By Cheryl Kim
What is project-based learning?
At the start of this unprecedented season of shelter-in-place, many parents found themselves having to become teachers overnight. Although there is an abundance of online resources, the amount of information being shared can be daunting. For parents who have the time to read through educational standards and search for corresponding curriculum or teacher-created materials, that’s great! However, for parents still working from home or managing multiple kids’ schedules, just the thought of homeschooling can feel overwhelming.
As a full-time teacher, I continually search for, select, and create materials that support each individual subject. Last month, I found myself under orders of self-quarantine with my two elementary-aged sons while still needing to send in daily sub plans. I knew I needed to find something for my boys to work on independently that would still meet our learning goals yet require a minimal expenditure of time and effort on my part.
That’s when I decided to go with Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a student-centered instructional approach that has learners use a diverse range of skills to meet an end goal. PBL is often hands-on, engaging, tied to the real world realities, and hits multiple learning standards in all the core subjects. Unlike traditional pencil and paper assignments, which have limited sustainability, PBL can also extend over weeks or months.
I immediately went to my go-to educational website, TeachersPayTeachers (TPT). There are thousands of high-quality teacher-created materials available there and you are able to filter and search for assignments or activities by grade level, subject area, cost, rating, and type of product (printable, webquest, Power Point). As I scrolled through various PBL products, I was immediately drawn to the projects created by Digital: Divide & Conquer, who were not only highly-rated, but also reassured this busy teacher mom with the words: “No Prep! Print and Go.”
I purchased and printed the 35-page project papers for DESIGN A THEME PARK. I attached the cover to a colorful folder and tucked the rest of the pages inside. That same day, the project guided my children through multiple steps while exercising their creativity and imagination. Over the course of two weeks, they read instructions from the “City Council” (reading), designed rides and named them (writing), created a supply budget and purchased items (math), drew a map and key (social studies) and more. I was impressed with how I could easily adapt the project for both my 2nd and 3rd grader by simply omitting some of the pages. Meanwhile, older students (4th-6th grade) could do the entire project from start to finish.
DESIGN A THEME PARK is just one example of many different project-based learning activities out there. Digital Divide and Conquer has over 50 different PBL packs to choose from and each is around the price of a cup of coffee.
Here are some of them:
- Design a Water Park/Video Game/Obstacle Course/Tree House/Miniature Golf Course
- Create a Summer Camp/Classroom Community/Cardboard Creation/Geometrical City
- Run a Lemonade Stand/Toy Drive/Taco Truck/Music Festival
- Build a Tiny House/Ski Resort
- Plan a Vacation/Field Day/School Party
- Produce a TV Show
- Endangered Animal Awareness
- Island Survival
- Monster Squad
How can I start project-based learning in our home?
First, visit TPT and select a project for or with your child based on interest. Having your child choose their own project can increase motivation and excitement for the learning that will take place. Our family loves theme parks. Whether we’re in the U.S. or Asia, we try to visit at least one each year. So when I came across DESIGN A THEME PARK, I knew this was a project they could engage with.
You could also build in an incentive where completing a project could mean selecting a new game or earning extra screen time. For our third grader, completing one project meant getting to select the next project which was something for him to look forward to.
Second, create a learning plan to build some structure into the day. While exact time schedules may be unrealistic, having an expected time where your child is engaged in intentional learning activities can help them know what to expect.
In our home, Monday through Friday, we have a general morning session and two afternoon sessions for learning. We have also tried two morning sessions and one afternoon session. PBL can be scheduled into one of those sessions with other activities such as independent reading, online learning games, or hobbies (art, music, cooking, baking, etc.) scheduled into the other sessions.
For children with disabilities or access needs, PBL can be differentiated to accommodate their needs. Performing in Education has created PBL activities that give learners choice as they progress through each step. Beyond just text, students can choose to engage with technology, art, or multimedia. For additional support, Understood | For Learning and Thinking Differences has a wealth of resources and tools for students and parents. For autistic students, Social Thinking adds free virtual tools each week for parents to use with their children during this time of social distancing.
In addition to PBL, there are many other learning resources available and many educational websites and services are currently offering free subscriptions. See this website for an ongoing, updated list. Also, during these uncertain times, we want to support our children’s emotional well-being and not only their academic needs. For those looking for an inexpensive, engaging, academic yet creative “ready-to-go,” activity for your child that will go the distance, PBL can be a great place to start.
Cheryl Kim is a former elementary public school teacher currently teaching 2nd graders in an international school in Thailand. With 14 years of teaching experience and an M.A in Education, she is passionate about educating children in creative, engaging, and meaningful ways. You can find her on twitter @cheryltkim.