How to Start a Project Group
Note: This guide is based on the ideas and strategies for mentoring self-directed learners as expressed in Project-Based Homeschooling.
How to Structure your Project Group
There are many different ways you might want to structure a project group:
- multi-family project group that meets regularly
- co-op class
- open art studio hours
- summer camp
- just inviting some kid friends over to join in your child’s project
- and so on.
Perhaps you’re already working with a group (scouts, after-school class, homeschool art class) and you’re interested in moving in a project-oriented direction.
If you are working on a building a community from scratch, check the advice given in The Introvert’s Guide to Building Community. Keep in mind that you might want to do a short-term, test version of what you have in mind before you launch something more permanent.
In this guide, I’ve addressed some of the issues you’ll need to think through and I give general advice for helping a multi-age group of children do collaborative project work. Every project group will be unique, because the people involved (both adults and children) will be different and the work they’re doing together will be different. Use the talking points outlined here to jumpstart your thinking and your planning.
Please note this guide has ideas that you should be able to level for kids age 3 through 10 or so. There is a special section at the end addressing the specific needs of older kids and teens.
What age groups will you allow?
While multi-age is great, a reasonable range works best: say, ages 3–6, 5–8, 8–11, etc. If the kids differ too much in age, they won’t be able to work collaboratively as equals or near-equals. Collaboration means everyone has something to offer to the group, so while a range of ages is optimal, too wide a range doesn’t give everyone a chance to contribute.
What child:adult ratio do you need?
You can do great collaborative work with just a few children if they get along well. A group of between five and twelve kids is probably ideal. With just a few children, you could get away with one adult — but having more allows one person to work directly with the kids (say, helping cut a cardboard box) while the other documents (keeps notes, takes photographs) and keeps an eye on the kids who are working independently.
Will adults stay with the children or drop off?
If they drop off, it might be best to require either a fee or volunteer hours so your group doesn’t become free babysitting for people who aren’t genuinely interested in project-based learning. If you know all the participants well and they are all invested in the group’s success, this may not be necessary.
If you have multiple families, you may be able to take turns working with the kids (two parents stay for each session), but you will need to make sure everyone communicates well about what’s happening, what’s needed for the next class, and so on — and you’ll need to make sure everyone is on the same page about how to support the kids. It may be easier to have one person who takes responsibility for keeping things consistent.
Will you return to the same space each time or move around (say, taking turns at one another’s homes)? If you are returning to the same space, can you leave materials and in-progress constructions there, or do you need to clean/pack up each time and then bring everything back again?
If you are setting up fresh each time, you will need to think about
- how to transport materials and tools (perhaps in bins)
- how to make things easy to clean up afterward (perhaps using canvas drop cloths on the floor and wipeable vinyl tablecloths on the tables)
- how you will move and store in-progress constructions between meeting times
If it is an outdoor class or group (e.g., sketch walk, outdoor art class, hiking + drawing class, meet-at-the-park class) or if you will take frequent field trips, you may want to purchase an inexpensive rolling backpack or suitcase to create a portable art studio.
If you are comparing various possible venues, you may want to consider
- whether you will be able to do large, shared constructions (e.g., a child-size boat or bulldozer)
- how easily you can access the outdoors (for recess, nature study, etc.)
- how easy/difficult the space is to clean
- whether you can leave materials on-site or must remove them each time
- aesthetics (natural light, room to move about and work on the floor)
- child safety issues
How often will you meet?
If it’s too infrequent, the children may not be able to maintain a shared interest. They’ll forget what they were doing last time or they’ll develop different interests in the meantime, and you won’t be able to stay with one idea long enough to do complex work.
If you have less time together but meet more frequently, it may help them remember their interest and their goals. The longer you wait between sessions, the less likely the children will be to remember what they wanted to do and maintain their enthusiasm for continuing.
However often you meet, it’s most important to establish a core group of people who will reliably participate. Try to find one or two other families who will prioritize this. It’s okay if some kids attend less regularly, as long as there is a core group who can carry things along.
Of course, the children can work on their projects at home between meetings. When they come back together, they can share what they did at home. (See description of first meeting.) Having a dedicated project time doesn’t preclude spontaneous work — it works in concert with it and makes it more likely to occur.
Before You Launch
It’s important than all the adults involved understand what you are there to do, what your goals and values are, and how the children should be supported.
