What Is Project-Based Learning?

Do you you unschool, but find your older children need more structure or perhaps your unschooling doesn’t feel like it’s meeting their needs anymore? Does your unschooled child not feel like they’re learning enough?

 This is where a more deliberate project-based style can be a perfect fit.

Unschooling is a lifestyle; it is an intricate dance of providing just the right amount of social interaction, stimulation, experiences, materials, resources and relaxation. Whilst trying to achieve all of this the parent also has a home to run, meals to prepare, pets to walk and care for, family and friends to see, perhaps a business to attend to and so on.

It is easy to see how the unschooling train can derail.

When I started out home educating my own children, I knew I wanted them to have play-based early years. I think we did that part expertly, and it flowed well into them discovering their passions, learning to read, beginning to write and so forth. It was all very natural and organic. Then something changed; my daughter wanted more structure at about age 9 and I struggled to understand exactly what I needed to do to help facilitate that need.

I had a child who wanted more formal, structured learning, preferably with other children, but who did not really want to be taught. We already had many of the elements of project-based learning happening, but it was far from a fine art. We began experimenting with a Waldorf Curriculum, but somehow life just kept getting in the way!

Our unschooling didn’t feel like it was working anymore. A curriculum was not the way forward for us either. We still wanted learning to be interest led, to move at the child’s own developmental pace, to be mentored and facilitated. Project-based learning was our way forward.

Project based learning is about using strategies to help your children direct and manage their own learning. But how?

Here are 3 key elements to show you how to take a project-based approach to your child’s learning journey:

  1. The important idea with this style of learning is to remember that at all times, the child should own their work. You can start with directly asking your children what they want to learn about, but children cannot always articulate their thoughts that precisely. The best way is to observe your children over time; look for clues in their play and in the things they say to each other and to you. Be a detective! Keep a journal to record what you discover from your observations.


I tend to write freely about our day and then create a short bullet pointed list at the end for ideas to action, these might include: questions they have asked; groups they want to try out; materials they have asked for; or my own thoughts on suggestions I could make based on observing their interests over time.

2. Make the environment your child’s teacher. Ensure materials are within their reach and they have a good range of resources to experiment and work with (they do not need to be expensive). Try to make the project area clear of junk and organised (note to self!) If possible give your children a dedicated workspace. Use bulletin boards to display their works in progress, sketches, notes, questions and so forth. Display their finished projects on shelving, walls, in portfolio’s or more formally in project books if that’s what they want. Children, especially as they get older, like to know they are learning.

3. Dedicate your time and support. It sounds silly to suggest giving your children your time when you home educate and are with them all day! The reality though, is that life can take over sometimes. Being a totally disorganised kind of person myself, I find the idea of timetabling project sessions really helpful. It’s not that projects and learning don’t happen at other times (seriously I know that learning and life are intertwined), it’s simply a guarantee to my children that I will have the materials they need and the time to help without any other distractions during those ‘blocks of time’.

Sometimes ‘projects’ might be one-off experiences, but I think the beauty of this style of working means you have all the tools to challenge your child to work deeply at times and extend their ideas.

Your children’s projects can be done on their own at home, with siblings or wider family, with a bunch of friends or within the community. Projects can also be 2D, 3D,indoor, outdoor, verbal, written, performed or even whilst riding on the back of a horse!

Stop thinking of ‘projects’ as something which must be recorded in a book.


Here is a great website to help you get loads more information about how project-based  learning can work: http://project-based-homeschooling.com/about

Project-based learning can be for anyone. An unschooler might use this style of working full-time, whereas a more traditional home educating family might carve out a chunk of time each week for projects. Even a school going child can benefit! My own daughter has just recently entered the school system at age 10, and we still use a project-based style at home because I feel now more than ever, she needs to remember her own learning goals.

Project-based learning is about your children being valued, respected and celebrated as learners.

