How to Plan a Project with Your Child

On Monday, millions of children across the country started to home educate for the very first time. Aside from the specified maths and English work set by the schools, many of them have been tasked with completing projects about topics of their own choosing. Oh, the liberation! The freedom to study things they’re genuinely interested in, to the depth they desire. I have a sneaking suspicion that most children will learn and remember far more about this period of study than from the rest of their school year combined. But, given the rigidity of the normal school timetable, with little opportunity for autonomous learning, have students been equipped with the skills to manage such an independent project? And, how do we as parents help them develop these skills, whilst simultaneously allowing them to maintain control over their studies?

It’s an extremely tall order, especially as many parents have their own work to complete alongside their children, and all of them have been thrown into this situation with zero time for preparation. Hopefully this post will help ease the pain a little, as I share some of the ways we tackle projects in our homeschool, including the joint planning process, sourcing activities and resources, completing the project, documenting and reviewing lessons learned. But first, there are two important things to remember.

Don’t Aim for Perfection

The first thing to reiterate is that these projects do NOT need to be perfect. It’s about the children enjoying the learning process, owning it and deepening their knowledge of a topic of interest. Hearing them delight in a fascinating fact discovered and shared, or fully engrossed in creating a Spitfire model is a much better measure of success than a perfectly turned out project folder. Your job is to marvel in their discoveries and document these incidents to help you remember what they’ve achieved, rather than to help them make the end product look perfect. Always focus on the child’s learning as a priority. There may well be value in showing them how to present their work in the most effective way, but let them take the lead (I appreciate that, if you’re slightly OCD like me, this can be quite hard to achieve!).

Multiple Skills Being Developed

Secondly, remember that throughout project work, in addition to the new subject knowledge they’re gaining, children are developing a wide range of essential skills at the same time. Namely, the ability to:

  • Understand, assimilate and remember information watched through documentaries, listened to on audiobooks/longer books you read to them, or read by themselves
  • Summarise key points
  • Document their learnings, either in the written form or visually, through photos, art, videos, graphs etc
  • Create, in the form of stories, poems, artwork, music, dances, or food baked
  • Play in order to consolidate their understanding and embed the knowledge deeply – I often find my two re-enacting things we’ve studied in their imaginative play, which is the most powerful and natural way for children to learn (so don’t feel guilty for letting them play for hours – remember, play is a child’s work)

The Planning Process

Step One – Create a Spider Diagram

There’s a real benefit in taking the time to show your child exactly how to plan out a project, rather than just jumping straight in. We tend to start with a mind map/spider diagram in which the project to be studied is written in the centre of the page and is surrounded by all the different aspects they’re interested in studying – which you brainstorm together – shooting off the central point in spokes (see the picture below).

If you get stuck, think about the categories below to see if any of them trigger some ideas. This is a comprehensive list though, don’t be overwhelmed by it – it’s really just to help provide some inspiration. Please just skim through it initially and come back to it when you need it. You only need to select a few of the sections, whichever appeal.

