try to locate and stake out the best taxidermy. They are enthusiasm personified.

I should state here that my kids like to people-watch. They have been known to stare in slack-jawed fascination at people from a distance of about two feet.

Recently we shared a visitor center with a family whose kids were markedly not enjoying the experience. They were being dragged unwillingly from exhibit to exhibit with sullen expressions. This caught the attention of my junior anthropologists, who almost unconsciously began to tail them around the room.

The mom read each sign and label aloud in a booming voice that would have made a theatre teacher proud. Her kids stared at the floor. Her voice grew more fake-animated. “Just look at this! Did you see this?!” The kids continued to study the carpet pattern and grind their fists into their armpits. When mom marched them off to the gift shop in military fashion, I managed to snag mine and keep them from following.

My kids were fascinated. “How could you not like the visitor center?!” “Why were those kids so mad?”

After we left, I realized the visitor center makes a neat parallel to project-based learning. If the parent (or teacher) insists on being in charge and dispensing all the information, the kids are completely passive. They can become nothing more than reluctant victims, regardless of how interesting the subject matter.

When we go into the visitor center, the kids shoot off in different directions. “Hey, look at this!” “Come here! Come here!” Everyone gets to read something aloud and point out something that they knew first. Each person gets to be an expert.

Nothing causes a child to lose interest faster than having no control in the learning situation and having someone else in charge of each nutritional bite of information being spoon fed into them. Nothing excites a child more than having the opportunity to learn something that no one else around him knows.

If we define the parameters of a learning experience before a child has even begun — deciding what will be studied, in what order, what information is important/not important, etc. — then we have taken the steering wheel and delegated our child to the back seat.

If we let our children define the parameters — as they go — then they’re in the driver’s seat. They get to show us around; they get to follow the path that is most interesting to them. They decide how far they will go. It requires parents (and teachers) to give up control of the situation. But aren’t we really here to teach our kids to drive?


Published by Lori Pickert on August 30, 2008 at 03:02 AM

I highly recommend the documentary Where Do the Children Play?, showing now on PBS.

Free play is slipping away from children’s lives. Yet time spent building forts or exploring outdoors, caring for animals, pretending or problem-solving with peers are now being shown by a wide body of research to be essential to healthy development, spiritual attunement, and emotional survival. Open-ended play in places that offer access to woods, gullies and gardens, ditches, boulders, and bike paths enhances curiosity and confidence throughout life.

We homeschoolers

Published by Lori Pickert on July 27, 2008 at 12:45 PM

A friend sent me a link to a blog where an excited homeschooling mom had listed the curriculum she’d purchased for the upcoming year — a list as long as my leg. Wow!

She delightedly said something to the tune of “this is how we homeschoolers do things!”

Of course, in truth, the homeschooling community is as diverse as America itself. There are many, many different ways to homeschool. “We homeschoolers” can’t be pigeon-holed.

The gleeful mom’s mile-long curriculum list made me smile. It reminded me of my diaper bag evolution. When my first son was born, I really would have been most comfortable if I’d had a diaper bag big enough to fit around the entire house so I could bring along absolutely anything I might need in case of emergency. By the time my second son was born, I could just stuff a disposable diaper in my pocket and grab my car keys.

That’s not to say that every homeschooler is evolving toward unschooling, but “we homeschoolers” do get more confident as we go along, no matter what methods and approaches we use. We trust ourselves and the process more, because you can’t help but be amazed by how much the kids themselves bring to the table, regardless of the materials we’ve gathered. Not to mention how much learning is just sitting outside the front door, waiting to be discovered.

I’ll be stuffing a field guide, a notebook, and a magnifying glass in my back pocket as we head out the door this fall. Because “we homeschoolers” know it’s an amazing world out there, chock-full of possibilities.


Published by Lori Pickert on June 5, 2008 at 03:31 AM


The creek flooded its banks and made a temporary lake behind our house.

The temporary lake brought a new temporary pet — a baby snapping turtle. With the woods and the creek in your backyard, it’s easy to adopt a little bit of wildlife, watch it, feed it, learn about it, then let it go again.

Last year we found a box turtle just getting into the road and brought him home for a couple of weeks, then carefully returned him exactly where we found him — except, you know, about 12 feet further on his way, on the other side of the road. Turtles are so slow, and pickups so fast.

For it was rather exciting. The little dry ditches in which Piglet had nosed about so often had become streams, the little streams across which he had splashed were rivers, and the river, between whose steep banks they had played so happily, had sprawled out of its own bed and was taking up so much room everywhere, that Piglet was beginning to wonder whether it would be coming into his bed soon.