Written by Kate Tietje, Contributing Writer

This year is going to be our first year homeschooling. I’m excited! My first is finally 3.5 years old, meaning she’s old enough for “preschool” now. She also has a strong interest in learning, and I can’t wait to get started with her in a couple weeks.

We’ve chosen to do what I call “project-based” homeschooling this year. We haven’t chosen any particular curriculum or books to work out of. In fact, the few times I’ve sat down with her and tried to do a “lesson” in any traditional way (using free internet resources), she’s balked and it’s been quickly abandoned. My early attempts at this new method, though, have been met with excitement and interest — and she’s learned! Isn’t that the goal?

What Is “Project-Based?”

Instead of focusing on specific skills or small activities from workbooks, we do projects that incorporate a large number of different skills. These projects are based on real-world situations and activities that teach needed skills in a natural environment. Since “unschooling” really appeals to us, working with our children’s skills and interests is really important to us, much more so than any structure curriculum. Even more so because our kids are so young (my 2-year-old is sometimes also involved).

A project might involve friends, a field trip, and several different activities. One project we’ve started is to create “grocery flashcards.” Each card has a picture of a (mom-approved) snack, the name of the snack, and a price. I’ll give my daughter a certain amount of money she can “spend” when we go grocery shopping. She’ll use her cards to choose what she can afford. She’s learning math, budgeting, reading, and the basic “how to grocery shop” all at once. She’s excited about it because she gets to do something real and she feels like a grown up when she helps me shop! And she’s working on her math and reading and life skills at the same time.

That’s what I mean about “projects.” We create different projects ourselves that help learning.

Why Project-Based?

My goal in teaching my children is to prepare them for life, for being functional adults in society. My goal isn’t to make sure they can do bookwork and take tests, which is what it seems like most schools these days are focused on.

Real life isn’t about workbooks and tests. Instead, we usually combine our skills. Driving a car, for example, combines physical dexterity, reading, math, and other skills. Grocery shopping, which I mentioned above, also combines reading, math, budgeting, and even interpersonal skills. It’s not necessary to isolate skills and say, “We’re going to study math. And then reading. And then science.” Especially with young children! These are real-life situations that they can “study” and learn from.

Doing projects also allows us to go with our children’s interests. For example, both my older kids (I also have a newborn) enjoy sun, moon, stars, and other “solar” things. They have enjoyed looking up pictures and facts about them, attending exhibits about them, and even watching the documentary “From the Earth to the Moon” (my 3.5 year-old says “It’s the only Daddy’s show I like”). It happens that my dad works at NASA, so someday we’ll take them there to see everything, too. That’s science, but it directly appeals to their interests.

Image by Dave Dehetre

Projects We’re Doing

This year we’re working on a lot of porjects. I take into account my kids’ interests and the skills they need to learn (and want to learn — they’re both into numbers and letters right now). Here are some examples of projects we’re planning:

  • Zoo Animals: We’ll use our membership to visit the zoo, take pictures of many different animals.  Then we’ll make a scrapbook of the animals and look up what they eat, where they live (we’ll look at maps), how big they get, etc.  This will encompass science (animals), reading (learning letters/animal names), art (creating scrapbook), math (size of animals), and more.
  • Gardening: We’ve spent a lot of time out in the garden through the summer, learning to identify plants and weeds, how to know when to harvest plants, and how to prepare or preserve them once they’re inside.  In the fall, we’ll be growing some plants inside in clear containers so they can see how roots grow, then tinting the water so they can see how plants drink.  This is primarily science, but also cooking/food preparation.
  • Nature Walk: Once fall hits, we’ll be taking a walk through local woods.  We’ll identify herbs and other plants we find.  We’ll collect leaves and other bits and create a collage of them.  This is science and art.
  • Pizza Party: We’ll do this with friends!  I’ll prepare the toppings, but I’ll let the kids help make the dough, then make their own pizzas.  They’ll learn science (how food cooks), math (measuring ingredients), art (creating food is still art!), food preparation, and interpersonal skills.
  • Alphabet Book: My daughter and I are already doing this.  I created a booklet for her and we’re writing in all the letters, and choosing words that are meaningful to her for each of them.  Then she’ll decorate it.  She’s already walking around telling people, “A is for apple!” (she knows we’re going apple picking soon and loves this) and other things.  Because it’s something she’s done she remembers better.  She’s learning letters and art, and possibly other subjects (if we learn more about the words she chooses).

There’s more we’re doing, but those are the major projects we have so far.  As time goes on and my kids’ interests and knowledge evolve, we’ll choose new projects. We will also involve them in the projects we’re doing.  Last year, my husband created an air-powered rocket that fired homemade paper rockets.  The kids got to decorate their own rockets, then help fire the rocket (not dangerous since it was just air, pumped up with a bicycle pump).  They got to chase them and retrieve them too — gym class!

One of our many adventures this summer: throwing rocks in a creek!

Enjoying Learning

Doing these projects really helps to contribute to enjoying learning.  And it doesn’t insult my kids’ creativity or knowledge because we’re working right at their level, whatever that may be.

There are lots of great resources online that you can find so you don’t have to create your own materials, but some projects really don’t require “materials” per se (like the pizza party).  Don’t think fancy, just think interesting, age-appropriate, and real life!

Youtube is a great resource for videos, if you pre-screen them.  There are Bible-based coloring pages we’ve used (although truthfully my kids prefer the open-endedness of blank papers instead).  And of course, you should have the usual paper, pencils, crayons, and other basic school supplies, so that if inspiration strikes — you can go with it!

Honestly, the biggest challenge for us this fall will be finding the time to do all this fun stuff amid playdates, naps, and caring for a newborn!  But we’ll make it work and we’ll enjoy it, too.  I personally can’t wait!

Quick Note

This isn’t really related to the subject of this post, except that it’s a project I’ve been working on (I’ve had some “help” from my kids, too, though mostly in the form of taste testers, a job they love!).  Yesterday I released my newest cookbook, Treat Yourself: Real Food Desserts.  I’m offering some pretty awesome launch specials: DESSERTLAUNCH35 for 35% off through tonight (usually sells for $7.95), and DESSERTLAUNCH20, for 20% off through Friday, 9/2.

What style of homeschooling do you use? And what are your homeschooling plans for this new school year?

Top image by Steven Depolo