  1. Geography: What geographical elements could you include in your study?
    • Maps: for country studies, this could highlight key cities, islands, oceans, seas, mountains, volcanoes, and other significant geographical (such as Ayers Rock) or historical features (such as The Forbidden City in China). Or for historical studies, it might include old maps with different country borders or maps of battlegrounds, such as the area surrounding Waterloo, for the child to mark on the key places where the different battles occurred between Blucher’s Prussian and Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch armies versus Napoleon’s French soldiers prior to the final battle outside Waterloo. Or for a science project, it could be a map of the garden you’ve planted.
    • Geographical Features: such as rivers, lakes, mountains, volcanoes, spits, valleys, caves, glaciers and cliffs. A project on the Ancient Egyptians could for example touch on the importance of the Nile and the fertile land of its flood plains. A project on the Arctic could investigate the phenomena of the Northern Lights, icebergs or ice floes. A study on volcanoes themselves could investigate the structure of a volcano; different types of volcano; how they’re formed; where they’re located in the world, including the ring of fire; what rock types are found in volcanic areas; famous volcanic eruptions etc.
    • Flags: my two love colouring flags and learning about the meaning of the patterns and colours. You could probably manage to squeeze a flag into any project!
    • Coats of Arms: mostly relevant for country or historical projects, some are fascinating, such as Indonesia’s Garuda Bird Coat of Arms. The five emblems on the shield represent the five principles of Indonesia (Belief in a God, Humanity, Social Justice, Unity and Democracy) and the feathers represent the date Independence was claimed (the number of wing feathers on one side indicates the date; the tail feathers the month; the base of the tail the first part of the year and the neck feathers the second part).
    • Key Facts: the population, area, currency, religion(s), capital of a country or smaller area; heights of mountains; depths of oceans; the number of active volcanoes in the region etc – so many possibilities here.
    • Habitats: for animal or country studies, such as rainforests, coral reefs or the African savannah. Think about the types of flora and fauna existing in these habitats; how they’re interconnected and whether/how they’re threatened by external influences.
    • Weather: in terms of how humans/animals/plants have adapted to cope with the weather patterns of their homes; or just average temperatures, seasonal changes or unique weather patterns, such as monsoons, for a particular country or area.
  2. The Arts: all of these elements offer fun ways of getting hands on with their learning.
    • Music: either instruments or styles of music unique to or originating in the country or time period in question.
    • Dance: watching traditional dances are always a big hit in our house!
    • Arts: this could be famous artists or movements of the period, such as the romantic era of the 19th century or traditional art techniques from a country, such as Japanese calligraphy or traditional African masks.
    • Stories & Drama: for example traditional folk tales from a country or key drama produced in that time period, such as Shakespeare’s plays in the Elizabethan era.
    • Dress: so, either the dress of the historical age you’re researching, such as outfits from the Georgian era or uniforms from World War II; or traditional dress from a particular country, such as the saris of India.
  3. Science: what scientific elements could you include in your investigations?
    • Scientific Discoveries or Inventions: of the time period, such as photographs, paddle steam ships, rubber tyres, sewing machines, radio, X rays and the motorcar (and much more) from the Victorian era.
    • Biological Aspects (here are just some examples):
      • Interesting Flora and Fauna: of a country, region or habitat, such as the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos, the Kiwis of New Zealand or the Giant Redwoods in California.
      • Anatomy and Physiology of Specific Animals: for example, examining the anatomical variation across the wide range of dog breeds.
      • Classification: looking at the varied taxonomic groups of insects, ranging from bees to termites to crickets.
      • Reproduction & Development: a report on ponds could explore the lifecycles of frogs, newts or dragonflies.
      • Locomotion: for a deserts project, it might be interesting to see how the animals living here have adapted to move across the hot, shifting sands.
      • Animal Communication and Social Behaviour: a study on elephants for example could look at the larger female social groups in contrast to the smaller or individual male groupings. A project on whales could investigate their underwater echolocation communication.
      • Ecology: researching the interconnectedness of species in a rainforest for example.
    • Astronomy, Physics or Chemistry Elements: for example, a study of oceans might include a section on water density and buoyancy or how the water absorbs the various wavelengths of light in different ways, so that just under the surface you’ll see all the colours, but deeper down, you can only see blues.
    • Engineering: any key engineering feats of the era, such as Stephenson’s Rocket and the expansion of the UK railway throughout the Industrial Revolution, or of the country, such as pyramids in Egypt or The Taj Mahal.
  4. Literature: Any key literary figures, poems, novels or non-fiction from the time period or country studied. For example, if you’re studying the Crimean War, a section on Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ would be a good addition. Or if you’re interested in Ancient China, have a look at the writings of Confucius. Dickens played an important literary role in the Victorian age in highlighting the plight of the poor.
  5. Religions, Culture & Beliefs:
    • Religions: find out more about the key religion/s that have shaped a country/area (such as Buddhism in Thailand), or historical time period (such as the wars between Islam and Christianity in the Crusades).
    • Important Religious Buildings: of the country, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
    • Significant Festivals: such as Chinese New Year, Song Kran in Thailand or Yom Kippur.
    • Spiritual & Cultural Beliefs: research spiritual or cultural beliefs from the time period (such as the multiple gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt), or the country (such as the Maori culture of New Zealand).
  6. Lifestyle: these topics are relevant for projects about countries; major habitats, such as the Arctic region; peoples, such as the Aborigines; or historical time periods.
    • Everyday Life: anything unique about the daily habits of the citizens, from types of work, to sleeping patterns, to how they relax.
    • Traditional Food: a great opportunity to incorporate a hands-on element by making a traditional recipe.
    • Children: what life is like for children of the country/time period, what school is/would have looked like, what games they play/ed, their homes etc. The Children Just Like Me book is an excellent resource for this topic.
    • Homes: from cave houses of Tunisia, to yurts in Mongolia to igloos of Canada.
    • Transport: interesting forms of transport such as the dog sleds of Norway, Tuktuks of India to the horse and carriages of the past.
    • Sports & Games: ranging from the traditional card and parlour games played by Victorian women to Japanese’s taekwondo or the caber toss in Scotland.
  7. History: there is a bit of overlap here with the other sections, but consider:
    • Important Historical Figures: kings, queens, dictators, military leaders, writers, artists, philosophers, inventors etc.
    • Battles & Wars: consider the reasons leading up to the conflict along with the details of the battles themselves – the strategies; types of weapon and soldier; locations; how attacks were managed in the air, on land and in the water; communications; leadership etc – and the aftermath of the encounters.
    • Significant Events: such as the Suffragette movement, or the settling of new colonies in the New World.
    • Key Scientific Discoveries or Inventions: for example, flight, the telephone, motorcars etc
    • Social Structures & Lifestyle, the upstairs, downstairs divide in 19th century England or the caste system in India.
    • Literature: see above
    • Arts, Music, Performance: see above
    • Religious & Spiritual Beliefs: see above