My final thought on this is actually the most important aspect. Project-based learning is not just for children, it’s for you too! Get involved! What do you want to do with your time? Now is absolutely the time to follow your passions. So dust off that guitar, pull out that canvas, write that book. When your child does project work, you can too.



Ebbs and flows

Learning……it’s a bit like a stream…..sort of. The ebbs and flows, the times of constant swirling activity and the times of still, serene waters which to an onlooker may appear as if nothing much is happening. There is an under-current of learning happening all the time however, yet we cannot always see it. Our job as parents, is simply to trust.

On a hot day, a week or so ago, I took Land T to a nearby park. The idea was to walk our dog Legend and play in the park, but they had other ideas! They took off their shoes, rolled up their trousers and got in the stream which ran along the edge of the park. Legend followed, jumping in excitedly, then kept coming over to me to shake dry whilst I tried to enjoy 5 minutes of peace on a nearby bench.

It was futile of course, and I was wet by this point anyway, legend had made quite sure of that. I dutifully ditched my shoes and rolled up my own trousers and slipped down the muddy bank into the freezing water. L and T love me to join in their adventures and so I followed their lead: upstream, under the bridge we had played pooh sticks from earlier, through the shallow and deep. It was fun and I felt brimming with something…….aliveness!

The next morning T awoke excited about the stream,’we need to go back today Mum!’ and we did. We went back 4 times in all, until eventually they had explored a huge section of the stream. Towards the end of the fourth visit, they were waist high in freezing water and had to use a fallen tree to lever themselves out.

It was a great adventure to them, and they were learning. I couldn’t be sure what exactly, but years of living alongside them has taught me to have faith. I assumed of course, that the learning was centred on the stream itself. Not because it mattered much what the exact nature of the learning was, if it was important to them it was important to me, but because the world which children inhabit fascinates me.

L got out of the stream first and was shivering, then T got out and declared ‘well, we’ve done the stream now Mum, I’ve reached my limit with it’.

As it turned out, they were learning about themselves, their limits. Pretty important stuff I’d say.




So, there I was at the dentist, lying back on the chair and enjoying some child-free time when the dental hygienist asked me: ‘How do your children socialise then?’ I didn’t really get a chance to answer as suddenly she was cleaning my teeth with an ultrasonic instrument which emitted a high- pitched screaming noise (oh, second thoughts, maybe it was my brain screaming as if to say not that bloody question again!).

Let’s clear something up, my kids play with other kids a lot and they have proper, genuine friends that they have built up over the course of several years.

I wasn’t even going to mention socialisation on here, it seems so daft. Sometimes the kids  get tired out by all the social contact they have and we have to deliberately put aside time at home to get other things done or just have time to chill. Yet the question keeps coming up in awkward places, like at the dentist or when I’m half-naked in the Jacuzzi or in the check-out queue at Tesco.

Someone even told me that I was cruel not to send my kids to school as they really do need friends. It’s weird though, since even if I try to explain that my kids do have friends and do see other children often, they kind of go deaf and look at me funny, as if I’ve said something incomprehensible.

People tend to feel it’s ok to judge your choice without knowing anything about it, but mostly they really don’t like it if you actually have an answer or try to have your say. I’ve had enough of these chats with both strangers and friends to know that generally they do not lead to anything positive. I never really feel good afterwards, so I just try not to engage with it anymore.

But for those who genuinely want to know or are curious, this is the answer I would give:

1) Home educating means you get to honour your children’s differing social needs.

How much social contact children enjoy is totally individual. Where we live there is a massive home ed network and we could enjoy a variety of different home ed groups and meet-ups everyday if we felt like it.

My daughter likes to see friends often, she also enjoys meeting new people and doing new things. My son prefers one to one social contact or hanging out with people he has got to know gradually over a long period of time.

(Intriguingly since writing this last year, my children’s social habits and preferences have changed a lot, they’ve kind of swapped over! Like I said though, that is one of the greatest things about home education, I can honour their needs at different stages of their development.)

2) Home educated children mix with a diverse bunch of kids and adults.