Don’t assume that everyone knows what you mean by “self-directed learning,” “child-led,” “inquiry-based,” and so on. It’s best to go ahead and prepare a packet of information everyone can read for background information as well as a mission statement for what you will do during your get-togethers — as detailed as possible to avoid misunderstandings.
For a reading packet, you might share selections from books, blog posts, and websites. Make this short enough so people will really read it, and underscore the most important points: You’ll be supporting the children’s ideas and helping them work independently.
If you are in charge of organizing a new group, you might provide the reading packet as well as the mission statement to interested parties so they can determine whether they want to join.
If you are working with a group of people all sharing responsibility for starting the group, you should work together to choose reading selections and write the mission statement. Meet ahead of time to agree on your basic goals for how you want to use the time together and how you will interact with the kids and support them to do self-directed work.
You should discuss the nitty-gritty of who is going to do what, where you can meet, how you’ll divide responsibilities, how much money each family will contribute for materials, and so forth, but also your shared goals and values. The more work you do up front, the less confusion there will be down the line. If things go awry, you’ll be able to point to your mission statement and stated goals when making decisions or hashing out disagreements.
You are building a learning community where the adults as well as the children will share ideas and work together on a project that will grow and change over time. You want to embody the same collaborative effort that you hope to mentor in the children. You want to support one another the same way you will support the children.
If you meet beforehand to talk about expectations and goals, if you share readings to get on the same page and become familiar with terms and ideas, and then you agree on a mission statement and the principles you will try to follow, you are getting started on the right foot. You are preparing the adults to work together in a collaborative way much as you will help the children learn to work together.
You should continue to make time to discuss group issues after you start. You can start a private online Facebook, Yahoo, or Google group, but in-person meetings are important, too. If possible, try to take ten minutes at the beginning or end of a group get-together to make plans/settle small decisions. (If you give the kids ten or fifteen minutes to run around outside together before your session, you can use that time to go over plans for the day and other issues while the kids expend their excess energy.) Remember tone is hard to read online and in e-mail — in person, we all tend to be a bit more pleasant.
Consistency is Key
The most important thing is to have a strong core group of people who will reliably show up every time. It doesn’t have to be a big group, but a core group of committed members is crucial. If you have one or two other committed families, it won't matter so much if other people drift in and out.
The regularity with which children participate directly affects their feeling of ownership over the work. If they don’t attend consistently, they won’t feel any attachment for shared work (say, building a large model together or writing and performing a skit). Those kids will have a harder time settling down to work because they are less invested and therefore less engaged. They may end up distracting other children.
A group of kids who get together irregularly can’t sustain their focus, they can’t make equal contributions, and they can’t remember what it was they wanted to do because too much time has passed. In general, your core group of regular attendees will be very invested in the work — you need to support them by getting together regularly and helping them maintain their focus and remember their plans.
If you have a strong core, there may always be a nimbus of “sometimes there” kids — as long as they are interested in the work and contribute when they’re around, that’s fine. If you have kids who aren’t at all interested (because they rarely attend), you may need to talk to their parents about whether they should continue.
Even if kids are working on their own projects (rather than one large shared project), it’s the kids who return each time who will stay focused on their goals and work purposefully. And even if they’re working on their own projects, they can still share ideas with one another, share plans, ask questions, give suggestions, help each other solve problems, and so on. It’s the consistency that matters: meeting regularly, having a core group of kids who always show up, and having adults support the work and respond thoughtfully to what the kids need.
Choosing a Project Topic
You can organize a project group around a topic a few different ways:
- You can announce a group based around a pre-chosen topic. Choose something that your child already wants to explore (so really your child is picking the topic) and invite other children to join in. “We are going to meet at the library on Monday and Thursday mornings to explore space/dinosaurs/mummies, read some project-related books, do some open-ended art, and we’ll be organizing some related field trips — let us know if your child would be interested in joining us.” You can always organize another project group around another topic when this one finishes — and you hopefully will have found some like-minded people to move forward with.
- You can start an open-ended project group, share with other parents what you want to try to do, then look for an interest the kids share or one that a few of them are especially excited about. This mirrors the way project-based learning is done in an early-childhood classroom.
- You can organize a regular get-together where kids work on their own projects, art and building materials are available, kids share what they’re working on with each other and work alongside one another, collaboration can happen, and so on.
Unless you already have a core group who are educated about self-directed, project-based learning, you may want to start with the limited-topic group, look for one or two other families you can work well with, educate them a bit (if they’re interested), then launch an open-ended project group together when the limited-topic group ends.
