Camp Creek Blog

Project-based homeschooling, part 1

Published by Lori Pickert on October 7, 2007 at 01:46 PM


In broad terms, a theme is a topic that you explore somewhat shallowly for a limited amount of time. In general, a theme links activities in topic only. So, a preschool or kindergarten class might have a weekly theme of “pumpkins” or “dinosaurs.” During that week, children might move from center to center, doing different activities related to the theme. In the math center, they might count and sort theme-related erasers. In the writing center, they might color some pages with facts about the theme, then assemble them into a mini-book. Et cetera. Themes in school are like themes at a birthday party — they determine the shape of the cake, the decoration of the goody bag, but basically any theme can be used for any birthday party and the essential elements are the same: cake, balloons, piñatas, goody bags.

Any facts learned about a theme topic tend to be adult-introduced. The adult selects the information to be learned ahead of time.

A unit usually implies the topic is being explored in somewhat more depth, usually by older children. A unit could last anywhere from a week to several weeks. During a unit on pumpkins or dinosaurs, children might dissect a pumpkin in class or make a diorama of a dinosaur habitat.

In a unit, adults select much (usually all) of what is to be learned. Children may learn some extra facts, for example while writing a research paper.

So what is a project?


Projects are child-directed and child-managed. Of course, I’ve visited schools that say they are doing projects where the teacher is directing everything, but calling it child-directed. A teacher might say, “The children decided this is the direction they wanted to take, so I brought out these activities and those books and set up this field trip.” “Child-directed” is a delicate operation, and many times what I’ve seen in practice looks like a seventh-grade séance where an overzealous girl is manhandling a Ouija pointer.


When I say child-directed, I mean the child’s authentic interest in the topic is the beginning, their particular enthusiasms determine what is done in the middle, and their determination that they’re “done” signals the end. They are in control of what is studied and how their knowledge is represented. They are directing and managing their own learning, asking and answering their own questions, setting and meeting their own goals.

Adults facilitate projects; they act as learning mentors. Some adults (teachers or parents) feel like they aren’t doing their job if they’re not arranging curriculum, setting up field trips, choosing books and materials, finding activities and crafts, and assigning work. They’re supposed to be teaching, right? But there is another way. The adult can work in concert with the child, providing the materials the child says he needs, arranging field trips to places the child says she needs or wants to visit, helping the child figure out how to get the information he needs to answer his own questions.


Projects are open-ended. They last until they’re done — as decided by the child. There is no set time limit.

Projects are not linear. To define a project at the beginning (e.g., “We are doing a project on apples!”) can doom it to failure. From that point, you consciously or unconsciously delete everything that doesn’t fit into your project title (which is in danger of becoming your theme). Projects are organic and fluid; they grow in all directions. They can only be safely named at the end. A project that begins with an interest in apples could go in the direction of farm equipment, trees, cooking, birds, etc. You get the idea. If you start constricting what the project is, you will almost certainly be killing off the thing that makes a project successful — the child’s intense interest and ownership. Projects should really be named at their culmination. (The child can, of course, name his own project and call his work whatever he wants. You should just resist trying to define that work too soon.)

Projects integrate basic skills. Rather than teaching all subjects in isolation, when a project is under way, the adult looks for opportunities to pull in basic skills. Learning about whales, four- and five-year-old children can count and measure as they make life-size drawings of different sea creatures. Learning about Shakespeare, a third-grader might carefully measure, add, subtract, multiply, divide, use fractions, and calculate area in order to build a model of the Globe Theatre. Whatever basic skills can’t be acquired naturally during the project can still be taught separately if that is important to you.

The specific knowledge gained during a project is controlled by the child. Rather than having an adult determine what is appropriate for a child’s age or attention span, the child will begin at zero and take it as far and wide and deep as he or she wishes. There is no limit to what can be learned. The child determines what they can do rather than the adult.

Caveat: Some people say they are doing themes or units, when the way they work is actually more oriented toward project-based learning. These definitions don’t define what you do, they define how we talk about learning.

I'll be writing more about how we homeschool using project-based learning.

Project: Tepee

Published by Lori Pickert on October 4, 2007 at 10:14 PM


I whipped up a tepee for younger son yesterday. He was talking about how much he wants a treehouse, and I pointed out that the upstairs deck is very much like a treehouse.

He was quite dubious.

I bought three six-foot-long pieces of bamboo a couple years ago for about $7.00. I was planning on making a tepee for school — maybe out by the garden, or maybe an inside tepee for a special reading nook.

So today I fetched those never-used pieces of bamboo, rooted around in the closet for an old canvas duvet cover, produced a pair of scissors and announced I could make him something cool, something super-cool, that would be even better than a treehouse.

tipi2.jpgThe pieces of bamboo were tied together with twine in three spots. I removed two of the twine "bracelets" and left the remaining one to hold the top of the tepee together.

