What Is Project-Based Learning?

Do you you unschool, but find your older children need more structure or perhaps your unschooling doesn’t feel like it’s meeting their needs anymore? Does your unschooled child not feel like they’re learning enough?

 This is where a more deliberate project-based style can be a perfect fit.

Unschooling is a lifestyle; it is an intricate dance of providing just the right amount of social interaction, stimulation, experiences, materials, resources and relaxation. Whilst trying to achieve all of this the parent also has a home to run, meals to prepare, pets to walk and care for, family and friends to see, perhaps a business to attend to and so on.

It is easy to see how the unschooling train can derail.

When I started out home educating my own children, I knew I wanted them to have play-based early years. I think we did that part expertly, and it flowed well into them discovering their passions, learning to read, beginning to write and so forth. It was all very natural and organic. Then something changed; my daughter wanted more structure at about age 9 and I struggled to understand exactly what I needed to do to help facilitate that need.

I had a child who wanted more formal, structured learning, preferably with other children, but who did not really want to be taught. We already had many of the elements of project-based learning happening, but it was far from a fine art. We began experimenting with a Waldorf Curriculum, but somehow life just kept getting in the way!

Our unschooling didn’t feel like it was working anymore. A curriculum was not the way forward for us either. We still wanted learning to be interest led, to move at the child’s own developmental pace, to be mentored and facilitated. Project-based learning was our way forward.

Project based learning is about using strategies to help your children direct and manage their own learning. But how?

Here are 3 key elements to show you how to take a project-based approach to your child’s learning journey:

  1. The important idea with this style of learning is to remember that at all times, the child should own their work. You can start with directly asking your children what they want to learn about, but children cannot always articulate their thoughts that precisely. The best way is to observe your children over time; look for clues in their play and in the things they say to each other and to you. Be a detective! Keep a journal to record what you discover from your observations.


I tend to write freely about our day and then create a short bullet pointed list at the end for ideas to action, these might include: questions they have asked; groups they want to try out; materials they have asked for; or my own thoughts on suggestions I could make based on observing their interests over time.

2. Make the environment your child’s teacher. Ensure materials are within their reach and they have a good range of resources to experiment and work with (they do not need to be expensive). Try to make the project area clear of junk and organised (note to self!) If possible give your children a dedicated workspace. Use bulletin boards to display their works in progress, sketches, notes, questions and so forth. Display their finished projects on shelving, walls, in portfolio’s or more formally in project books if that’s what they want. Children, especially as they get older, like to know they are learning.

3. Dedicate your time and support. It sounds silly to suggest giving your children your time when you home educate and are with them all day! The reality though, is that life can take over sometimes. Being a totally disorganised kind of person myself, I find the idea of timetabling project sessions really helpful. It’s not that projects and learning don’t happen at other times (seriously I know that learning and life are intertwined), it’s simply a guarantee to my children that I will have the materials they need and the time to help without any other distractions during those ‘blocks of time’.

Sometimes ‘projects’ might be one-off experiences, but I think the beauty of this style of working means you have all the tools to challenge your child to work deeply at times and extend their ideas.

Your children’s projects can be done on their own at home, with siblings or wider family, with a bunch of friends or within the community. Projects can also be 2D, 3D,indoor, outdoor, verbal, written, performed or even whilst riding on the back of a horse!

Stop thinking of ‘projects’ as something which must be recorded in a book.


Here is a great website to help you get loads more information about how project-based  learning can work and how to support your child in being a self-directed learner: What Is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning can be for anyone. An unschooler might use this style of working full-time, whereas a more traditional home educating family might carve out a chunk of time each week for projects. Even a school going child can benefit by encouraging them to remember their own learning goals.

Project-based learning is about your children being valued, respected and celebrated as learners.

My final thought on this is actually the most important aspect. Project-based learning is not just for children, it’s for you too! Get involved! What do you want to do with your time? Now is absolutely the time to follow your passions. So dust off that guitar, pull out that canvas, write that book. When your child does project work, you can too.