My own children and all the home educated children I know, have friends and socialise with all age groups, both sexes and families with differing outlooks. Both my children get along well with adults too and they don’t see adults as the enemy. For example they adore their ukulele teacher and consider him a friend, which I think is very sweet and a real positive in their lives. It’s healthy and mimics real life, since my own friends are all differing ages and from all walks of life.

3) It’s not all a bed of roses, there are challenges.

Of course there are downsides. To meet your home educated child’s social needs, parents have to get out there and socialise themselves! We have to try groups, meet lots of people and find out what works for our children. We have to be the ones building the community and helping our children see the same children often enough that they can build proper friendships. It’s hard work, it’s exhausting at times but it is part of the responsibility we have taken on.

Unlike schooled children, home educated children’s parents are there at the forefront of their children’s socialisation process in the primary years (well somewhere in the background chatting and drinking tea actually), but this is no bad thing. And like schooled children, as the children get older, they naturally start to sort their own social lives out (phew!).

Another common criticism of home ed is that our kids are protected from any social negativity. Sure, we can up and walk out of a group we don’t gel with, but unless we want to go no-where, we kind of all have to muck in and make things work. My children have lovely friends, but they’ve had their fair share of disappointments too. They’ve learnt that sometimes relationships are complicated and you have to work at them.

4)Home educated children often have a much better social life than their own parents!

It’s true! My children do all the normal things with friends that schooled children of the same age do. They have playdates, go to parties, and my daughter enjoys sleepovers.

My children could see their friends most days if they wanted, but we have found that 2-3 times a week is a great balance. Of course, socialisation is more than just having friends, it’s about building social skills in a range of circumstances. Home educated families go about the business of living together, and that means meeting people in our communities daily and honing those all important social skills.

In conclusion, home educated children are not stuck indoors with their parents, they meet people in the real world and they do it everyday. They have great social skills, honestly they do. That man I chatted to in the Jacuzzi said my kids were ‘really friendly and polite’. I just smiled whilst desperately trying to distract him from the goings on in the pool, namely my son whipping my daughters tankini bottoms off underwater and waving them above his head in triumph.







Learning by heART 2

If you’ve read my first ‘Learning by Heart’ post you will have seen some examples of my children’s artwork. Both projects were done with some adult ‘scaffolding’. The modroc models were inspired by a lovely friend of ours, who made the most amazing volcanic landscapes with her children. The prehistoric pop art prints were carried out in a group learning session.

My kids loved the experience of new materials and techniques that I introduced to them. They were also really proud of the outcome. They had spent a lot of time on their models and it was great fun. It was really valuable learning.

However, both my kids do all kinds of creative things on their own, under the steam of their own motivations and this provides equally valuable learning opportunities, actually I’m going to go further and say better learning opportunities.

If I were to show you my son’s creations this week, I wonder how impressed you would be?

Here’s one of them. It’s a kind of outdoor oven, made from a cake box (see the smudge of cake icing!). He wanted to find out if he could melt a piece of chocolate using heat from the sun. He is waiting for a hot day to try it out, but typically the sun went into hiding this week.


No adult interfered with the process at any point. From the idea to the execution, it was all T’s work (ok maybe Curious George helped inspire the idea). Many of us have this strange notion that ‘real’ learning can only be achieved if an adult is involved in the process. We are also really stuck on this idea that learning is all about the polished final outcome, whereas actually the process itself is where all the real learning takes place.

What looks like junk to anyone else, is seen as an opportunity by my son. If a package comes through our door, you would likely hear him say ‘Ooooo, I wonder what I could make with that?’ whilst holding the empty box or envelope aloft.

Most of it may look at first glance like the type of thing an adult might fob off with a cursory, ‘O’h that’s lovely dear’, and then quietly relegate it to the recycling bin. Whereas this is the real deal in my opinion, the activities we should be encouraging, giving time to, helping with (only when asked!) and finding ways to extend.

So that is why his solar oven will take pride of place, right next to his aardvark habitat.