Launch into Learning with Passion Projects

The summer of 2020 was unlike no other summer. COVID19 led to the cancelation of family trips and overnight camp. After months with my daughter - juggling my work schedule and her online schooling – I was exhausted. The summer seemed to stretch on endlessly, with no parenting reprieve in sight. I worried about my ability to entertain her, the inevitable complaints of “I’m bored”, and my parenting patience wearing thin. The solution certainly wouldn’t be more screen time, but it also wasn’t sustainable for me to create an ambitious project that would suck up my time, money, and energy.

Our solution came in the creation of a passion project. What is a passion project? Simply put, a passion project is a project that students design and implement on their own. A passion project taps into the students' talents—the things they love and that bring them joy. The reasons to carve time and space for kids’ passion projects are pretty compelling:

  • Encourage curiosity

  • Create authentic learning tasks and projects

  • Motivate students through choice

  • Facilitate independent learning

Moreover, passion projects are something that we as adults often embrace. Did you transform your backyard into a vegetable garden while in quarantine? That’s a passion project! Learn how to knit? Perfect your sourdough recipe? Digitize and organize old family photos and begin a family history? All of these are passion projects – so why not start them with our young children?! (Click here for more on adult passion projects). In fact, many highly effective teachers (as explained below) are already doing this in their classroom.

  • Click here to find out how one teacher used passion projects for independent reading

  • Read how these teachers used passion projects in their COVID19 writing curriculum

So what did our summer 2020 passion project look like, and more importantly, how did it evolve?

A Journey Into Space

My daughter has long been fascinated with Elon Musk and the Tesla car. Clearly, she didn’t get this from me, because frankly, I think Elon Musk is creepy (don’t tell her I said that!) and I can’t tell a Tesla from a Porsche. In summer 2020, Musk launched rockets into space with the goal of sending astronauts to the International Space Center. Hence, the foundation of her passion project!

I tell you this backstory to make the point that passion projects emerge from the child – they are not adult-facilitated or created. It was important for me to bite my tongue and not pass judgement on what my child found interesting (is there anything more irritating than when people make judge-y comments about what you’re wearing, eating, or reading?!).

Seizing on her innate curiosity, we next set out to determine what she might ‘produce’ in her passion project. It’s important to note that a passion project is more about the process than the product – if all she did was spend the summer reading about rockets, space orbit, and anti-gravity that in itself would be valuable! But – like many children – she wanted to ‘do something’ with her knowledge. So we brainstormed the following list of things she might create: a PowerPoint slideshow, a trifold poster, a YouTube video, a report, a magazine, a graphic novel. Again, I followed her lead – originally, she determined that she wanted to create a Powerpoint (check out the list / schedule that she created for herself here – look at those executive function skills!) I wasn’t thrilled that originally, she wanted to make a Powerpoint – who wants more screen time for their kids these days?! But I know my obstinate ‘tween well enough to know that this had to come entirely from her. In other words, zip it Mom!

So she set out on her trusty IPad to do some research, watch videos of rocket launches, and – of course – we planned a socially distanced trip to our public library. Everywhere we turned, there were connections to what she’d learned. Our daytrip to swim at the beach reminded her that swimming underwater simulates the no-gravity atmosphere of space. A walk on a particularly breezy day prompted her to tell me that Neil Armstrong’s footprint still remains on the moon because there’s no lunar wind. Oh and the book possibilities - So many amazing books to read on this topic! We watched movies as well – The Right Stuff (too slow for her!), Apollo 13 (she’s now a huge Tom Hanks fan!), and Hidden Figures (which led to great conversations about race and women – and of course, reading of the picture book.

Fast forward a week or so, when I ordered an air conditioner to beat the heat. Suddenly, it seemed a lot less engaging to make a Powerpoint. This enormous cardboard box became our rocket. She used Velcro strips to adhere snacks and books to the inside of the box – similar to how astronauts are velcroed into their sleeping pods. Popsicle sticks became the switches and levers to steer and navigate. An emergency rescue space blanket (like the ones they hand out to runners at the conclusion of a race) became the heat shield.

We had a space helmet in our dress up bin and garden gloves; better yet one day I watched her use a dog leash to clip herself into the tomato cages outside; clearly, she was walking at the International Space Station and had to be tethered in because of the lack of gravity. (Need a laugh? Watch the video here – she might kill me for posting this!)

This ‘rocket’ provided hours of independent play throughout the summer. After breakfast, she’d lie down, squirm inside the box, ask me for a flashlight, a portable fan, and to batten the hatches and to cover her up with the heat shield. She’d problem solve as levers broke and were in need of repair; she incorporated newly acquired vocabulary like propulsion and accelerate. I learned to vacuum around this massive contraption that took up the bulk of my living room floor. Better yet? I got to play too. I squeezed myself into the rocket and launched into orbit. We sampled nasty-tasting dehydrated astronaut ice cream that we bought at the candy store. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I learned a thing or two myself about rockets, space launches, and orbiting.

So, as we launch into another school year that will absolutely bring uncertainty and change, how can we – as parents and as teachers – help children find a passion project that is engaging and meaningful for them? As I learned this summer, the results can be out of this world.

PS: Lest you think I've got this parenting thing figured out, she wrote me this 'love letter' below.

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