If you want kids to work together on one large, collaborative project:
- Look for two or three kids who have a strong shared interest — their passion and enthusiasm will pull the others in.
- Make sure the topic has multiple entry points so every child will be able to find something interesting to work on. Different children, exploring the same topic, will choose different aspects to delve into and multiple ways to represent the same learning.
For example, after a group of children visit a construction site, different children will choose distinct things to focus on:
- making a series of labeled drawings to put together into a book,
- using building blocks to make a model construction site,
- constructing a model of an earthmover out of recycled materials,
- designing a series of small models with explanatory posters,
- creating elaborate costumes and props,
- acting out various construction jobs,
and on and on.
The builder, the writer, the dancer, the performer — they will each connect with a project differently. They will come at it from their own personal perspective and combine it with their particular interests and talents as long as you encourage them to do so.
- Don’t make the topic too vague and large. If your project is “animals” the kids will be working so far apart from each other, they won’t be able to join up their knowledge to make something complex and layered. Make it narrow enough that they’re all working around the same subject but have room to learn different things — for example, turtles, frogs, or cats. If they are studying cats, they can all draw a house cat one day, then some kids can study tigers while others focus on bobcats and still others study house cats. Make sure their individual work can overlap in a meaningful way.
- Don’t select something that some of the kids flat-out don’t want to do. It has to be of at least mild interest to everyone in the group. They don’t all have to be fired up at first — let the passion and engagement of the few motivate the others. But don’t try to start a fire with wet wood.
- Don’t worry if you have multiple strong interests and you have to let some go to focus on one. The kids are still free to follow up on their own interests at home — and the work you’re doing together will teach them how to do that! Also, when this project comes to an end, you may use one of those other ideas for the next one.
- Use the meeting-work-meeting structure to help the kids become deeply involved in each other’s questions, ideas, and creations. When they share what they’ve learned with each other, they’ll all end up knowing much more. When they ask each other questions and share knowledge, it will spark new ideas and lines of inquiry.
As the children complete the work that mosts interests them, they will become interested in work being done by others and may choose to join in or create their own versions. They will share their knowledge with each other — as each becomes an expert in smaller, more specific details of the project — so that at the end of the project, they all share the same knowledge.
Tips for identifying a group project topic:
- Use your first few sessions to explore the materials you have available. Use first meeting to talk about blocks and building materials. What can we do with these? What shouldn’t we do with these? Then have all the children play together. The things they choose to build and act out will give you ideas for project topics.
The next time you get together, focus on watercolors. Once again discuss: What can we do with these? What shouldn’t we do with these? Go through the watercolor exploration together. Pay attention to what they paint: again, you may find possible project topics there.
By using your first get-togethers to explore the materials thoroughly, you introduce the children to the way the group time works, you give them a chance to practice cleaning up, and you have an opportunity to identify some interests.
- After using those first few sessions to introduce materials, use the second meeting to have them practice showing each other what they drew/painted/built and ask for questions/comments/suggestions.
- Use the first few sessions to have the children share news from home and discuss it during first meeting. They may talk about their pets, their vacations, their visit to the planetarium. You may find possible project topics there.
- Pay attention to their free play inside and out and their conversations while they work and eat. What are they pretending? What movies, games, and toys are they discussing? What are they drawing and talking about?
- Take them to the library together and let them each choose a couple of books. This is another way to identify their interests. Use second meeting to have them share which books they chose and why.
- Have the parents fill out a little survey sharing their kids’ current or ongoing interests (e.g., LEGO, dinosaurs, pirates) — look for shared interests.
- Children over the age of six and/or children who have already completed one long-term project may want to make suggestions and then vote on their next project topic. Don’t let a small vocal group push through a topic that some kids are completely disinterested in; look for something that is of at least mild general interest to the group as a whole. Children will find their own way to focus on a project that is complex enough and offers enough entry points. Steer away from projects that are too similar to the previous project — don’t do two amphibians in a row, for example.
Once children have done project work, they know exactly what it entails. They usually have a very good idea of what they’d like to learn about and work on next.
Once children have worked together, they usually want to do a lot more of it. It’s fun working on a large shared construction — it’s fun to figure out how to make a big idea happen together. Sometimes children who’ve worked on individual projects for awhile decide they want to choose something to work on together next.
Introducing the project topic:
If you are working with young children (five and under) and you’ve identified a topic you think will work for the whole group, you can begin to support that interest without announcing that everyone will be working on, say, an alligator project.
