Project-Based Homeschooling

Project-Based Homeschooling

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?

school supplies 2

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.

Project-Based Homeschooling

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!

Project-Based Homeschooling
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

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  1. This is great! Besides being educational and age-appropriate, it just sounds like FUN! (Of course I’m completely unbiased — I plan to unschool my 2yo!) 🙂

  2. Hooray for project-based homeschooling! I’ve been seeking out like-minded mamas for awhile now. I’m still working on our plans, but I’ve been setting monthly, weekly, and daily goals for us as well as identifying projects we can work on as a family. Monthly goals include a family outing (art show, science & nature museum, flying, etc.), a faith focus, a stewardship focus. and family/religious celebrations. Weekly goals include nature walks, a visit to church to practice entering church, finding our pew, sitting quietly, etc., as well as a group activity (story time, play date, etc.). Daily goals include practical life work, outdoor time, art for the sake of art, and music. Projects on tap are a zoo study (we also have a family membership), working in the garden, and The Kindness Cooperative I’ve created for us and some friends: . Still a work in progress, but I’m excited!

  3. Home Style Teaching was a great resource 30 years ago when I was first exploring home schooling. I’ve still got a few more years to go 🙂

  4. This is great. I am working on putting together what I want to do for my 3 yo (with a 1yo and pregnant!) this fall, and these are perfect ideas! Thanks!

  5. I really loved this post. This will be our first year filing to Homeschool. I have a 6yr old, 2yr old, and I am 19 wks pregnant. One thing we do every morn (Mon-Fri) is we go door to door to pass out the Word of God. To add fun and some learning to it, we count how many houses we did, and then at the end of the week we add them up. What a joy to see how many souls might have been reached by doing Kingdom business!! Unschooling seems to be our route as well, because God’s Word is first, then we branch out from there as the Holy Spirit leads. Again Great Post!

  6. Thanks for the inspiration! You mentioned that there are some good resources online for ideas, which ones do you recommend?

  7. Great post, Kate!
    When I read the line about the grocery cards, my first thought: “there’s an app for that!” I use it when my husband does the grocery shopping. Having photos on the smart phone makes it easy for him to shop and not worry about comparing prices because I’ve already done that. But a child could also use the app for learning budgeting and math skills while at the grocery store.

    We’re on our 13th year of homeschooling- here’s my advice: if you teach them to share when they’re preschool-age, you’ll avoid squabbles when they’re 10. Teach them to take out and put away things now and you’ll spend less time nagging them when they’re older. Teach them to be honest in everything they do now and you’ll trust them when you need to leave them alone as a teenager. Teach them to work hard and be proud of their work at age 5, and when they’re young adults they’ll actively search new subjects they want to learn about. As soon as they’ve learned how to read, your role as active teacher changes to “coach.” It’s a very fun ride!

  8. Great post, Kate. We’re using KONOS, and while it’s a HUGE undertaking to find all the different little projects to do, I love having 3 volumes of ideas at my fingertips! So awesome. 🙂

  9. Very cool! I do something of a Charlotte Mason/textbook mix. I do Singapore Math and my daughter loves it, she’s 6. My oldest son is 5 and will be starting with it this year. I use the Learning Language Arts Through Literature for our “English class” because I love the fact that they use good literature! I look for science and history books that are written like a “whole book”. Really, at my kids’ ages, it’s just a matter of getting the basics of math, reading and writing down. My daughter loved “workbooks” from the time she was three, so I let her do them. My oldest son was not remotely interested until the last few months, so I didn’t sweat it. They learn plenty just by being read to and watching documentaries with us. They LOVE documentaries! 🙂 I just never saw the need to really push “academics” on 2 and 3-year-olds. I know that there are TONS of preschools out there that do. But kids really do pick up a startling number of things naturally! 🙂 I think your project-based stuff sounds perfect for little ones! I may try some of it out this year with my 3-year-old. 🙂

