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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When Making School “Fun” Backfires…

I frequently hear homeschool moms lamenting:  I plan all this fun stuff, but my kids still hate school.

When Making School "Fun" Backfires....@Homeschooling Hearts & MindsWhat can I do about it?  How can I get them to enjoy learning?  I’m trying hard here, but my effort seems to be wasted.

There could be a number of things going on.

Maybe they don’t like the “fun” stuff.  Not everyone likes paper crafts, for instance.  If that’s the case, you may need to revisit what gets your kids excited about things and plan different activities.

Or could  it be that the fun stuff is not integral enough to the learning that is expected?  So the kids enjoy the crafty bits, but the actual stuff you want them to retain (the main event) is a bore and something they would rather not do.

I posted a funny the other day on my private wall on Facebook:

Homeschool PSA: Never ever do "edible maps" as a project with your kids. They won't learn anything from it other than the fact that they like to make edible maps. And then they will beg to make edible maps. every. single. time. you do anything related to history, geography, etc. etc. etc. It has been 2-3 years since we did that project.

That’s hyperbole, of course, but it does seem like every time we have a social studies lesson/reading/activity, my kids beg me if we can do edible maps. 

Why are all my friends (even the moms who don’t homeschool) liking this status update?

Because it’s true.  We have all experienced something similar.

The first edible map we did was a couple of years ago for a geography program (the program was Mapping the World with Art).

Obviously they enjoyed that activity.  The problem is:  they don’t remember anything about that lesson except how fun and yummy it was to make maps out of cookie dough and bake them.

They do remember the part gives them such a warm, fuzzy feeling that makes them want to do it again.  And again.  And again.  But they don’t remember the thing I wanted them to learn. 


Crafts and baking projects are fun! 

They are easy to add in to your already scheduled program.  They can help round out your studies by including some creative art and practical skills (like cooking). 

They also make happy memories.

But they are not an necessarily the ideal way to learn about the topic at hand. 

Cognitive science backs up my observations.   In Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T. Willingham (a cognitive scientist, y’all!) writes:

“We can’t store everything we experience in memory.  Too much happens…How can the memory system know what you’ll need to remember later?  Your memory system lays its bets this way:  if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored.  Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.  A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits, because this was a staple food for runaway slaves.  He asked what I though about the assignment.  I pointed out that his students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on.  Whatever students think about is what they will remember.”

In other words, the craft actually distracts them from the main event (in this case, the Underground Railroad).

IMG_0294This is exactly what I experienced with my own children when we did the edible maps.

Now, this is not to say that you shouldn’t do those fun crafts or bake in your homeschool---if y’all like doing those things, then do them!  Just be mindful of what you are accomplishing with those projects.

An elaborate paper model of a Chinese pagoda, for instance, is not likely to help your child remember anything about Chinese history, but it probably will help him to learn about paper crafting and 3-D forms, improve his ability to manipulate finicky bits, and teach him the relative merits of using glue, a glue stick, or clear tape.

Those are all worthwhile skills that will serve him well in life, they just have nothing to do with the history lesson. 

There is a place for that project (or something like it) in your homeschool, but consider making it the main event when you do it, so it doesn’t distract your child from other things you want him to remember.  It’s worthwhile in it’s own right, not because it happens to tie in with a history lesson.

But what about all this talk about Project-Based Learning I keep hearing?  Are you saying we can’t learn history and other subjects through projects?

Of course you can, but here’s the thing:  Crafts ≠ Project-Based Learning

IMG_5862That’s not to say that they can’t be---it depends upon what it is that you’re trying to learn.  For instance, if you want to learn the finer points of the best ratio of leavening to overall volume for baking bread, baking bread might be the way to do it. 

Or suppose you want to understand how to design clothes so that they fit the human figure correctly---the best way to do that may well be to drape cloth on a human figure, pin darts, stitch, etc.

But do you see how in both of those cases the thing being learned is contained within the project itself?  You’re not adding a project onto the thing being learned---it is the project.

I think this is really what project-based learning is. 

It’s something that we’ve all done at some point in our lives, whether it be the kid who learns Java by creating a mod for Minecraft or the mom teaches herself html by fixing her homeschool group’s website.

I’ve seen it happen spontaneously in my homeschool and it’s a wonderful thing.

IMG_6397Because of the thought and problem-solving the learner puts into the project, and because the project itself is an integral part of what is being learned, it’s much more likely that the important bits will be remembered.  The learner is an actor in his own learning, not someone waiting for you to teach it to him.

The trouble is, it’s not really something that you can make happen.  You can’t orchestrate it or plan it out.  You allow to happen by opening up opportunities and possibilities.

So one way to make school more “fun” might be to plan less, pull together the framework for learning and get the basics done without filling up the whole day, but then allowing your children more free time in which to explore the world. 

Give them a rich environment with materials in it.  Make frequent trips to the library. 

Go places.  Do.  Be.  Talk about all that is in the world.

IMG_0241And then wait for them to formulate their own questions, pursue their own research, and invent their own projects. 

Because curiosity wakes up the mind.

Thinking about something tells the brain that it’s important (not having Mom or a textbook say that it’s important).

You do not have to fill up all the minutes with stuff you have planned.  You can’t possibly cover all the stuff anyway.  Give them a chance to own their knowledge by pursuing it on their own.

Of course, they may still hate school.

Hey, that’s ok.  We can’t force people to like what they don’t like.  Yet another reason that school needn’t fill every minute of the day.


But School ≠ Learning.

Learning is bigger than that.  Let’s let it come out of its school box.

What projects have your kids been working on?


  1. Love this. Fun often backfires here and then the projects that I don't think of as particularly fun are a hit. Funny, this homeschoolin' thing :) I'm laughing at the edible maps comment. I have never heard of them but will be sure to avoid.

    Right now, we are enjoying grandparent journaling. My son came up with family history questions and printed them and gifted a hardcover journal to each grandparent. The responses for chapter one just came in and it's a true gift. We'll definitely come up with questions for chapter two :)

    1. Yes, I think fun stuff can be over-rated. My kids are very much into just good books at the moment. When I try to add too many projects, it interferes with the projects they already have in mind.

      Grandparent journaling sounds like a fine idea---I need to consider doing something like that with our crew. It would be great to get their Great Grammie to contribute. Thank you for sharing. ;)


  2. This is thought provoking. It's encouraged me to spend more time getting their wheels turning and drawing them out - getting them to think about it.

    1. We've had some really great times just talking about what we are learning---it's a real treat to see them using their little grey cells making connections.


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