Use your very engaged kids to jumpstart the project — have them share with the group at first and second meeting.
Read and/or look at something project-related at the first meeting. “Colin, Mark, and Megan are really interested in dinosaurs — what do you guys know about dinosaurs?” Ask them if they have anything dinosaur-related they could bring in from home next time. Then read a short book or a selection from a longer book or look at a video clip. Then let them use the work time for anything they like.
If the kids are genuinely interested, they will gravitate toward that interest and share it.
With children six and up, it’s usually best to ask them straight out if they’d like to work on a project about X — have them discuss their ideas. Have them make suggestions and vote on what they’d like to learn about. Or consider allowing them to choose their own topics to focus on and then see if they migrate to one another’s interests.
Starting with a mini-project:
If you are starting a project group that you hope will continue for months and possibly years, you may want to start with a mini-project — a topic small enough to thoroughly investigate within two months, say. This will introduce all the children to the basic components of project work, then at the end they may have a lot of ideas for what they’d like to learn about next.
You might bring in a pet turtle and practice drawing, painting, and sculpting him. You could read some books about turtles and get a video about turtles from the library. You could go to the local nature center and look at their turtles and compare them to the one you are studying. In this way, you could walk through a project from beginning to end in a relatively short amount of time (unless the kids get very, very interested in turtles and enlarge the project). Then at the end, you could talk about everything you learned about turtles and ask them what they would like to learn about next.
Avoiding turning your project into a theme or unit:
- Don’t impose the topic on the group. Obviously, you are walking a fine line here, but whenever possible, try to follow up the children’s real interests rather than simply chunking a topic down on the table.
- Feed the topic subtly; don’t nag. Books, posters, video clips, newspaper articles, artifacts — make them available and whenever possible, have the children gather them and bring them in. Don’t stand over kids working with clay and say, “Are you going to make a turtle. You should make a turtle!” If you have to force it, you’re going in the wrong direction.
- Follow up on the children’s ideas. Write them down, get them the materials they need, don’t forget and don’t let them forget!
- Let the project grow organically. The children should take their investigation in whatever directions they like, even if it’s entirely unexpected. You should not say things like, “But that doesn’t have anything to do with X” or “But we’re learning about Y.” The project takes its shape and identity from what the children do — you can’t predict at the beginning what it will look like at the end.
- Don’t provide activities for them to do. No coloring sheets, no crafts. Give them the raw materials and let them create their own activities.
- Ask questions rather than making statements. Wonder out loud. Write down the children’s questions and help them find the answers. Don’t lecture.
Even if you start a group focused on a particular topic (say, your child’s deep interest or the focus of a co-op class), you can still pursue learning about that topic in an authentic, child-directed way. Put your energy into being a supportive mentor and helping the kids make their own ideas happen.
If kids will work on individual projects:
- The meeting-work-meeting structure still works: kids share their plans with each other, work alongside one another, help each other, copy each other and extend each other’s work, and so forth.
- Use first meeting to have kids share anything they’ve been doing related to their project — when kids study different topics, they interest each other in what they’re doing and they all end up with a lot of general knowledge!
- Have conferences with individual children and/or small groups to gather their questions and ideas and find out what materials they need.
- Shared project work can grow from this as kids become interested in what their friends are doing and decide to copy their constructions or morph their own project to fit with a friend’s. Let them influence one another and get involved in each other’s work.
- Give them each their own project journal and help them keep track of their questions, their ideas, their plans, any special materials they need, and so on. Focus on helping each child follow through.
- In addition to having the kids share and ask for comments/questions/suggestions during second meeting, take a moment and ask the group: Is there anything you can do to help Andy/Rebecca with their project?
Remember that when children work on their own individual projects, they will still share their work with each other. Usually, children (especially siblings) end up learning everything about their own project and everything about the other projects as well. Often they will pause in their own work and do some work on someone else’s topic. Siblings and cohorts in small groups will go along on each other’s field trips; they will listen to each other’s books and ask each other questions. They will share a lot of knowledge, they’ll still collaborate, and they’ll help each other solve problems. They will ask each other for help and draft friends in to help them with a big task.
Even kids working together on a joint project will often work on such radically different aspects of the topic that they may as well be working on completely different projects — but they will still learn everything the others are learning through sharing, asking questions, making suggestions, copying bits of what they create, and so on. Don’t try to herd the children together; let them range around and cover as much ground as they like.
