- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

Learning from a textbook can seem endless and boring. Hands-on learning, however, can speed the process and make it exciting.

Project-based learning is a shortcut. It works from the natural human desire to master the information needed to attain something we desire. Because the learner really wants to discover the way to do something, he or she is highly motivated, and since they immediately put the new information into practice, the facts are reinforced immediately.

Here are a few ways you may be able to teach academic subjects using real-life projects:

Paint a room — Kids often are thrilled at the prospect of changing the look of a space they spend time in — a bedroom, study room or living room. Let them measure the walls or ceiling and calculate the area of each section to be painted. Take a trip to the paint store and let them choose the colors. Discuss what tools will be needed for the job, and have them bargain-hunt for the best prices and quality for each tool needed. After the job is done, look at the concepts learned: measurement, figuring area, estimating job costs, comparative shopping, interior design skills and the hand-eye skills involved in actual painting.

Build something — Whether it’s a shed, a table, a set of shelves or a fence, kids love the process of finding out how to create something new. Lots of math skills can be taught here, but also, you may have to get a building permit, know the zoning regulations or work with safety codes. If you have a friend who’s a skilled contractor, have him explain the necessary steps to the group, and let them communicate directly with him as they purchase the materials and carry out each stage.

Celebrate something — Life is full of opportunities to throw a party, host a dinner or arrange an event. Celebrations involve food preparation, decoration, time management, gifts, guests and activities. Even young children can write out invitations for a party or can stamp, address and seal envelopes. Signs and banners may be needed, offering great opportunities for learning about art and design. When people arrive, where will they walk, sit, play a game or eat? Let your group organize the activities and the space usage for maximum efficiency.

Create something — Writing an essay might be boring, but writing a book, a script for a play or movie, or a song can be exciting. Let’s say your elementary kids love dinosaurs. You could suggest a dinosaur movie, a dinosaur theme park, a dinosaur murder mystery, a dinosaur comedy club, a dinosaur board game — the best type of project would involve other things they enjoy, such as drawing, music, jokes or physical activity. To create their project, they not only will be studying more about the topic, but also naturally will have to increase skills in other areas.

Use a foreign language — Kids love entertaining, and can create a performance all in the new language. Whether a puppet show or a play or a video, they can use vocabulary, increase grammar knowledge, and develop fluency and comprehension.

In my experience, projects help kids absorb and use knowledge much more efficiently than through the standard instruction, drill and testing format. As they are doing the project, they also may pick up auxiliary information as well.

As parent educators, our role is to guide them through the project. Once they’re engaged, however, we can step back and just be a part of the team. Injecting more information, when it’s needed, can be helpful, but standing over them, directing every step often will drain the fun right out of it.

The pride kids get from finishing a project and sharing it with others can far exceed that of receiving a letter or number grade on a test or a report card. Honestly, they really won’t remember they learned seven new math skills or mastered the intricacies of iambic pentameter. That’s for the parent to recognize and record.

What they do recognize is that information and skills are useful to achieve their goals. And, it makes learning fun — not only for the students, but for the parents, too!

Kate Tsubata is a freelance writer and home-schooler living in Maryland.

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