I cut one corner off the duvet (did I mention this is a no-sew project?) and popped it over the top, then cut along one seam so it would be tepee-shaped.

tipi4.jpgI cut straight up one seam to make the door, then I cut out a window and rolled it up, securing it with a little clamp. (I traced a magazine to make a more-or-less rectangular window.)

We threw an old pillow on the floor and younger son found a plastic bin to hold art supplies and a pair of binoculars; he was delighted that the bin also made him a little table.

tipi5.jpgFinal result: For $7.00, we have a fantastic play structure that will entertain him all fall. And if it rains, we can pop the fabric in the washing machine and dryer. (The pillow comes in at night.)

He says it's better than a treehouse, for sure.


More tent & tepee goodness:

Eren's cowboy camp on her blog, This Vintage Chica

Plains Indian Tepee

HGTV's much more complicated DIY tepee

Grow a Beanpole Tepee

Excerpt: The Once and Future King

Published by Lori Pickert on October 4, 2007 at 12:20 PM

It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.

There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox's mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars' tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence -- all feeding on the appropriate leaves -- a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, and Old Man's Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants' nests between two glass plates, ink-bottles of every possible colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.

— The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

Last night, after reading this description of Merlyn's study, we agreed .. it would certainly make a good homeschooling room, wouldn't it?

Children’s art studio

Published by Lori Pickert on October 3, 2007 at 06:52 PM


Our Reggio-inspired art studio.

Hanging from the ceiling, children's artwork in handmade plexiglass frames, forming a see-through wall of art.

The shelves are inexpensive fiberboard shelves, screwed together, and then backed with galvanized tin, the same material used in the country to roof outbuildings. Eight dollars a sheet.

Shelves displaying art materials and works in progress, handmade by us from simple boards, and mirrored with cheap dorm-room mirrors laid horizontally ($5 each).

Candy-colored lights hung from the ceiling to mitigate the sometimes harsh feel of fluorescent lighting.

Kids and photography

Published by Lori Pickert on October 1, 2007 at 08:18 PM


Cameras are an important homeschooling tool for us.

The boys' photographs never fail to impress me. They notice and focus on things I didn't see. They capture the experience from their own kid perspective. And they never fail to highlight the things that mean the most to them.


Invariably, I think their pictures tell a more accurate (and more humorous) story than mine.



We use cameras for snapshots, making art, communicating with friends and family, field trips, journaling. We also use them just to help us focus more — taking them on a walk in the woods, for example. We notice so much more when we bring our cameras, because we're really looking — looking to see what's there, searching for things that are interesting — instead of just talking and walking.



I notice that they tend to zoom in closer than I would sometimes, and often they step back and take much more in than I would.



They are very creative, and they come up with ideas I'd have never thought of.



Like other types of artwork (drawings, paintings), photographs give us a starting point for interesting conversations and the boys have a different, non-writing way to take notes. They can catalog interests, questions, ideas. The boys' photographs become a jumping-off point for conversations that might lead to something as simple as looking up a type of tree and as complex as what the symbols on cemetary markers mean. The cameras are our tools, and their photographs become our resource materials.

All photographs except the top one were taken by my sons, at ages 4 through 10.

In praise of high-quality art materials

Published by Lori Pickert on September 27, 2007 at 10:43 PM


For the seven years that I ran my private school, we had an art- and project-based curriculum. Soon after we opened, I discovered the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, and learning about their methods inspired and informed the remainder of our days in the classroom.


One of the tenets of the Reggio approach is that children deserve high-quality art materials.

Why buy expensive high-quality materials for children? They just burn through whatever you give them. Can we afford to buy them expensive paper, when they can produce 25 drawings in one sitting? And that sitting only lasted 20 minutes?

Giving children high-quality materials sends a message. It’s not enough to say, “I think your work is important.” If I give my children cheap paper and paint, what can they produce? Muddy-colored paintings that dry and flake off cheap, thin paper that tears easily. My words are saying “Your work is important” but the materials are saying “Your work is not important.”


It’s true that you can’t just hand children a pile of expensive paper and a basket of high-quality markers and walk away without a backward glance. You need to convey your respect for the materials and show children how to use them properly and put them away so they’ll be good for next time.

The youngest children in our classroom — just-turned-three-year-olds — were capable of washing out their paintbrushes and palettes and putting them away. Age is no excuse for not taking care of your materials.

It’s also valuable to teach children when it’s appropriate to use “regular” paper and when an artwork deserves the better, more expensive paper. The lowest-quality paper I can accept is copy paper — not too expensive at 500 sheets for a few dollars. We use copy paper to make marker drawings, pencil drawings, mini-books, etc. We go through a lot of it. But we also have watercolor paper, large loose sheets of drawing paper, and heavy paper for painting with tempera and acrylics, charcoal, and ink. Children can learn to use regular paper for sketching, everyday drawing, and early drafts and use the best paper for their best work. Talking with them about their intentions before they work can help them decide which is appropriate. You can also encourage them to pull out the good paper after they’ve done several renditions of a drawing on regular paper.