How to Structure Group Time
- First meeting: Share work done at home since you’ve last been together, talk about plans for the day, let kids know if you have materials they requested or if you’ve set up something special that day, prepare for field trips or visitors, possibly read something project-related before you start (an excerpt from a book, a news story, etc.), and so on. First meeting is a bridge from last time to this time, and you use this time to remind the kids what they were doing last time and what they planned to do today.
- Work time: Kids work independently, adults work with kids one-on-one or with a small group as needed, and adults document the kids’ work.
- Second meeting: After work time, kids take turns sharing what they did that day. Only kids who did project work share. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: kids will produce work because they want to share, without you having to coerce them. Have each child show what they worked on and briefly explain, then the other children can ask questions/offer suggestions/make comments. Let the child showing their work call on people. You can limit the number called on if you are pressed for time. Adults should document any plans the kids announce (e.g., “Amy needs pink paint for her model,” “Cara wants to add legs to her robot”). At your next session, you will remind them of these plans during the first meeting. (And you will have made sure you have the materials they need.) If a small group worked together to make something, have them come up and present it together.
If kids create anything at all (whether it’s project-related or not), they get to share. This creates a group value that honors creating and building. So if your project is rockets and a child makes a pair of sandals out of construction paper, they still get to share.
Remember children may not have a physical representation to share — they may share a block construction or a kit. The important thing is to focus your attention on real work rather than random playing; focusing on it and honoring it will create more of it.
Encourage children to share their work even if it is unfinished — if they have a cardboard box, a lid, and a plan, let them share it. They will receive questions and feedback at each stage of their construction.
When you first begin these meetings, young children may rush to make something at the very end because they want to share. Use your discretion and let children share when you think it will motivate them to spend more time next session working on an idea, or tell them “this is something you can work on and share next time” — then remind them next session that they had an idea they wanted to make to share at the end. If you allow children to share when they haven’t done any real work, you kill the motivation for the others who are really working hard. But sometimes it’s helpful and encouraging to let a young child ease their way into the process.
Things to think about:
- If kids really just want to play together, they won’t be able to focus on working. If they are starved for social contact or physical activity, they will want to do those things more than work. You may want to preface your project group with 15 minutes of free play outdoors so everyone can expend some energy before they focus.
- If you want to offer a snack, try leaving it out so that kids can help themselves when they’re hungry/thirsty rather than interrupting everyone and having them sit down together.
- Kids should be able to move around and talk to one another while they work — but watch for kids who aren’t focused and who are just distracting other kids. Channel them into something more productive. (For example, see if one of the other kids has a job they would like help with.)
- Keeping track of kids’ plans and having enough interesting things to do are the keys to keeping the kids focused on their own ideas rather than just moving in a clump toward whatever you put out that day. Use the end of the first meeting to dismiss kids with purpose: “Karen and Dill, we have the poster board you asked for and Molly is ready to help you with that. Billy, you needed red paint for your wheels — did you want to ask someone else to help you? We have clay today for anyone who would like to sculpt.” In this way, when you break up that first meeting, most of the kids will move straight to doing the thing they wanted to do.
- Try to always be inclusionary. Say yes whenever possible, and let the kids work things out on their own. Don’t limit how many children can, say, play with the wooden blocks or build with clay. Let the children limit themselves naturally. If there are so many children who want to play with the blocks that they only get 3 blocks each, they will figure that out. Don’t make rules where they aren’t absolutely needed. If you set a limit, it will simply make the children hyper-focus on what they can’t have.
- Make sure you don’t accidentally punish children who are focused by not giving them enough time to do other things. ideally, you’ll have enough time so a child can add legs to his robot *and* build with clay. If you have special materials for one child, remember that some of her friends are likely to want to do the same thing, so don’t only buy enough poster board for one! Pay attention to how your time is working. If most of the kids are upset and frustrated because they didn’t get to finish everything they wanted to do, you may need more time. If most of them end up milling around and “done” before work time is over, you may need less time.
- Encourage copying. Children copy each other because they are inspired; they are likely to copy a friend’s construction and then add something of their own, therefore extending the idea. They show their interpretation to the original maker, and he wants to add their idea to his model. This is how children work together and end up making something much more complex than they would have created alone. You don’t have to use the word “copying” but don’t discourage them and if one child is upset that another is copying their idea, reframe it for them: “Seth really likes the scuba mask you made and he wants to make one, too — can you show him how you did it?”
