Starting a long term project with young children is more challenging than it sounds. Knowing how and where to start is only the beginning! Questions I’ve often come across include: How do I gear the work down to the child(ren)’s level? How much do I control the direction/outcome? How do I maintain focus and attention? How do I extend the work for long term learning? Through our recent Spring Planting Preschool Project, I hope to answer some of these questions!
I have spent years discovering creative and meaningful ways to engage in real project work with small children, and the truth is, its never finished and never perfect, and no one has all the answers. Project learning is just that: a learning process, for adults and children alike. Now, through initiating project work with my own child, I’m experiencing this all over again!
The one thing I know is… engaging a child in long term projects is a tried and true way to spark investment and a real, lifelong love for learning.
Through project work, the child learns how to apply themselves to find answers to his questions, solutions to his problems, and innovative ways to make the world a better place. Projects build free thinkers, strong minds, and hearts that are passionate for change.
Here, I’ve shared my thoughts on how to START a long term project with young children- through a look at our own Spring Planting Project. Think of this post as Part 1 of what will be a series on project work learning, where I’ll go over everything I know about the project work continuum. For Part 2, read our Continuing Long Term Project Work post.
Discussions about Gardening
Conversation is always a great place to start for virtually any project. Open dialogue is the best way to understand the interests and curiosities of the child in a given subject, and helps the adult to wrap his/her brain around the scope of a project, including what a project can start “as”, and what it may or may not lead to with further exploration.
Unlike many project work enthusiasts may perceive, project work does not need to feel chaotic or like a “free for all”. The adult’s role in a project should be one of perpetual honing in, consolidating and filtering information into categories that make sense, and recreating new directions based on whatever new information, discoveries, questions, or work the child(ren) have thrown into the mix. More about that in Part 2… my point is, conversation is critical.
We initiated our Spring Planting Preschool Project with a conversation about our backyard garden. My daughter knew the garden didn’t look so nice, and is excited to get new things growing again. She is looking forward to the weather warming, picking fresh carrots and cucumbers, her special birthday, and her baby sister’s birth. She’s especially excited for a Summer of watermelon and tomatoes! All these things are connected for her with the coming of Spring, and I couldn’t be happier she has connected warm weather with growing good food, and growing love in her family.
From conversation came questions about what plants need, and as we often do, we drew pictures together to help document the needs of plants for growth and blooms.
Planning for our Garden
As a next step, we needed to decide what we wanted to grow. Ember was at the time, and is still very into making lists. Together we listed each item Ember wanted to grow. Our first list included:
- Bell peppers
- Snap peas
These are all Ember’s favorites. Mom and Dad, however, wanted to add zucchini, lettuce, and onions….
- Ember: “No lettuce. I don’t like it.”
- Mom: “Do you think the garden should have just what you like, or have things the whole family likes?”
- Ember: “Just what I like.”
- Mom: “Is it only your garden, or is the garden for our family to share?”
- Ember: “Just mine.”
- Mom: “If the garden is only yours, you will need to take care of it all by yourself. You will need to take care of the soil, do the weeding, planting, and all the watering. Is this something you want to do alone, or something you want to do together?”
- Ember: “I want to share it together”
- Mom: “If we are sharing the garden, I think we should all choose things we would like to grow.”
- Ember: “Ok. It can be a special family garden to Love.”
Open ended conversation. It creates so much opportunity for independent thinking, as seen above.
Also, I love documenting the learning process through quoting dialogue. It really provides something special to look back on later in the project to see how far the child has come in his or her learning. More on documentation later.
Action Step 1: Shopping for the Garden
As I was saying, my child is way into making lists lately. Namely, this includes shopping lists where she gets to help check things off. As such, creating a seed shopping list was an important step for us because it incorporated areas of her current interests.
As you can see, I created a picture list for Ember, and allowed her to shop and check off items herself as she found the corresponding seeds….
She enjoyed every bit of shopping for what we needed for the garden, and her investment in the planting project was that much stronger for it.
While we were waiting for the right time to start our seeds, we planted a potted herb garden for the kitchen and explored how to place seeds, how to water, and on giving adequate light to seedlings. This step was fun, but more importantly gave Ember an opportunity to build a bit of knowledge & experience that she could later apply to her backyard garden seedlings. When it came time to plant for outside, she had a sense of being confident and in-the-know about planting, which made her feel proud and extra capable of helping.
We also planted some indoor potted plants, and talked about indoor vs outdoor plants and temperature
Adding extra elements like this are also important for maintaining interest for the child. Planting herbs as we did, or providing other garden-based work in a variety of areas (such as through artwork, sensory play, etc.) makes the project multi directional and expansive over time (hence long term). I’ll share more garden project work extensions in my next post.
