By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

It’s summer, and the kids are restless, so how about adding a little PBL to your PB&J?

Forgive me; educators love to toss abbreviations and acronyms into conversation. In this case, we all know what PB&J is so I’m here to explain your new BFF, Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Project-based learning is a rather fancy term for describing a type of learning that parallels the tasks of real life. Edutopia cites experts, who say it involves:

  • students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
  • increased student control over his or her learning
  • teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
  • students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups

It makes sense, despite the fancy abbreviation.

How does this relate to PB&J?

I’m glad you asked.

Summer is a great time to give your children the opportunity to invent a few projects of their own. No doubt there will be reading, arithmetic, and those highly regarded 21st century skills of critical thinking, cooperation, communication and invention.

Back to the PB&J: Let your children run a restaurant.

The steps involved? Deciding on a theme, a name for the “establishment” and a bill of fare. They’ll be reading recipes, assessing their inventory, shopping for food, and preparing it. Maybe they’ll realize they need customers and invite guests (family or neighbors.) Along the way, one child may emerge as the manager and perhaps a literary soul will write up a review.

My favorite project as a child was playing travel agent. I had a large world map, a telephone (that was unplugged) paper to make tickets and passports and lots of customers. Today, children who have seen a few commercials for Expedia may find this game obsolete. However, why not add an imaginary budget to the mix, a purpose (honeymoon, journalistic assignment, or family vacation) and swapping out the world map for online tools?

Nancy’s daughter here at Mindprint recently spent months working on a PBL of her own as part of her Bat Mitzvah preparation. The large goal was: Do something from your heart, for others, with no expectation of getting anything in return summed up in a single Hebrew word “Chesed.”

Many of her daughter’s classmates volunteered at local organizations, but Nancy said, “Abby wanted to help orphans. I insisted she was too young for a trip to Haiti, so she contacted a local organization who asked if she would make something for the kids to play with.”

Over the last six months, Abby created her own portable puppet theater, complete with 8 handmade puppets she crafted from felt and hand-sewed. She located a French version of Sleeping Beauty at the bookstore and videoed herself acting it out with the puppets. To top it off, she organized one of 1,000 dinners around the world to raise money for the orphans. She set up her own fundraising page, invited the guests, and is still adding up her funds as she tries to reach her goal of $1,800.

The best summer projects are the ones your kids initiate. Those lemonade stands, the plays in the basement, a newspaper of current local events, finding solutions to problems in their lives or at your home. Of course, technology has changed the scope of some projects, and no doubt your children will have ideas for projects that are light years ahead of the ones we did back in our day. But the most important thing about the summertime PBL is that the kids are passionate about it and take the lead.

What better practice for life is there than that?

One long-standing criticism has been that project-based learning (or in some cases problem-based learning) is not as rigorous as other types. But research suggests that it fosters a strong love of learning and children better remember the knowledge and life skills they acquire in the process.

I still remember the travel agency and how much fun I had imagining the world from my office beneath the bumper pool table in our basement.



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