- Use provocations. You don’t have to announce everything you offer as a planned activity. Try just setting out paints, paper, and something project-related and let the kids decide what to do. If you have materials available for each session, then the kids who don’t have something specific to work on will have something to do — and if you are keeping the focus on the project topic, they will most likely end up creating something project-related. (But they don’t have to — don’t force it!)
- Documentation is key for keeping track of kids’ questions, ideas, and plans and helping them remember what they wanted to do. If you aren’t writing it down, you won’t remember next time. What materials do they need? What do they want to add or change? What are their intentions? What questions do they need to find answers to? Write it down!
- Take photographs of the children working. Remember: What you pay attention to will grow. So be sure to focus on the behavior you want to encourage. The second meeting is one way to gently draw children toward their work: They will want to share something, so they will create something to share! Taking photographs of children working says “We really think what you’re doing is important.” They will understand this without your needing to say it out loud — they will want to keep doing the things you value.
What If Kids Don’t Want to Work?
Children should not be *required* to work on their project, so you need something productive/appropriate for them to do during group time: a selection of art and making materials, perhaps some blocks, maybe some dress-up materials and dramatic play props. Each time you get together, there should be multiple good options for them to choose from.
All kinds of play can fold into project work: a block construction, making a costume, dramatic play. But children shouldn't be *forced* to work/play on project-related things — if you are forcing them, the work isn’t self-directed.
The way you set up your time together will gently attract the children to focusing on their project:
- the few kids who are intensely engaged and therefore very productive
- their friends doing project-related work that they want to copy and help
- the project-related materials the whole group shares at first meeting (reading, watching a short video clip)
- field trips focusing on the project topic
- the project-related books, posters, artifacts, photos, etc. in the room
- the first meeting that reminds all the kids of everyone’s project-related plans
- the second meeting when children share anything they created or made that day (focusing on producing work, not its relevance to the project topic)
- the second meeting that introduces new work, new ideas, etc., that the children may want to try themselves
Remember: When children share things they’ve worked on at the second meeting, you create a situation where kids will want to do work because they will want to share. If a child simply plays randomly, they won’t have anything to share, and that’s okay — just tell them, maybe next time you’ll have something to share. You want to honor the effort the kids who are working put in and maintain the gentle gravity that tugs kids toward doing real work — so stick with it!
Let the project develop organically over time. Each time you get together, you will shine a light on the project topic — reminding the children of their questions and plans, reading something project-related, offering rich playing and making opportunities, and then reflecting on the work they did. Over time, as they have ideas, create representations, and share with one another, their work will become more complex. But your job is not to usher them along on your schedule — your job is to create an environment in which they can relax, focus, play, make, build, collaborate, and share and in which they are constantly reminded of their own questions, ideas, and plans.
Helping Kids Focus on their Project
Remember, this is work they want to do. You want to make it easy for them to stay focused on their ideas. If they are completely disinterested, it’s time to sit down and rethink everything!
Try to reduce or eliminate transitions/distractions. If there is snack, it’s nice to have it quietly to the side so that the children can serve themselves when they’re ready, rather than interrupting everyone to sit and eat and drink and then clean up. Any transition or distraction is likely to make kids forget what they were working on.
Use the first meeting to remind kids of what they wanted to do (build a tail for the cardboard alligator! look up the size of a real shark!) and let them know if you have materials they requested.
Use bulletin boards or foam presentation boards (these don’t have to be on the wall; you can carry them with you) to display sketches, photographs, posters, question lists, and other project-related ephemera. Keep these where the children can refer to them easily.
Watch out for kids who are just distracting others and help them find something better to do. “If you aren’t busy, maybe you could help Danny look through the recyclables for something that would make good dinosaur eyeballs.”
It is fine for children to work on random things during project time. It is a good thing for them to be concentrating on making, building, and sharing even if they are off-topic. Don’t feed those random interests (you won’t bring in library books, schedule field trips, or read stories about them) — continue to feed and support the main project topic. One of the great things about doing long-term projects with children is that they become project-oriented and begin to apply the same researching and making to all of their interests; let off-topic interests go along on their own steam and keep your focus on the group topic.
Documenting Kids’ Work
The primary purpose of documenting is to help kids remember their own ideas and fulfill their plans.
Take notes. Then be sure to review them! If you don’t look at them, you may as well not document in the first place.
When you document, it becomes obvious to children that you think the work they are doing is important. When they ask for materials and you write it down and then deliver on your promise, they will see you as a trusted resource. They will invest more in their own work when they know it matters!
