At any given time, there are at least 10 projects on the go in our house, I would say. The majority of our days at home are based around project work. The kids have so many ideas and they are always busy creating something! I just love seeing them so inspired and it’s fascinating to me how everything unfolds. At school, we were taught that life was divided into subjects and you needed to work on each one every day. At home, we have learned that you can spend your time pursuing what you’re interested in and you will likely cover almost every subject through any project! Surprising? Not really when you actually think about it! This is how life works. You develop the skills you need to do the things you want to do, instead of learning things out of context and not knowing how to apply them in the real world.
All this to say, to me, projects are super important and something we prioritize in our unschooling home.
What is a Project?
Maybe you have an idea of what a project is from school. That’s definitely not what I’m talking about. The projects the kids are doing here are not something decided for them by an adult. I have not chosen what topics we will cover in a year and set them assignments. Nor will I be judging how well they have done, or even when they are complete!
The kinds of projects I am talking about are the natural result of children following their interests. Could that look like a school project? Sometimes! Some of my children right now are working on projects where they are creating posters! I did a ton of that in school. It’s not what it looks like that defines it, it’s how it feels, how it comes about, who is in charge of it.
Basically, there are no rules to what a project is. It is whatever you’re interested in. For example, some things my children are currently doing: cooking, designing and sewing a dress, creating a book of drawings and notes about ocean animals, making a poster about atoms, creating digital art to sell in an online shop, macrame and weaving, researching famous women in history, learning a language, creating fantasy maps, science experiments, preparing for upcoming events with our unschooling group, writing stories, hand lettering, photography, learning about the black plague… there’s probably more but that’s all I can think of off the top of my head!
When I read it, it sounds like a lot, and I know that can sound overwhelming. If you’ve just left school and your child is feeling negative towards anything that feels like learning, or if you’re just moving to a more interest-led approach you might be wondering how to get one project started, let alone multiple! I get it. Please keep in mind that my children have never been to school and have always been interest-led so by now they are very well-versed in pursuing their interests! This has come about through years of practice and support. There is absolutely no need to expect a child to suddenly come up with numerous things they want to do. Start slow! You’re learning a new way of doing things and it doesn’t happen instantly. It will build over time until you’re wondering where on earth you’re going to store all these creations.
So, let’s talk about…
How To Support Project Work
When my 12-year-old asked me what I was writing about and I told her it was how to support your kid’s projects, she suggested that I title the post, ‘They Can’t Do It Alone’. I really wanted to include this because I think a lot of people have this misconception about unschooling that because it is child-led and non-coercive it means that adults have no input. That children are ‘on their own’. This is completely untrue. Unschooling does not work without adult input and support.
If you ask a child what project they would like to do, chances are they will have no idea. That is also true for my children! None of these projects came about by me simply asking them to come up with a project idea. They need help with this! They need interests, and before that, they need experiences in order to discover those interests.
The first thing we need to do is have experiences in the world so that kids can find out what they’re interested in. This means reading books about different topics, visiting interesting places, attending community events, watching documentaries, making friends, trying new things, etc. We need to make these things a regular part of our lives. You’re unlikely to learn about things you don’t know exist.
Before you start thinking about how to support an interest, you need to be curious about what exactly they’re interested in. Maybe your child mentions they are interested in turtles. You could think it’s a great idea to learn about the turtle life-cycle, label diagrams, and write notes on their place in the food web. But, maybe your child just thought they looked truly majestic swimming through the reef and felt inspired to create some art! If you aren’t clear on exactly what they’re curious about, you can’t know what kind of support they might need. You could be out there downloading Montessori 3-part cards instead of gathering art materials and risk turning them off the idea altogether. Get curious first! Ask them what they find interesting, what they want to know more about, and what questions they have.
You can read more about supporting an interest here.
Feel free to suggest ideas! As I said before, children need support. They need a partner. If they are having trouble finding something to do, come up with something! Show them an interesting activity you saw, try out some new art materials, provide some books for inspiration. In the photo above, my 7-year-old is going through some books and marking pages of experiments/activities she wants to try.
Show them what it looks like to find things to do. Show them the possibilities. Pursue your own interests and model that for them too!
Make time for projects
If interests and projects are important to you, then you need to make time and space for them. In our house we have project time every home day. The kids work on whatever they’re currently into! We sit at the craft table together and I help with anything they need. I could be assisting with sewing, opening the glue lid, reading to them, listening to them explain something they’re excited about, offering advice, helping problem-solve, or any number of things! In our craft room there is space to set up your things, all the materials you might need within arms reach, and the freedom to make some mess. These are all conditions for creativity!
If children are going to dive deep into a project, they need regular time at home set aside to do that. Time that is prioritised and important and protected. They also need a present adult. Even if you don’t feel they need you for anything, sit with them during this time and be interested. Watch what they’re doing, listen to anything they have to say. Show them you value what they are doing.
You can read more about project time here.
Help Them Plan
Children learn planning and goal-setting skills from us! At 14-years-old now my oldest is pretty capable of deciding what she wants to do, how she wants to do it, and what the steps are she might need to take. Whereas my 7-year-old is still learning and needs much more support with this. She has many things she wants to do but needs my help with breaking it down into steps, and working out exactly how she could explore an interest. I support all of them to different degrees to work out what they might want to read, watch, create, do, etc. Week to week we also make sure we have some time for planning. Either on Sunday night or Monday morning we will all have a chat together about any plans for the week and things they might want to do. It can be overwhelming to wake up on a Monday morning not sure what you would like to do. Some people prefer this, but others like a plan and an idea of what’s coming up! In our house everyone seems much happier with a plan they have made, even if it ends up changing!
You can read more about planning and setting goals with kids here.
Don’t Squash Big Ideas
Sometimes the ideas are BIG, right? One of my children at age 8 wanted to make an actual working robot that could do pretty much everything a human can do. As an adult, I know that’s not going to happen, right? Did my child need to hear that? Absolutely not.
When children come to us super excited with their big ideas, what they do not need is to immediately hear all the ways they won’t work. Even if you 100% know their idea is unachievable, the best thing you can do is keep it to yourself. Our children aren’t silly. They know how the world works. They will work out on their own what they can and cannot do. You can either be the one constantly saying no and raining on their parade, or you can be the person who they can share their excitement with and hear it reflected back to them. Which person do you think they’re going to keep sharing their ideas with in the future? Which person is going to encourage them to keep dreaming big?
So what do you do instead? Be curious, ask questions, and let them work out their own limits. Here’s some helpful phrases…
“That sounds so exciting!”
“I wonder how you will do that?!”
“I can’t wait to see how you do this.”
“How will you get started?”
“Tell me about your plan”
“I wonder if we can use things we already own”
“I love hearing your ideas”
“I would have never thought of this!”
Have things available that kids can be inspired by and use freely. From books, to art supplies, to basic ingredients for cooking. Definitely do not go out and buy a ton of expensive things relating to a new interest. Gather things gradually as needs arise. But, do have the basics out and easily accessible. Make it easy for children to be able to do the things they want to do without having to wait for help or things that aren’t available.
The point of doing projects at school was to please adults and to be judged and graded. None of that needs to be present outside of school. What a way to ruin the fun! The point of pursuing your interests is because you want to know more! Because you’re interested! Not to please anyone else. We don’t need to judge our children’s progress, or even when they are done with a project. That is up to them. A project ends when they have satisfied their curiosity. Some are short, some are long, some come and go again and again.
Making specific time for our children to pursue their interests and work on a variety of different projects has been really beneficial in our home! If you’re keen to make more time for it too, I hope this advice helps!
What are your kids interested in right now?