The Project Scope Brainstorm
Do you remember doing webs as a child? I have found this to be my most helpful behind the scenes step in the development of any project. Why? It allows me to make sense of all the variables of a project, and place them into workable learning areas.
I created this brainstorm just after we went shopping for seeds. I began with the general project topic (spring planting), and began to write down different sub categories of the project that I knew would arise.
Once I had subcategories, I allowed myself to think creatively and jot down anything that came to my mind regarding where the project may flow toward.
I made sure to include in my brainstorm the areas that Ember has already shown interest in or has asked questions about. I have highlighted all of her expressed interest areas within my brainstorm map below…
As me move through our Spring Planting Preschool Project over the next few months, we will target some of these areas, ignore others, and most likely create new areas based on where our learning takes us. As such, my brainstorm map will be added to, crossed off, and highlighted more along the way…. and… it will be important for me to look at it again and again as time passes, to maintain a defined project scope as we go.
Action Step 2: Preparing our Seed Starters
When we were ready to start seedlings indoors, we surveyed our seeds again, determined a rough number of starters to prepare, and worked some garden soil, potting mix, and nutrients into a mix. Ember discovered Perlite (shown in the last image below), and we talked about how soil needs to stay fluffy and “breathe”, without becoming to dense or mucky. (This touches on the “soil” category in the brainstorm above, and acts as a jumping off point to study soil more when we take to the backyard).
Action Step 3: Mapping the Garden
We began mapping with a visual survey and rough measurements of our space. We noted the locations of our corner Sage plant, neighboring sandbox to the right, and grass borders all around…
We knew from the start that part of our garden would be shaded for leafy greens and plants susceptible to bolting in the heat. So with Ember, we took the time to talk about the difference between “sunny” plants and “shady” plants before we decided where things would go. Ember noticed that the sunny plants, in general, were warm in color, while the shady plants were deep green!
After designating a shade area and determining which plants would go in the shade, we had all the info we needed to begin creating a garden map. The map is important for Ember to visualize what our work is leading towards, and also helps me stay organized and inspired through arts and crafting.
If you’re a control freak (like I am) it is important to note that letting go is a difficult but important piece of a long term project with small children. The adult must flex, allow flow, and allow hands-on work for the child(ren), even if it isn’t necessarily our vision of the final product or direction of the project.
In this case, I knew it would be important for my child (who loves to draw and take the lead in most fine motor tasks) to take an active step in drawing our map. I helped Ember by showing where each vegetable would go (in our shaded area on the right hand side of our garden bed, on a hanging trellis, or in a sunny spot) and guided her in how and where to draw each plant. Ember enjoys asking how she should go about drawing things, and I give examples and ideas without restricting her creativity. While I’d be ok with her drawing however she likes, my giving ideas helps to build her confidence, and then she usually takes it from there.
After the vegetables and fruits were mapped, we added real Sage leaves, sand, and grass from our backyard right onto our map to help define space and add texture…. We were both very proud of our final product!
Next, we created labels for our plants. I labeled some accurately (always with words AND pictures to help Ember identify easily), while Ember created some artistic versions to add to duplicate seeds.
***Note: During our mapping and labeling process, Em felt a need to use the ruler we were working with to measure and cut paper pieces. It wasn’t really related to what we were doing other than the initial measuring of the garden space. But. I allowed and encouraged it.
Why? Because she took initiative to contribute and felt like it was important. It wasn’t a free for all- she was focused and involved. It also gave me a moment to think about some of the gardening space logistics that she wasn’t a part of planning. These exceptions allowed us both to stay motivated and focused, and act as an enriching add-on to the learning process.
Action Step 4: Planting Seeds
Finally we were ready to plant our seeds. Ember started by adding nutrients to each starter pod with a medicine dropper (fine motor work= plus). Next, she added plenty of water with the garden hose (set on mist, of course).
We went through each plant, seed by seed, pod by pod, and planted just the right amount of each. All the while, we noted together the varying size, shape, color, and texture of each seed. She took her time to poke each one into the soil, and creatively implemented the medicine dropper to poke the seeds deeper without disrupting the soil too much!
We labeled as we went, and Ember added her decorative labels for extra flare. I loved the look of these, and she felt very necessary during this process.
As our sprouts grow, our whole family helps keep our baby plants hydrated and drenched with sunshine. Ember opens the window each morning, and lets me know if the pods become dry. Her and her dad check them each evening when he comes home from work.
In the meantime, we have begun preparing the soil outside, along with our shade structure for leafy greens. We will continue our Spring Planting Project outside over the coming weeks. I will link Part 2 of our project here as soon as it becomes available!