Preferably all adults present will take notes — it simply isn’t possible for one person to do all the documentation. It doesn’t have to be fancy — you can use a cheap spiral notebook or a pad of sticky notes — but all adults working with the kids should take time to write down questions, plans, intentions, and requests for materials. Talk between classes about what you observed and what you think needs to be done to support the children’s work.
You may want to create a code for quickly scanning your own notes: Draw a box around materials you need to bring next time, a big question mark next to the children’s questions, a star next to your own ideas, and so on. You are curating their project — you are helping them keep track of things they would otherwise forget. If you can’t keep track of their questions, ideas, and plans with a notebook and pen, how will they do it with just their memory?
Take photographs. Display them so children can see them. Take photographs of their constructions and add their notes. Take photographs of them working. Again, they will understand without your needing to say the words: Their work is important. When you go on field trips, take photos of the children drawing and photographs of what they are sketching — they will reference these when they are building.
If you take a field trip to the grocery store, have the children bring clipboards loaded with paper and pencils to draw. Take photos of the children drawing the cash register, the conveyor belt, the dairy cooler — then take detailed photographs of what they drew. They may build a cash register out of cardboard and they will use the photos as a reference.
Take video. Children love to watch themselves on video. If they create a detailed block structure, take a video of them explaining it, then show it to them next time. If they are acting out project-related dramatic play situations (e.g., NASA launching a space shuttle, goats being fed at a farm, dinosaurs hatching from eggs), videotape them and let them watch themselves.
Let them have a say in what is documented. If they ask you to photograph something or videotape it, they are responding to the idea that some work is important enough to document. Within reason, respond to their requests to document their work. If possible, let them use the camera and videocamera themselves. Print out some of their own photographs and display them/give them a copy.
Encouraging Independence and Responsibility
Adults should be trusted resources, keeping track of what the children need and making sure they get it. If you forget their requests, they will learn it’s no use asking. When they can count on you, they can get on with doing their important work.
Make it simple and possible for them to clean up after themselves. Materials should be organized in such a way that children can reach them and put them away again independently. Use baskets, bins, and small containers to sort materials and be sure they are organized in such a way that all the children knows what goes where.
Cleaning supplies should be child-sized if possible, and they should be completely child-safe. Spray bottles with water and a little vinegar, clean cotton rags, whisk brooms and dust pans, small wastebaskets, recycling bin, etc. — many hands make light work!
Keep things within their reach. If they have to ask for an adult’s help every time they need a piece of paper, they will not feel capable. Set up your space so they can get things out and put them away again without help whenever possible. This will also help them stay in the flow — if you make them wait too long for help, they may lose interest in their idea.
Let them make their own decisions. It is a learned skill to work with children without imposing your own ideas. It is very tempting to “save time” by pointing out what isn’t going to work or offering a better solution. Practice pausing and asking yourself: “Is this something they can handle on their own?” You are in no hurry — this is slow learning we are practicing, and it is fine if they make mistakes and have to back up and try again. In fact, that is exactly the kind of rich learning experience we want to encourage. Let them figure out what they want to do and how they want to do it; let them work it out amongst themselves how they will divide up responsibilities. Whenever possible, hang back and wait to see if they need you. Whenever possible, let them be in control.
Materials and Tools
Start simple and build from there. Don’t worry about having a huge number of materials. Simple drawing materials, recyclables and masking tape, and watercolors will take you far.
Basic studio inventory:
- drawing materials: pencils, colored pencils, colored markers, black fine-tip pens, sharpies, oil pastels, pencil sharpeners, white vinyl erasers
- paper: inexpensive copy paper for everyday drawing (500 sheets per ream, a few dollars per ream) and clipboards, easel paper if you have an easel or for large drawings, watercolor paper, found papers for collage/models, construction paper
- modeling: clean recyclables, scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape, newspaper, telephone wire, pipe cleaners, packing tape
- collage: white glue, glue sticks, popsicle sticks, buttons, kid scissors, old magazines, yarn, string, natural items (shells, pinecones), cotton balls
- painting: watercolors (Prang is nice and not too expensive), tempera paints
- smocks: you can purchase these or just have children bring old (adult-size) button-up shirts from home; wear backwards (buttons in back)
With these items, you have the basics for drawing, painting, collage, and building models and representations.
Advanced studio inventory:
- easel (preferably two-sided), either free-standing or desktop
- nicer quality drawing paper (you can purchase in bulk)
- hole punch, stapler (supervise with younger children)
- acrylic paints (not usually washable — good for painting cardboard)
- beads and lacing
It’s impossible to list every art material you might want to explore together. But these ideas should get you started.
