The year is…unimportant. I am in seventh grade general science, and I have to create a model of an animal for some project. Whether by choice or by assignment I am instructed to spend the weekend making a model puffer fish.
Rewind. I am in fourth grade, and all fourth-graders participate in the fourth grade science fair. I come up with what I think is an ingenious idea, but to make my project really stand out I need to build a prototype.
Fast forward. I have just finished student teaching, and the final project is to set up a booth to display the work you’ve accomplished over the semester for the college community to view. You’re supposed to display your work to its best effect, which in student teacher land means make a trifold poster.
Fast forward. I am in graduate school, and to teach the students I have in my tutorial the basics of grammar I have to create a powerpoint. Grammar is not their favorite subject (or, admittedly, my own), so I have to find some way to compensate with a visually exciting presentation. Awesome.
Projects that require creativity and outside-of-the-box-thinking have always been my academic Achilles’ heel. Give me a multiple-choice test or an essay any day! My fear of creative projects was always that they felt vague and undefined. The criteria of what was needed always felt less certain. Sure, these kinds of projects are supposed to allow you to demonstrate your knowledge of a subject in a different way. Maybe teachers even intend these projects to be fun. I don’t believe I’m alone in dreading these kinds of projects, however, and I’m sure that, like me, many kids have parents who want their children to do well.
Enter the silent partner on student projects: the adult. I truly believe that when teachers assign a creative project they intend for parents or guardians to help out. How can you expect a five-year-old to create a longhouse out of popsicle sticks without some help? The problem isn’t adult involvement…but adult OVER-involvement.
You know that kid at the science fair with the perfect posterboard and the project that involves photons and neutrons and sophisticated lab equipment? Is it a coincidence that her aunt works as a nuclear physicist? The biggest problem with adult over-involvement isn’t even that it may be unfair to other students, but that it is actually unfair for the student who initially seems to benefit.
Teaching kids that they aren’t capable of completing successful projects on their own is a bad path to start down. Having an adult take total charge rather than allowing the child to spearhead the creative efforts disempowers the child from making decisions and building confidence. First place in the science fair with a project your aunt made doesn’t feel as good as getting an honorable mention with a project a child made by him or herself. Even if your child comes up with the idea, if you do all the execution, your child will lose the sense of ownership and pride that comes from a job well done.
So how can adults be involved in children’s projects? Start by having a brainstorm session together. The child should be doing most of the talking and idea generating. Rather than giving the child ideas, try supplementing with additional information or, better yet, a question. If your child suggests using toothpicks to make the puffer fish’s spikes, ask what he or she thinks should be used for the body. When you’ve finished brainstorming and have come up with a great idea, you can help get together supplies. Remember– expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better! Encourage your child to find materials around the house. You may want to flip these two steps around if your child is having a hard time brainstorming…sometimes props can make all the difference in sparking creativity!
When it comes time to actually put together the project, offer help when it is asked for. If your child is constantly asking for help, try to push him or her to try some steps alone. “I think you can take care of painting the fish, and you’ll do a great job!” Remember to use positive reinforcement to encourage your child to try new things, and be supportive of the results! Even if the project comes out looking like, well, a second-grader made it, bear in mind that it wasn’t supposed to be your project in the first place!
What are some other tips you have for parents helping their kids out with school projects?