Even if your project is not based on a specified time period, you could include historical elements. For example, with a project on elephants, you might consider their role in various wars: Hannibal used them in the Punic Wars, Alexander the Great was a big fan of bringing them to the battlefields, and they were even used to move military equipment in World War II.

Step Two – Plan Activities

Now they know what aspects of the topic they’re going to study, it’s time for them to come up with a plan of activities to complete. Here are some ideas:

  1. Information Summaries or Book Reviews: A documentation of the key points they’ve learned in either a written or visual way. Be creative – it doesn’t all have to written up. They could record a summary of what they’re learning as they progress and edit it into a vlog at the end. Or they could create a series of annotated maps or a photographic timeline.
  2. Creative Writing: They could, for example, write some poetry about the landscape or a favourite animal from the country. Alternatively, they might like to rewrite one of the traditional folk stories or fictional tales, changing the characters, setting or plotlines but maintaining the same overarching moral or lesson. For example, The Great Kapok Tree is a beautiful Amazonian story in which a man goes into the forest with the intention of chopping down a kapok tree, but instead falls asleep. He remains asleep while each animal in turn whispers into his ear about the importance of the tree to their lives, demonstrating the significance of the tree and interconnectedness of the flora and fauna in the rainforest. The man wakes and resolves not to chop down the tree. This would make a great story to rewrite by simply changing the ecosystem to maybe a coral reef or a hedgerow.
  3. Artwork: In addition to using art as a method of documenting their learning, they could also have a go at a traditional art technique or style. Or make some enormous models in the garden of a famous landmark they’re studying and photograph it for their records. Or make a pyramid out of sugar cubes. Think also maps, coloured in flags or coats of arms, models of habitats, or completed sticker books showing the dress from the Tudor period. Or simply printed out photographs from the internet. Literally the sky is the limit here. Enjoy getting creative and messy.
  4. Cooking: Another great way of learning in a hands-on way, try out some traditional recipes or make a replica of the earth out of a multi-layered cake for your geography project. The Beans once made a cake and decorated the top to look like the inside of an animal cell, as part of our genetics project!
  5. Games & Sport: Play associated games like the ones mentioned above; try out traditional Victorian card and parlour games; or recreate a traditional sport in the garden, such as Takraw, an Indonesian game in which a woven rattan ball is kicked over the net (a cross between football and volleyball). Again, so many opportunities here.
  6. Play: please do not underestimate the power of play in the learning process. Recreating battles with their teddies, or dressing up and pretending to be Roman children, or making a traditional Thai floating market with their Sylvanians or Schleich animals, all reinforce what your child has learned throughout their project. Your job here is just to notice and take a photo to document.
  7. Graphs & Tables: From a maths perspective, statistics is an obvious choice to weave into their study. They could draw a pie chart of the different religious beliefs or a map of population density for the country they’re studying. Or a graph showing the decline over time in the population size of a species, such as mountain gorillas. They might like to include facts in their lapbook, such as the number of soldiers on each side in a war, how many submarines the allies had vs. the axis in WWII, the average life expectancy of children from the different classes in 17th century France, heights of mountain ranges, number of active volcanoes etc. The options are endless.
  8. Music, Dance & Performance: Learning and performing a traditional song counts as part of their project work. As does choreographing a dance using the traditional style from a particular country, or performing a puppet show or a play with their teddies. Again, just record what they’ve done in some way. This is not so much for the school as much as for your child – they love looking back over old projects they’ve completed.
The Thai Floating Markets as recreated in their play
Bean10 trying Batik art for the first time