In general, you want materials to be available so children can help themselves and work independently. Therefore, you will want to have them in individual containers you can open and arrange on shelves or a table.
If you have a fixed space, you can use aesthetically pleasing containers (e.g., wooden trays and bowls); if you are bringing everything with you in bins, it will probably be easier to put materials into containers that close.
Encouraging Kids to Collaborate
- Don’t squelch copying — encourage kids to be inspired by one another and copy (and extend) each other’s ideas. If they accuse one another of copying, reframe it: Joey really likes the robot you made and he would like to make one, too. Could you show him how you did it?
- Use meetings to share work, ask questions, talk about plans and ideas. Look for opportunities to suggest that children help one another.
- When a child has a problem and comes to you for help solving it, encourage them to ask a peer. If you know one child has solved a similar problem, have him or her explain it to the others.
- Take photographs of children working and hang them up on bulletin boards.
- Have enough materials so children can work together. If you only have enough blocks for one or two children, they won’t be able to collaborate on something really big and complex. Whenever possible, open up spaces so more children can work together on the same thing if they wish.
Before going, talk to the kids about what they think they’ll see, what they expect to see, what they hope to see. If they will be speaking with someone, have them prepare a list of questions to ask. Practice drawing with pencils and clipboards (bring extra sharpened pencils with you!) and talk about how they’ll behave while you’re there.
Take photographs of children sketching and take photographs of *what* the children are sketching. If they are visiting the fire station, take photos of every single thing they draw — you can print these out on regular paper and hang up in their workspace for reference.
Try to visit the same place more than once whenever possible. Children will focus on new and different things each time. Returning to the same place three times offers a much richer learning opportunity than going to three different new places.
Field work can take place in very ordinary locations, not just the usual petting zoo or planetarium. You might go to a parking lot if the children are studying cars. You might visit a building site once a week. You might walk to a local pond. Sit down with the children and brainstorm where you can see their project topic in real life — listen to their ideas!
Older Kids and Teens
Hopefully you can see how the above advice can be leveled for children anywhere from age 3 through age 10 or 12.
Things to consider when setting up a project group for older kids and teens:
- If you want to have a group focused on a particular topic, then start by announcing the topic up front. This might be for a co-op class or a group of kids who are also interested in something your child already wants to focus on: Minecraft, computer programming, manga, raising chickens, etc. Make sure you are pulling in kids who are already interested in the topic.
- If you want to make a supportive space for kids to work on their own projects (a maker space), you might want to narrow things down a bit to find kids whose interests are similar enough that they can do some real collaboration: writing, art, comics, programming, robotics, theatre, etc.
- Focus on the kids’ individual goals. Rather than having a big year-end exhibition, let them set their own goals and work on them at their own pace. There should be no rush to complete anything by a deadline. Authentic work does not fit well to a calendar.
- Let the kids organize the group themselves. Support them so they can figure out their goals, where they can meet, what materials they’ll need, and so forth. If it works, give them a budget to spend as well. Make the entire organization of the group a project unto itself. (Take a look at The Introvert’s Guide to Building Community for specific hints about starting a new group.) We all need to know how to create community when what we want doesn’t already exist, and you can help your kids learn this lesson early!
- Older kids and teens still like (and need) to play. When older kids have access to a space with blocks and dress-up clothes, guess what? They play with blocks and dress up. The reason kids stop playing this way is because we subtly (or overtly) discourage it. Give kids the opportunity to play, no matter how old they are. The relaxed state of play is where ideas are born. Give them materials they can explore (clay, paint, LEGO), time to relax and play, creative props (dress-up clothes, musical instruments), and encourage them to have fun.
- Help them find mentors and connect with community experts. Don’t make the group insular — look for people to come in and talk with the kids; look for places you can visit to ask questions and observe.
- Use the meeting-work-meeting sandwich to help them bond as a group. Even if they are working on their own individual projects, have them share what they’re doing, ask questions/give comments/make suggestions, look for ways to help one another, and share their plans.
- Use online tools like shared blogs, Google/Facebook/Yahoo groups, and so on for kids to share work between group sessions.
This guide is a work-in-progress and I will keep adding to it over time. If you have suggestions or questions, please e-mail me or join our forum where you can share the experiences of other PBH parents running classes, camps, and co-ops.
For more information about the underlying ideas of mentoring children to become self-directed learners, please check out my book!