project based learning

Project Based Learning for Every Age: Why PBL Works, and How You Can Bring It To Your Classroom

Rebecca Gray Homeschooling, Parents, Pillar Post, Teachers

What IS project based learning? 

The formal definition of project based learning, according to PBLWorks is:

“Project based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.”


In real-people speak:  Project based learning is a teaching method where learning comes alive for students because they’re learning by doing.

Studies on project based learning continue to tell us that it works.  It’s meaningful.  And the learning during these kinds of lessons really sticks.  No other type of learning prepares a student for solving real-world problems and engaging in critical thinking than hands-on, project based learning.  When you put them in charge of their own education, it inspires a love of the learning process that is deep and long-lasting.

Planning the Perfect PBL Lesson Plan

Project based lesson plans are one of the most labor-intensive things for a teacher.  It’s tough to create lesson plans that are relevant and achievable. And it’s even tougher when those lessons have to be hands-on and collaborative.  It’s a lot of work to create the lesson, set up a realistic timeline, and lead students to “big ideas” that they can take ownership of.  Meanwhile, you need to make sure you’re sticking to your learning objective, meeting state standards, and convincing your administration that this out-of-the-box teaching style is actually benefiting your students.

Whew!  Deep breaths.

Planning hands-on learning that is age-appropriate for your classroom doesn’t need to be rocket science.  Thimble created an easy step-by-step guide, as well as tips, suggestions, and project based learning ideas to put your planning into warp speed. 

Read More:  How To Plan Project Based Learning Lesson Plans

Project Based Learning for Younger Students

One of the greatest things about pre-K and Elementary aged students is their untainted, wide-eyed curiosity.  Their love for learning and their ability to accomplish that through play is something many educators realize and take full advantage of. 

It’s good to develop a love of STEM early with fun, hands-on learning.  Discovery-based learning or inquiry-based learning is often disguised as play in preschool and elementary school, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be brought into the classroom and aligned with grade-level standards. 

Simple machines, for example, are a great base for a PBL lesson plan.  Young engineers can recognize and understand the 6 simple machines, but can develop a deeper understanding through hands-on activities.  These kinds of activities can really be simplified for pre-K and lower elementary grades.

Read More: Simple Machine Projects for Kids

Sometimes, more complex concepts can be introduced to older elementary students through projects designed for their grade levels.  These don’t necessarily need to be multi-day, themed units.  Project based lessons can be short and sweet.  Though Thimble has STEM kits designed for beginners in 5th-6th grade, other great ideas can bring excitement and curiosity to older elementary STEM students.

Read More:  Easy STEM Activities for 5th Grade Students

Project Based Learning for Middle School Students

Middle school students are often capable of more independent discovery.  One problem with engaging middle school students in hands-on classroom activities is the social stigma of failing.  Middle school is an awkward time for many students.  The idea of presenting, public speaking, or failing is mortifying.  Collaborating with students outside of their own social circles can be hard for some.

It’s for this reason that a lot of passionate STEM teachers try to make their project based learning for middle school students as engaging as possible.  If you can get them excited enough about the project that they forget to be self-conscious, they can immerse themselves in the experience. 

Choosing activities that relate to modern technology – what their generation is already familiar with – can be life-changing.  Witnessing how coding connects hardware and software are 21st-century skills every student should be exposed to. They interact with hardware and software every day without realizing how they can be connected.  Inspiring middle school students to pursue STEM learning in high school, and eventually, post-graduation can begin with a simple electronics or robotics project.

Read More: Arduino Projects for Kids 

project based learning
Image by Ryse Lawrence from Pixabay

Middle school is also when afterschool STEM clubs and regional science fairs become part of their universe.  The scientific method and the engineering design process are often staples of science fairs.  These experiences bring more structure to project based learning and established rubrics help them stay on task and get the most from their experiences.  While STEM Clubs and afterschool programming are voluntary, science projects and science fairs are usually part of the curriculum.  Though it feels like a form of torture to some, these project based learning experiences are meaningful.

Read More: The Best 8th Grade Science Fair Projects

Can PBL Be Integrated at Home?

PBL doesn’t need to follow strict lesson plans to be effective.  Project based learning also doesn’t need to be followed by a rigorous assessment to be meaningful.  It just needs to be fun, engaging, and relevant.  There is value in all types of PBL – even at home. 

Read More:  How to Make a Robot at Home; Easy Project for Kids

This can be pulled off by parents who want to homeschool or simply expand on classroom learning.  The best part about project based learning at home is that it’s interest-based.  It can be chosen by the child and driven by their own inspirations and curiosities.  Finding the answers to their own questions is what makes discovery-based learning so unique, and often permanent.  They want to know how to create the weapon of choice from their favorite Star Wars flick?  There are dozens of ways to pull that off – but because they care about the outcome, they’ll be willing to put in the work.

Read More:  How to Make A Lightsaber

While there are dozens of STEM toys on the market, toys and projects are often not the same.  Toys can be played with and observed, but are usually designed for one-time use.  Investing in STEM education through at-home play should be done carefully.  Can your toy be reconfigured to create a different output?  Can your toy be combined with other components to create a new and exciting end result?  Choosing a toy that your child can be creative with will give them a longer-lasting, more concrete experience.  

Read More:  STEM Toys vs. STEM Projects

Thimble Brings Project Based Learning to Everyone

Thimble incorporates engineering and coding concepts into each of their kits and projects.  Our commitment to the effectiveness of project based learning is at the core of our curriculum.  Projects range in difficulty based on the experience of the learner.  Our online classes are interactive, collaborative, and keep students on task and engaged.  The curriculum spans almost four years, and can take complete beginners to college-level coders.  

Our kits are currently used by hundreds of public schools, and homeschool children as well.  We’ve seen kids take our kit’s components and use their coding skills to create entirely new projects that they’ve pulled from their maker-minds. 

See what project based learning can do to bring 21st-Century learning to your students today.