  10. Love this! As it turns out, my oldest is also a three and a half year old girl, and I am doing some VERY similar projects for this year, our first “official” homeschool year. We are buying a membership to the zoo (for similar purposes), taking nature walks (and photographing our local bog in the same place each season, to document the changes in the seasons), cooking/baking together, and doing alphabet projects. We missed gardening this year due to moving house, but can’t wait to garden next year! Instead, we take weekly trips to our CSA farm where, in addition to getting our box of produce for the week, we learn all about the vegetables and even get to pick some of our own. That’s a big hit with her! We also bought a few workbooks, flashcards, and a pocket scheduler from the dollar bins at Target, which she also finds very exciting.

    My Internet went out when I posted my comment…so I’m not sure if it worked. Sorry if this is a duplicate! At least this one has my new blog address on it… 🙂

  11. We’re not into “official” homeschooling yet since my oldest is only two, but we’re attempting to create a learning environment.

    We are working on building a home library and already have lots of age appropriate books conveniently located for him (in baskets around the house). In addition to having good learning things we have limited the technology dependent things, such as battery operated toys and him watching tv. I don’t want to train his mind to need twaddle for entertainment.

    I use whatever we are doing at the time to teach things. If we’re at the store we might count the bananas as they go into the bags.

    Right now learning has a lot more to do with heart and life, but it’s learning none the same.

  12. I really enjoyed this post, as I will be starting my first year of really doing lessons with my daughter, Kalei, who will be 4 in a couple weeks. I loved reading about your projects, a few of which I have done with Kalei before.
    I feel a word of caution is needed, though, with reguard to ‘unschooling.’ My parents used unschooling since I was about 10 years old, and as the eldest of 5, I can only say that I am horrified at the results. It hasn’t been so bad for me, as I got some education in first grade at school and then the following years when my parents used the ACE pace program. However, for my siblings, 3 of which never did any formal schooling, things are pretty unfortunate. My parents saw ‘unschooling’ to mean that life it’s self would teach all the lessons needed, and that no effort was required on their part. No extra-curricular activities, no sports, no socialization that the family wouldn’t do as a whole. In fact, really no learning at all, other than general housework, and what one could pick up as they went, which didn’t include reading or spelling and correct grammar let alone math, history, science, geography or language studies.
    I can see that you are certainly not starting off this way, but felt the need to caution.
    My husband is therefore very anxious that our children recieve a much better education than me and my siblings (and honestly, so am I. I rue the lost years!), so though we are not exactly sure what curriculum we will use, and may pick and choose what we feel works best for our family from a variety of curriculums for different subjects, I feel sure that curriculum will be involved. Right now, I am excited by the Well-Trained Mind books, and plan to purchase them soon.
    Currently the only thing my daughter and I do are reading lessons from The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading, which is a marvel. She loves it, and asks daily for her younger sister to go down to nap so we can begin our lesson. I am thankful to see her so eager 🙂

    1. @Cheryn, It sounds like you had an unfortunate experience with unschooling. 🙁 From most of what I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to, that’s not how it usually goes. Good unschooling really requires a lot on the part of the parents, to note their child’s interests and abilities and then expose them to different appropriate experiences. For example, if your child wants to play video games all the time, you don’t just let them. Instead you teach them how video games are made — the math involved, programming, music writing, writing the backstory, and so on. It’s still video games, but it’s math, science, music, English, and so on. Unschooling parents have to be very creative and involved, to bring the learning to their children where they are. It’s not supposed to be just about “life will teach them” because as you saw…usually, it won’t. Unschooling can be really excellent, it just depends on the children/parents in the situation!

  13. This is so encouraging! I will be homeschooling for the first time this year, starting my 3.5 year old w/ preschool. Was leaning toward this type of approach, but have been somewhat nervous as I know of no one else using this method! Felt encouraged by your words and ideas! Thank you!