Become a Global Guardian

This term we have taken on a new subscription to ‘Global Guardians Project’, a monthly learning capsule which takes you all around the world. It is a perfect blend of inspiration and ideas for action regarding world sustainability issues and animal conservation. It is aimed at children aged 4-8 years, but I use it as a starting point to explore certain topics in more depth depending on what areas my own kids find interesting. We don’t tend to use their art ideas, instead finding projects to suit the ages of my own children who are 10 and 9.

You can find further information about the ‘Global Guardian Project’ by visiting their website: Become a Global Guardian

Alongside the actual learning capsules, I have set up a ‘real-life’ group for my children, so that they can share their knowledge and complete engaging art projects on global themes with other children. The idea was two-fold, to give my daughter the social learning experience she wants, and to explore animal conservation which is deeply important to my son.

To begin, we downloaded the capsule on ‘Oceans‘. We learnt about the complex eco-system of our oceans, focusing on sea turtles and their particular plight. Although my children are pretty aware about the impact of rubbish, they were surprised to learn how much of it ends up in our oceans. We discussed the impact of plastic on marine life, which of course they found sad and shocking.

Taking action with my children felt like a really important part of this project. I wanted them to feel empowered and to know that they could make a difference. So this September we spent a day volunteering with the Marine Conservation Society and completed a beach clean at Warsash.


We are also taking part in The Last Straw, which sets the challenge to request ‘no straw’ in restaurants etc and also to share the challenge with others, which is why I’m telling you all about it!

In our ‘real-life’ group session on oceans we had a go at 2 types of printing: mono printing & collagraphs. The mono printing using glass didn’t work brilliantly on the day, but children are very forgiving and most used the materials to do their own kind of artwork. The collagraphs were very successful and definitely an activity I would recommend.

The idea is to use collage materials stuck onto a strip of card which give ocean textures. You then paint over the top with sea colours and print on paper or fabric. Our best prints were made on calico. One child in the group took theirs home and sewed a sea turtle on top, it was beautiful. You can also block or mono print sealife on top of the finished print for added effect.

The second learning capsule was focused on Brazil and the Amazon. We began our group session with a ‘sharing’ time and I was blown away by the amazing art and poetry some of the children had completed at home following the session last month on ‘Oceans’. Some children had some great books and knowledge to share on the Amazon too. I shared a beautiful book of photography with the group, which I totally recommend: ‘Rainforest’ by Lewis Blackwell.

We also looked at Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings and recreated selected areas of his paintings in oil pastels. I set up a ‘free’ table too with some ideas and various materials and the children could then create how they wanted.



Our group challenge this month was to research palm oil and attempt to be better consumers by eradicating 5 items containing palm oil from our shopping list. When we got home and looked in our cupboards, we couldn’t find anything containing palm oil, so we are doing OK on that front already.

Next month the focus is on Rwanda, I can’t wait for this one personally, it is such an interesting country and the focus will be on the plight of mountain gorilla’s, which should be really fascinating.

I’ve been thinking about the ‘Global Guardians Project’ a lot recently, and I honestly cannot think of a more important issue for young children to learn about. The Earth’s future is in our hands, and also in theirs. I think we all hear so much about endangered animals and the awful state of our world, but the difference with this particular project is that it focuses on the beauty that is all around us and the small actions we can all easily do to make a difference.

We ARE nature! Nature is our true home.


Family Traditions Part Two: Camping!

Looks bliss, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll be honest, it is. This particular camping tradition has become a yearly event ( before the schools break-up) and is shared with extended family. There really is no-where on earth more beautiful than Cornwall in the sunshine and for four years in a row, we’ve had sunshine.