Step Three – Find Resources

Now it’s time to work out what resources you have available already or need to borrow/purchase new as required. Here are the resources we use for projects:

  • Books, books and more books: We’re book lovers in this household and would all prefer to read a good book about a topic than research on the internet, but that’s not to everyone’s taste. Try and find a range of selections, from poetry; fiction; historical diaries; science, geography or field guides; colouring, activity or sticker books related to the topic. If you’re doing a country study, I would highly recommend purchasing Jamie C. Martin’s excellent book, Give Your Child the World, which has fiction and non-fiction recommendations by age and country. It also has a historical index at the back if you want to search for titles by time period. Read the books together snuggled in front of a fire or set them off on their own, making sure they come and ask you about anything that doesn’t make sense.
  • Audiobooks: Don’t forget about the beauty of audiobooks. It’s just as effective a learning experience for the child to listen to the story as it is for them to read it. And perfect if you have a non-reader and you need some time for yourself. At the moment, there are many titles available for free so have a dig around.
  • Internet Research: Show them how you’d go about researching a topic, making sure to point out how not to get overwhelmed by the volume of information available and how to summarise the key points.
  • Games: Finding related games is a good way of incorporating a fun learning element. Top Trumps is one of our go to resources. They cover a huge range of topics, from volcanoes to dogs to Greek myths. For example, when we were studying chemistry, I bought the Top Trumps Elements, and they both memorised many of the characteristics of the chemical elements off by heart as a result of their play. For historical projects, History Heroes is a great resource.
  • Virtual Day Trips or Lessons: In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many museums around the world have opened their virtual doors, allowing you to explore them from the comfort of your own home. Here are just a couple of examples: browse Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings by taking the virtual tour of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum or nip to China to take a virtual tour of their Great Wall. There are also literally hundreds of free online classes available, from English National Ballet classes, to family stargazing, to free history lessons with Dan Snow. Have a search and see if you can find something relevant to your child’s project.
  • Documentaries: Again, in the wake of the current crisis, there are probably more child-friendly documentaries available for free than ever before. They’re a fantastic way of learning; my two often watch them whilst they’re eating lunch or dinner which also gives me a chance to escape their questions for a while! Also, try Curiosity Stream, which for prime members, has a 30-day free trial.
  • Artwork: along with the usual painting, drawing, and modelling options, think about how they could incorporate photography or videography into their project. There may also be great craft sets available to purchase, such as aircraft model kits or landmark building kits for example.
  • Cooking: purchase ingredients for any recipes planned.

Step Four – Write Up Final Plan and Determine How to Document

Once we’ve completed our brainstorming about areas to focus on, have planned our activities and sourced our resources, I find it helpful to write it all up into a final plan. This shows for each key area, what books they’re going to read/documentaries they’re going to watch/art projects they’re going to complete/summaries they’re going to write etc. Depending on age and ability, either complete this for your child or ask them to do it for themselves, offering help where needed. Here’s an example from an Indonesian lapbook they completed:

You also need to consider how to consolidate and display all of their work. You could use a project folder, stick it all onto an A3 board, have a project area within the house, or use a lapbook, which are basically A4 file folders stuck together (and which can fold away) onto which you can stick all of your writing, artwork and photographs. Have a look at this post for more information about lapbooks.

Lapbooks are our preferred method for consolidating our project work – at the end of this post, a much younger Bean10 shows you how to make a basic one. You can stick in pictures and maps you’ve drawn or printed out, photographs of related play, along with sections of written work. Or you can use the blank templates on Homeschoolshare to create create mini flap books, pockets to hold information cards, accordion style foldables that pull out etc (these are all massively appealing to children, trust me!), which you can personalise to the particular project. Alternatively, make it easy on yourself and have a look at their master lapbook list for free readymade lapbooks on a whole range of topics.

Or for something a little different, ask your child to record themselves completing activities or explaining what they’ve learned, and at the end help them to edit into a mini vlog (the free video editing software Lightworks is super easy to use even for a technophobe like me).

Step Five – Complete the Project & Review

Now, it’s over to your child to follow the plan, completing the scheduled activities and ticking them off their list (mine love doing this).

Once their project is complete, ask them to explain it to someone who hasn’t been closely involved in their undertakings, such as grandparent or a friend for example. They could do this over Skype and still comply with the current isolation restrictions! Children love to show others what they’ve completed and at the same time they’re reinforcing all they’ve learned.

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