There are many steps to introducing high-quality materials and tools to young children and teaching them how to use and care for them. For now, I’ll just say the following:

• High-quality materials convey to children that their work is important.

• High-quality materials inspire children to work more slowly and carefully.

• Children's important work deserves high-quality materials.


The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences. — Loris Malaguzzi

Reading nooks

Published by Lori Pickert on September 4, 2007 at 01:36 AM

The art of organization

Published by Lori Pickert on September 2, 2007 at 03:55 PM


Don't worry, I'm not going to pretend I can cover the topic of organization in just one post.

After all, "Real Simple" talks about it in pretty much every issue.

However, we're getting ready to gear up for the school year, we need to organize our classrooms, and parents have many of the same concerns at home. (In fact, more and more bedrooms and play rooms are drawing inspiration from classrooms.)

I am not one of those people who keep only the things which I feel to be beautiful or know to be useful (paraphrasing William Morris). My closets and drawers are crowded with the less attractive, the downright ugly, the obscure, and the "maybe some day".

At home (see above), we had a major organizing shift this year in the play room. I purchased a couple dozen of the clear bins shown, which have permanently attached lids that, when open, hang neatly at the bin's sides like a hinged open door. These were purchased at Wal-Mart when they were on clearance, and I made a second trip to get more. Bless the person who thought of the permanently attached lid.


Clear bins and containers are so nice for showcasing their contents. If a child can't see into it (e.g., open baskets and trays on a low shelf), clear containers allow them to see what materials are available.

With limited storage, it always helps to go up ... clear containers on high shelves mean materials that aren't needed everyday are still in sight, so children don't forget what you have. High shelves are also a nice way to display completed projects.

paintcan.jpgOne of my favorite finds for organizing pens, pencils, markers, paintbrushes, etc, is paint cans. The paint store sells them (new, unused) in different sizes, about 88 cents for the quart size. These are a natural material, sturdy, and .. bonus .. magnetic -- so you use magnets or magnetic labels on them.

Martha Stewart uses paint cans turned on their sides to make excellent cubbies. It's not hard to imagine these repurposed as student mailboxes in the classroom (drawings can be rolled!).

More organizational inspiration for today:

Colanders instead of baskets

Pegboard desk (Martha Stewart Kids)

Baskets, chalkboards, and cork boards (Pottery Barn Kids)

Slat shelves

A writing place

Published by Lori Pickert on August 30, 2007 at 03:08 AM


As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Or so the saying goes.

We want to encourage reading, writing, and drawing as daily activities, so we purposefully have several spaces that are very inviting for curling up with a book, drawing a picture, or writing a letter. (Or, this week, drawing a comic book.)

In preschool and Kindergarten classrooms (and sometimes, if you're lucky, older grades), there are usually "writing centers". Sometimes these areas are a bit school-ish (institutional) and perhaps big enough for several children.

A great writing space is big enough for two children to work side-by-side, so you can work with a sibling or a friend. You can use a thrift-store or garage-sale desk or table and stock it with all the things you would find in a regular desk: stationery, envelopes, stamps (blank labels cut into squares can be decorated by the sender), address book, etc. We like old-fashioned rubber stamps. And writing isn't only about mail -- we always offer small handmade books with decorative covers (the easiest of these are just folded and stapled copy paper), clipboards for taking surveys and doing pretend office work, and etc.

Even the smallest space can fit in a tiny corner for a desk that will beckon to children to sit down and write a letter, a poem, a book .. or a comic book. And small spaces are nice, even when you have a lot of space to work with. There’s nothing like a cozy nook to draw children in, whether it’s a single floor cushion half hidden behind a curtain for reading or a tiny desk with cubbies stuffed full of found papers and office supplies for writing.

soulemama's corner of my home: his desk

geninne's studio/homeschool

israel's desk

little birds' new drawing corner

maisie's desk

syko's drawing corner

duchamp blinks' desk

Mirrored shelves

Published by Lori Pickert on August 25, 2007 at 08:48 PM


This week we’ll share some of our tips for making a beautiful learning space (at home or at school) without spending much money.

Our preschool classrooms, like many in America, were located in the basement of our building. Yet we still managed to have a very bright and open space, and we received a lot of compliments on its warm and welcoming feel.

One way we accomplished that goal was the right paint color — light, bright, but also warm. It was a very light yellow, and it even managed to warm up the overhead fluorescent lighting. If you can manage it, full-spectrum paint is the best (but it’s more expensive).

We bounced our available natural light around with several mirrors, making the most of our two small windows. In the picture above, you can see students choosing art materials from mirrored shelves. Mirrors not only bounce light and reflect views, but they give the illusion of extra space. Setting a mirror behind a plant gives you two plants, and so on.

These mirrored shelves were easily (and cheaply!) accomplished with inexpensive metal shelving hardware, wood planks, and five-dollar door mirrors (bought at this time of year, meant for dorm rooms) laid sideways and attached to the wall in-between the shelves.

Set out art materials in garage-sale wooden bowls and berry baskets, and you have a beautiful, affordable display.