If you’re thinking I’m being all smug about our brilliant camping experience, then rest assured we have had many camping disasters. Here are just 3 rubbish camping trips we’ve had to show that we have in fact earned our camping stripes:

  1. A weekend years ago when we decided to ‘wild camp’ in the New Forest. Turns out I have a very over-active imagination, but at the time I really did think there was an axe murderer on the loose. In hind-sight it was probably a pony rustling around in the dark, but I was so terrified I made us abandon the tent in the middle of the night and sleep in the back of the car instead.
  2. This one was so dreadful I’ve even blocked out where exactly it was from my memory. The kids were aged 2 and 3 and they weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs to take camping. It rained the whole time, and we were so desperate for things to do with the kids that we played football in the tent. It was a pretty small tent too.
  3. Hmmm not sure which one to go with here, the festival where I had a serious stomach upset & we were camped a long way from the toilets, OR the one where it rained so much the tent leaked and we had to pack up in the middle of the night OR the one where I had  to get around on crutches with a badly damaged knee……………..

Our yearly camping trip to Cornwall is the glittering jewel in a very rusty crown. There’s a lot of family history here as my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Cornwall. Many summer holidays, sometimes the entire summer holiday were spent there. I was even named after a fishing boat in the harbor, thank goodness it was Sarah Louise and not one of these totally stupid but real boat names: Tip Sea; Shipfaced or my personal favourite, Breakin Wind.

There are so many memories attached to Cornish summers for me, that I wanted my own children to have some of the same experiences. Mum found this absolute gem of a campsite and from our little patch (pitch) of heaven we indulge in the following pleasures:

Cycling to the seaside town for lunchtime pasties; kayaking on the estuary; bodyboarding at Treyarnon; sandwiches at Constantine; taking the ferry to Rock (even swimming over to Rock once as part of the Padstow to Rock swim); supporting the National Lobster Hatchery; hair wrapping on the harbor wall; clotted-cream icecreams; evening drinks on the campsite whilst the kids play with friends they meet every year; time with extended family (1 of my sister’s also camps every year, 1 visits for the day from Devon and the other needs a little nudge…..it will happen!); drinks at a harbor view pub/hotel to mimic the times we spent there as kids ourselves playing in the games room; rock climbing; dodging low flying seagulls; post beach drinks at The Cornish Arms………and a new one to add after this year, dancing in the harbor square to The Floral Dance with the kids and their cousins (after a few drinks). Note the drink theme, maybe that’s the secret to good camping?

Suffice to say, this part of Cornwall steals a little more of my heart each year. I hope the kids will grow up with equally fond memories of their summer trips.

On the journey home, T piped out from the back seat ‘Are we back in England yet?’ Part of my brain thought ‘Blimey I need to get a map of the UK out and teach some basic geography’ and the other part thought ‘yeah, I know exactly what he means. Cornwall does kind of feel like some wonderful foreign land’.

Happy Camping!


Family Traditions Part one: Poetry

Random reciting of poetry is somewhat a tradition in my family. My Grandpa Popsie, used to sing, recite quotes and poetry to myself and my sisters. It gave him such joy, and his face would light up as we listened eagerly. He’d pick the same favourites to recite aloud from memory and it was comforting. I miss Popsie and the comfort blanket of his poetic words. One evening at bedtime all those years ago, I recorded his singing and poetry on cassette, which I still have, but can’t quite bear to hear now that he has passed away.

My Dad has taken on the mantle for my own children. He will turn up on our doorstep and recite limericks and poetry, all created by him. Sometimes he wakes in the night with poetry whirring round his head, or thinks up crazy rhymes as he walks the 20 minute journey to our house.

Here is Dad’s latest offering, which he wrote in 15 minutes in the middle of the night this week, especially for L and T. ‘Big Brown Bear’ is his alter ego, a persona he acquired when the kids and their cousins were just toddlers. He used to switch into ‘Big Brown Bear’, which the kids would find both scary and utterly thrilling. This particular poem is based on the ‘spy’ games L and T play, following him halfway home, ducking and diving behind parked cars and lampposts, trying desperately not to be seen.

The Stealthy Trackers

 If you follow in the paw prints of the big brown bear,

You have to use much guile and take great care,

Be as nimble as a newt, as quiet as a mouse,

When you follow his tracks from house to house.