  14. I loved this post. We are also just starting our first year of home schooling for my oldest (4 1/2) we are tackling pre-school. This post is so helpful, because my son really balks at structured tasks. I know he will have to learn to accept them down the road… but for now this project based homeschooling idea is very appealing. We have sort of done this naturally already. My son is very bright and loves to learn. He is very fact/science oriented. He loves everything to do with dinosaurs and this has been a great time to talk about creation, the flood and where fossils come from. In addition, we go to our local nature center, we garden (he pretends to be a Paleontologist , he helps in the kitchen, and does a short list of chores every day. Both our kids help with animal chores (we have horses, chickens, and a dog.) I think learning to care for animals is an excelent way to teach a variety of subjects and life skills. I honestly have not felt the need to push any structured learning because I really wanted him to have time to play and be a kid. I personally think that beyond introducing life skills and encouraging children to learn, not much should be pushed until later. Both my husband and I where home schooled, My Hubby in a very ridged and structured way and me a little more on the unschooling side. We both see pro’s and con’s to how we were educated and are hoping to find a balance between the two.
    Anyway, I ramble on, Thank you again for this very timely post.

  15. project-based homeschooling is how we learn, and i have a lot of information on my site if you are interested!

  16. One reason I picked using a Charlotte Mason education for my children, is for the very reasons you are doing project-based schooling. If you haven’t checked out I would highly recommend it. I really want learning to be a way of life and not about tests and classrooms.

    And for anyone trying to put your own “curriculum” or home school schedule together, the Simply Charlotte Mason site has a great resource: I am using it and it has really helped me plan out my long term goals as well as my day to day ones.

    I was home schooled myself and can sympathize with Cheryn on the gaps in my education. My mom didn’t do a bad job, just not as good as she could have (and we used a well known curriculum). I really want to be sensitive to my children’s interests and learning styles when teaching them.

  17. Wow… “God-breeze” in FlyLady terminology. This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. I’ve been researching home-schooling and “unschooling” after some concerns about my kindergartner’s public school teacher (the woman is just plain mean!) and LOVE this project idea. My kids (I have a toddler too) would love this and I find it more appealing and also practical than worksheets and text books for my youngsters.

  18. I think this is a great way to start learning for young children.

    I would just be curious though about the idea that “real life” isn’t about book learning. On the contrary, many professions involve a great deal of book learning to achieve success and even to maintain professional standing. Medicine, psychology, law – to name a few – all require passing a standardized test or tests of book knowledge in addition to continued education throughout your career in order to maintain your license.

    Not that any three year old concern themselves with this, but it does concern me about the idea of unschooling for a lifetime of school work. Does anyone have any thoughts on whether unschooling limits children’s future career opportunities by failing to prepare them to participate in a more structured learning environment?

  19. Kate! I really appreciate this post! My daughter turned 3 in August, and I have been *really struggling* with what to do with her! I have felt some pressure to start homeschooling her–but I think I am just putting that on myself. I LOVE this project-based approach!

  20. I lean heavily toward unschooling as well, and totally believe in what you call the “project” method. Guess our project right now is airplanes, since that is all DS wants to build w/blocks and Tinker Toys and read about.

  21. Love your project-based homeschooling ideas! It’s perfect for preschool!

    As a mom to a 3rd grader (seriously how did this happen?!), I love seeing preschool/Kindergarten ideas. I get a lot of woulda-coulda-shoulda thoughts. 🙂

    We are pretty relaxed in our schooling with a leaning towards Charlotte Mason’s ideas and methods. We love exploring our interests and finding new topics to dive into!

  22. Great ideas! I’m writing them down for sure! My daughter is in preschool right now but I want to start doing some home projects with her as we hope to do a part-time homeschool/charter school for her next year. I love the idea of incorporating so many “subjects” into each one of the projects you mentioned. 🙂

  23. Oh I LOVE this idea! We are pretty much an unschooling family, but with winter coming up fast I know that we are going to need some sort of inside structure to keep everyone sane. Projects we can handle, strict curriculum is not an option in my daughter’s eyes! Thank you!

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