Made to Keep: The Power of Playful Project-based Learning 

Learning is a thing.

Talking about learning sounds like its a thing that you can own. When we grasp it, we eventually get it.  We retain knowledge, catch and hold on to it, have an understanding - even apprehend or comprehend it. Ultimately, we make sense of it.   But with so much learning done in our heads, on screens, or in group settings with materials that we can’t keep, that sense of ownership is just that - a sense. In many learning spaces it’s a  radical act for educators to prioritize learners keeping what they create. But when they are able to push through the objections to substantial artifacts  - they’re expensive, risky to plan, difficult to manage,challenging to make equitable - it often sounds like this:

Learner (sheepishly): So …can I ask you a question? 

Educator: Sure. 

Learner: Do we get to keep these?

Educator: What do you think? 

Learner: I don’t know…yes? 

Educator: Of course, you get to keep these! You’re inventing them. They’re yours.

The learner usually makes a big, loud whoop sound, or sometimes a quiet fist pump and “yessssss!” Then they tell a friend, who says YAY! Suddenly the whole room is buzzing and energized. They’re excited to be making something that they ultimately know they’ll be able to bring back on the bus, or give to their little sister, or show their dad. What they’re creating - the time they’re spending, the effort they’re making, the knowledge they’re applying, the creative risks they’re taking - belongs to them.

What is it about making things that go home? If you’re an educator, how often do your learners have the opportunity to fully own a thing that they’ve made? If you’re a caregiver, what’s the word you’d use to describe projects that come home and are proudly shown to siblings or friends or their cat. Homework?  Keepsakes?  No.  It’s evidence of learning. 

What goes home comes back stronger

Project-based learning - especially playful engineering projects that are made to go home - builds stronger relationships between learners and educators, turns up the level of engagement, and increases support from caregivers and relatives at home for what their learners are achieving. This is difficult to see with work on screens - but things that you can hold, interact with,  switch on and off, make move, launch into the air…these things change attitudes.

When learners know that what they’re making is theirs to keep, we often observe:

  • Added focus on the quality of effort
  • Intensified on-topic communication between peers 
  • Structured use of time
  • Greater / creative risks 
  • Increased care for materials
  • Extra personalization of their project
  • Clearer descriptions of the process
  • More support from peers as well as coaches/educators
  • Enhanced use of and respect for time

Educators can be collaborators, not product managers

Educator confidence plays an important role in the development of project-based learning competencies. In many settings these experiences are designed to engage groups of two to four learners, who share materials and have to divide up content exploration and execution duties. Educators are left to design how the project can be measured and graded; source, purchase and assemble physical materials; plan how materials and responsibilities are distributed or shared; and anticipate the level of exposure and understanding their learners have with hands-on processes.  They have to plan stations, tools, and consumables, and who’s collaborating with whom. More often than not, they’re product managers for eight to fifteen crews of workers, instead of being a resource for teams of project leaders. And if all goes well, there’s one question to answer - who takes the project home? Where does it go? 

1:1 projects can be smaller, incremental lifts for educators. If those projects are designed individual learners are experiencing smaller bursts of discovery that result in “personal projects” - especially materials that can go home for further playful learning - the initial lift of the educator is lighter, and the opportunity for learners to build project-based skills is greater. These skills usually are measured in terms of social and emotional attributes, which could include the way learners

  • Accurately identify their strengths and areas of growth with confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.” (Self-Awareness)
  • Effectively manage stress, control impulses, motivate themselves to work toward completing a design challenge, and seek and offer help when needed. (Self-Management and Relationship Skills)
  • Make constructive individual choices about behavior and social interactions, view the work through an engineering perspective, and cooperate effectively with peers and adults. (Decision-Making and Social Awareness)

When educators are able to confidently offer 1:1 projects that learners can keep, it positively affects problem-solving and adaptability individually and in groups, in non-traditional environments.

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If you’re an educator who’s witnessed the power of take-home project-based learning, we’d like to learn from you! Schedule a :30 conversation with us, and we’ll give you $100 towards the purchase of Sparks for your learners.

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The power of saying yes.

We know that exposure and experience with hands-on learning affects educator confidence when making decisions about integrating projects that require material and project management competencies into their classrooms.   We’ve also seen how highly engaging, hands-on projects support educator’s efforts to build relationships with learners.  Embracing or avoiding project-based learning can affect how learners build relationships with each other, their self-awareness, self-management, and decision-making skills to navigate through their instructional day.  We believe that hands-on learning is an authentic pathway to help learners simultaneously develop the content understandings, applied technical skills, and the growth mindset needed to navigate life.  It just takes the confidence to say yes. 

Written by
Matt Barinholtz
Matt Barinholtz is dedicated to transforming educational experiences through playful hands-on learning.