If you walk in the shadow of a big brown bear,

You have to glide like a ghost and sprint like a hare:

You need the strength of a lion and the eyes of a cat,

And the ultrasonic senses of a vampire bat.


So heed this warning from one, who knows,

Be on your mettle; be on your toes,

For if he turns and catches you there,

You’ll feel the force of the big, brown bear.


Robert Esau


Dad is a big part of my children’s home ed life, and I love the enthusiasm for life, the knowledge, the jokes and of course the poetry that he brings into our home.


A Perfect Birthday

SDC11832Well, as a dear friend told me, I’m another year wiser!

My birthday has been simple since having the kids. It has usually involved our normal day, and then a takeaway, a bottle of wine and a film in the evening. A bit uneventful really.

This year my birthday came at the end of our holiday in Portugal to see Mum, and it was perfect. I awoke to handmade cards from L and T, plus a special plate of gifts carefully selected by T: 2 favourite shells collected from the beach, 3 special stones he’d found and 1 juicy nectarine. No-one could have chosen a better present for me, and I’m not just saying that! The nectarine was the sweetest, most delicious piece of fruit I think I’ve ever tasted and I love sea drift treasures. It certainly beat my present from him last year, which was my own sieve from the kitchen cupboard wrapped up!

My only birthday request this year was to swim in the sea, our little family of four together. It was freezing, but weirdly that’s how I like it! I love the buzz of a cold sea swim.

For the past 3 years I have entered charity open water swim events with my youngest sister, but she is due baby no.3 imminently and so we’ve decided not to do one this year. It was actually nice just enjoying the sea without the pressure of having to train.


We then went back to the villa complex and had a pool swim before lunch at the pool bar. More swimming= my perfect birthday!

Lastly we popped into town so the kids could spend their holiday money and Mum insisted on buying me some shoes she had spotted which she thought would be perfect for summer dog walking.

The evening was spent travelling home, which we reached at 1am. Tired, but happy.

Of course our holiday is not a break from home education, life and learning just goes on. However, the sun, sea, change of scenery and having Sean around for a week has revived and energised me.

Home Ed, I’m ready for you!



Ebbs and flows

Learning……it’s a bit like a stream…..sort of. The ebbs and flows, the times of constant swirling activity and the times of still, serene waters which to an onlooker may appear as if nothing much is happening. There is an under-current of learning happening all the time however, yet we cannot always see it. Our job as parents, is simply to trust.

On a hot day, a week or so ago, I took Land T to a nearby park. The idea was to walk our dog Legend and play in the park, but they had other ideas! They took off their shoes, rolled up their trousers and got in the stream which ran along the edge of the park. Legend followed, jumping in excitedly, then kept coming over to me to shake dry whilst I tried to enjoy 5 minutes of peace on a nearby bench.

It was futile of course, and I was wet by this point anyway, legend had made quite sure of that. I dutifully ditched my shoes and rolled up my own trousers and slipped down the muddy bank into the freezing water. L and T love me to join in their adventures and so I followed their lead: upstream, under the bridge we had played pooh sticks from earlier, through the shallow and deep. It was fun and I felt brimming with something…….aliveness!

The next morning T awoke excited about the stream,’we need to go back today Mum!’ and we did. We went back 4 times in all, until eventually they had explored a huge section of the stream. Towards the end of the fourth visit, they were waist high in freezing water and had to use a fallen tree to lever themselves out.

It was a great adventure to them, and they were learning. I couldn’t be sure what exactly, but years of living alongside them has taught me to have faith. I assumed of course, that the learning was centred on the stream itself. Not because it mattered much what the exact nature of the learning was, if it was important to them it was important to me, but because the world which children inhabit fascinates me.

L got out of the stream first and was shivering, then T got out and declared ‘well, we’ve done the stream now Mum, I’ve reached my limit with it’.

As it turned out, they were learning about themselves, their limits. Pretty important stuff I’d say.