Education Week: Child-Led Project-Based Home Learning

Harry Potter
Photograph taken by Gina Clifford

When J.K. Rowling released each of her Harry Potter books, young fans flocked to bookstores, stayed up late finishing the books, and then eagerly shared feelings and predictions about future books, characters, etc. with friends. These fans learned everything they could about J.K. Rowling’s fictional world on their own without prompting and in addition to regular schoolwork. Project-based learning taps into this kind of interest and passion by providing children with the time and space to create, think, and develop around their interests. As a result, learners gain critical thinking skills as they engage in design, problem solving, decision -making, and investigative activities.

Child-led project-based home learning is most similar to unschooling in that there are no tests, no teachers, no homework, no grades, no desks, no worksheets, no schedules, and no set curriculum.  Instead, there is a project, chosen by the child and supported by the parent. However, when math or physics is needed, learners take time to learn the formulas, arithmetic, and methods applicable to the project.  This on-the-job approach makes the fact-based portion of learning much more relevant and interesting. Best of all, project-based inquiry provides many opportunities for deep learning on a topic. I like to compare project-based learning to how a doctoral student operates in order to become the expert and defend a thesis.

With project-based learning, parents and children work together to explore interests.  Rather than a student-teacher relationship, the project-based approach creates a collaborative environment.  Learning takes place on the couch, in the grass, or around the kitchen table.  Learner and parent discuss, strategize, itemize, and plan projects. The parent role is very important.  Young learners need help defining and refining realistic project scope and goals, acquiring resources (field trips, museum visits, chemistry glass ware, etc.) and need plenty of encouragement.

So, what types of topics make great projects? Any interest can become a project and any parent can facilitate learning.  The golden rule is to let the child choose — trust the learning process.  Remember, the parent is not the expert here.  The parent simply facilitates the learning journey.  The Internet, public libraries, museums, and local organizations and clubs are just some of the great ways to acquire expert knowledge.

occult books for research on ghosts
Photograph by Gina Clifford

For example, my home learner’s latest project involves investigating ghost stories of New England.  I have no special knowledge or expertise in this area, but I can still help him acquire further learning resources. He became fascinated with ghosts after picking up a book in a used bookstore.  He has decided to map the specific locations where the stories occurred, learn about the history of these areas as it relates to ghosts, compare different accounts from similar locations, scan newspaper archives for ghost-related stories in these areas, and even go on local ghost tours to find out what kind of stories exist in our area.  Perhaps he will even interview local people who want to share their own ghost stories.

Because there are no grades, measuring progress or success in project-based learning is based on participation, engagement, and through original creations. Here are some suggestions:

  • Research and write a novel
  • Participate in competitive contests (music, science, art, athletic, spelling, geography, math, cooking, etc.)
  • Join and participate in community clubs
  • Volunteer in the community
  • Self-publish book of poems, stories, art (
  • Write a screenplay, storyboard, and script and produce a movie
  • Participate in public musical performances
  • Learn to play a musical instrument
  • Compose original music scores
  • Join an athletic team
  • Document travel and field trips
  • Learn a foreign language and display competency through writing, speaking, or conversing online, in person, and through recorded media.
  • Maintain a science lab notebook and portfolio of projects (photograph, document, videotape)
Learn to play a musical instrument
Photograph by Gina Clifford

Keeping a daily journal and a portfolio of major activities and projects is a great idea.  Whether or not your state requires these items, many colleges appreciate this sort of documentation in lieu of official transcripts when reviewing applications.

Learning should be fun.  Four hours a day of focused work on a project leaves plenty of time for play.  Spend the rest of the day at a community pool, playground, homeschool co-op, or invite some friends over to play with the Legos!

Child-led project-based learning is a powerful way to engage kids with their world in a deeply meaningful and satisfying way.  Let your child decide what to learn and how — be there for guidance and support.   Measure success not only through original creations and active participation in activities, but by how happily engaged with learning your child has become.  Relax. Engage. Have fun!


Further Resources on Child Learning and Engagement Issues

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8 thoughts on “Education Week: Child-Led Project-Based Home Learning

  1. As a librarian this learning approach utterly fascinates me and would SOOO be what I would have my kids do if I had the psychological disposition to homeschool. It’s things like this that tempt me toward homeschooling! And then my desperate desire for the day when MY KIDS GO AWAY TO SCHOOL AND GET OUT OF MY HAIR thwarts that desire again.

    But there is so much brilliant learning to be done through project research and development! WITH LIBRARY RESOURCES!

    1. Libraries are awesome resources for this approach to learning. In fact, they’re practically a project-based home learning “school” all by themselves. We love our libraries — just wish they were open later on Fridays and weekends!

  2. Wow! Gina, so enjoyed your post! I happened upon you with a #unschool search on Twitter…and I’m glad I did. I so resonate with everything you have put down so well. And it is inspiring that you are giving your son the time and freedom to chase his passions! How cool! I too am of the mind that project-based learning is where it’s at and work to try to convince home/unschoolers to get in there and let it flow! I totally agree that portfolios are a great way to document for the state and colleges that, indeed, learning has taken place! However, portfolios should be first and foremost for the learner to document, reflect, and grow with.

    I am just so thrilled to have found you! I have started a free online site for home/unschool kids that I really hope takes off. The idea is to get kids together in an online community to share ideas and work on projects together if there heart desires. It is kind of a one-stop shop for project-based learning. My role is that of “learning facilitator” to ensure kids uncover the resources they need for their explorations!

    If you have a minute, can you and your son check out The Kidzinky Community and give comments/suggestions? Also, I would love for your son to join! It would be fun to work with him and see if there are others who might want to explore ghosts with him!

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