• Wild Roots

Home Together: What is project-based learning?

Updated: Jun 3, 2020


This week we have many resources to share so that you can look more deeply into project based learning and provocations. We certainly also suggest looking at Pinterest for ideas, and many of you likely do this already. To focus your searches, here are a few key words to try: Montessori nature, Practical Life for preschool/toddler, Fine motor provocation, Reggio outdoor spaces, backyard nature play, STEAM for _____ (select age group), Reggio Emilia provocations (add an extension for the specific provocation you’re interested in, for example: Reggio outdoor math provocation, Reggio preschool story provocation).

1. The importance of sensory development and movement on childrens’ ability to learn. 

2. Project-based Learning 

3. Reggio-Emilia Inspired Provocations 


To follow up on Balanced and Barefoot (the book or the interview with author and pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom), we consider the importance of sensory development in children, which relates directly to a child’s ability to learn. 

Our senses are a bit more complex than most of us realize. In addition to the 5 we all know about, there are two additional senses, proprioception, the ability to know what different parts of your body are doing without looking at them, and the vestibular sense, knowing where our body is in space. 

The goal for all young children is sensory organization: the act of processing and making sense of all the input coming in. When we are calm and alert, which is most likely to happen outside, where there are calming colors and ample space to not become overloaded by sensory stimuli, we are more likely to process and organize our senses, and in this state, we are also prepared for learning. However, if too many senses are being activated at once, which can more easily happen inside, we experience sensory disorganization, which can cause our nervous system to react as if we are in danger, and we experience a fight or flight reaction (which obviously undermines learning). 

All seven senses work very differently outside than inside. For now, let’s take a look at three of them: 


Outside, the child’s eye instinctively looks near and far and scans the environment regularly. This kind of eye movement helps children’s eyes develop normally, as nature intended. Outside, children hear birds, or airplanes, or the sounds of friends in the distance, and their eyes naturally track to look toward sounds, and then likely move towards what they see. Yes, some of this movement and sensory work can be accomplished indoors. But inside, our vision rests as close as a screen and only as far away as the furthest wall, rather than the 20, 50 or 100 yards or more away that is always possible outdoors, and necessary for healthy eye development. 


Children develop proprioception through what occupational therapists call “heavy work”: pushing, pulling, lifting heavy things, raking leaves and digging. Sensory receptors in our joints, muscles and ligaments help us regulate how much force is needed to complete tasks, like holding a duckling without crushing it. Children with poor proprioception tend to be clumsy, and are more susceptible to falls, fractures, dislocations and injuries. They may have a hard time regulating how much force they use, are more accident prone, or they may fall out of their seats. 

Over the years, I have witnessed many examples of children innately choosing activities that help develop their proprioception. For example, rolling or carrying heavy logs. Children are naturally drawn to these activities, and because we know it is good for them, we use the strategy we talked about earlier: knowing when to interact vs. interrupt. As long as what they are doing is relatively safe, we let them continue. When we do, and the child is successful, not only have they supported their proprioception, but the child now knows that she can do hard things. This small example also describes the "invisible learning": to an untrained observer, a child is just rolling a big stump, but to an adult who understands child development, through this one simple activity, the child is checking off several developmental boxes that the adult knows are very important.  

Vestibular Sense 

Frequent movement opportunities in all planes support a healthy vestibular (balance) sense. A strong vestibular sense is related to hearing, but it also supports the six eye muscles necessary for reading, writing, and accurate eye-hand coordination skills.

Children with a poorly developed vestibular sense may have trouble tracking with their eyes to read or find things. An underdeveloped vestibular sense also means kids are fidgety and have less coordination, but fidget spinners are hardly the answer. 

In her work as a pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom noticed an alarming rise in attention, sensory and motor difficulties among elementary school children, and the fact that more children than ever before (now 1 in 6) were being referred for health related services (OT PT ST). 

To help her understand what she was seeing, she tested the core strength and balance of 5th graders and compared the results to the average core strength and balance skills of children in 1984. She found that only ONE IN TWELVE children had the average core strength and balance that kids had 30 years ago. How can so many children have such pronounced deficits in just 25 years? 

The results of this study, and the fact that therapists are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of children referred for services, should open our eyes that it may be that children are fidgety, clumsy and having a hard time staying in their seats because they are not getting enough of the right kinds of movement, thus setting them up to for attention difficulties and a hard time learning in school. Supporting these children is even more critical when we compare this to a 2011 study by researchers at Duke University found that a student’s capacity to concentrate is one of the best predictors of success. 

Unfortunately and sadly, children with underdeveloped proprioception and vestibular senses will have more than just a hard time learning. Due to their challenges, they may come to see themselves as unsuccessful, or that something is ‘wrong’ with them, when in fact, it could be simply that they have not had the required hours of active physical play that develops their body and mind and gives them an essential foundation for success: physically, mentally, emotionally and academically. 

In Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom studies the importance of sensory and motor development not as a novelty but as critical to healthy child development. Children have an incredible innate ability to respond to what their bodies need. If they are resisting sitting down to work on worksheets, busy work or difficult tasks, this is a cue for the adults to ask, “what is my child trying to tell me? What about this situation may not be working for my child?” Perhaps it’s something simple and the child is hungry, tired, bored, overstimulated or under stimulated. Perhaps the work being asked of the child is too abstract or difficult, and the child lacks the foundational knowledge to complete the task. Perhaps it’s because the child’s comprehensive physical and sensory needs haven’t been met. It’s not easy to get to the bottom of what may be challenging for a child in a particular moment, but when a reaction from the child is seen as a “hmm, what’s going on here?”, we are doing our best to “see the world through the eyes of the child” and honoring the whole complex being in front of us, one who has many developmental needs, interests, and curiosities. When we do our best to honor what a child is trying to tell us, and we are aware of all of a child’s needs, we can better support a child in the moment to develop self awareness and problem solve to get his/her needs met and move onto more focused, challenging work when necessary. Overall, however, when we encourage and allow as much active, free play as possible, and create opportunities for a child to have choices throughout the day, we are setting up an environment for a child to self-regulate behavior and develop increasingly responsible and independent decision making.   

This approach also allows us to find things that a child is interested in (and developmentally ready for) that will capture their attention for longer periods of time, in turn giving you more time to work, relax or whatever it is you need to be doing. 


Project-based learning hails from a tradition of pedagogy which asserts that students learn best by experiencing and solving real-world problems. According to researchers (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000), project-based learning essentially involves the following

  • increased student control over his or her learning

  • teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection

  • students or siblings (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups (*offers excellent opportunities for children of different ages to learn together)

  • hands-on, experiential learning, learning in context, interest/curiosity-driven learning, inquiry-based learning, competency, feelings of accomplishment, self esteem, learning to do hard things, independence, problem solving, creativity 

PBL Learning Outcomes

  • Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning vs.traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL:

  • increases long-term retention of content, 

  • helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests,

  • improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and 

  • improves students’ attitudes towards learning.  

  • Also, design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) ideas (*note: see links above for more information)

1. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) 

*Tip: search STEAM activities + age of child

One example of Art-based project learning: Ask your child to find an artist whose work he/she likes, and create a piece of art following the techniques/style of that artist. Example: Andy Goldsworthy (see Rivers and Tides, 2001 documentary film) about the British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates intricate and ephemeral sculptures from natural materials such as rocks, leaves, flowers, and icicles.

2. Go around the world in 80 days (6 weeks; choose a different country each week): day 1: Food, day 2: Language, day 3: Customs, day 4: learning, day  5 transportation/housing/economy/government/history (basically, what does life look like in this country?)

3. Create a TV cooking show

4. Create a broadcast

5. Woodworking/tool use (e.g. make a birdhouse)

6. If an older child is frustrated by something, they could research local laws, policies, etc, write to legislators, etc. 

7.  If your child is an innovator, help bring her ideas to life. 


(* As with project-based learning, older kids can help set up for younger kids)

What is a provocation?  (see What is a provocation?)

Put simply, provocations provoke! They provoke thoughts, discussions, questions, interests, creativity and ideas. They can also expand on a thought, project, idea and interest. Within the unit of study, provocations can be introduced in many ways:

  • Nature (found materials and specimens)

  • A fascinating photo, picture, or book

  • Interests (class is drawn to a particular subject)

  • Conceptual (shadows, light, seasons)

  • Event (guest speaker, presentation, holiday)

  • Art Materials (new creative mediums to explore)

  • Questions (from students or teacher directed)

  • Objects (map, travel artifact)

Nature Provocations 

See this link for a printable tear-off activity sheet; will include activities such as:

  1. Look for bugs on a tree.

  2. Write your name in the dirt

  3. Count how many birds you see in the sky

  4. Try to mimic a noise you hear in nature

  5. Watch the clouds and look for shapes

  6. Water your plants in the backyard

  7. Observe an animal for five minutes


A WEBSITE TO SPARK CURIOSITY (for children and adults)

The Kid Should See This - Smart videos for curious minds of all ages


PBL at Home: 3 Ideas for Projects Families Can Do

A Better List Of Ideas For Project-Based Learning

[Parent Tips] Project-Based Learning at Home

5 Engineering Challenges with Clothespins, Binder Clips, and Craft Sticks

Andy Goldsworthy - Natural Art Sculptures | Teaching Resources


Creating Invitations to Play!

Mother Natured: Home (tear off nature experience activity)


Perspective | Why kids love building forts — and why experts say they might need them more than ever

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