A few years ago, my children’s school decided to sponsor two Habitat for Humanity home builds. The actual construction happened in the spring, after many months in which Pre-K through Grade 12 students learned about poverty, homelessness, social policies, sweat equity, fundraising, engineering, landscaping, and myriad other elements of providing housing for low income families. It was project-based learning on a grand scale that my children have never forgotten.
Educators define project-based learning as an interdisciplinary process that encourages children to formulate a real-world question, research potential responses, and reflect on the implications of their research for effectively addressing the situation. It’s a terrific approach for spiritual learning because it lends itself to exploring moral and ethical issues from many different perspectives. Used well, it can provide children with a sense of agency and a deeper understanding of whatever topic is under investigation.
The first step is to define a question for exploration. It should be challenging enough that children have to put some effort into figuring out prospective responses, but also relevant enough in their world that they are motivated to pursue answers. They might ask why some children go hungry and how society can make sure that everyone has access to healthy food. They could explore whether school dress codes are racially biased and how to show respect for diverse cultural norms of beauty. Or they might wonder about the efficacy of contemplative spiritual practices for managing big emotions and/or motivativing social action.
Once you and the children agree on a meaningful question, it’s time to identify collaborators: other people in your community who have some expertise related to the topic and are willing to serve as mentors and guides. For the topics identified above, these might include food advocacy groups, supermarket owners, school administrators, children who’ve been sent home for dress code violations, local monastics from diverse religious traditions, child psychologists, and protest leaders. They will help students formulate good sub-questions, share personal experiences, and determine criteria for analyzing the information they gather.
Create small, interest-based, groups for research. Talk with children about what part of the project most intrigues them. Encourage them to pursue that aspect and share their findings with the whole team. Some might try out different types of prayer practices, while others gather statistics on religiosity and activism. The bigger the issue, the more likely that children will participate in multiple small group inquiries over time. They might begin by working on the causes of food deserts and then move to an experiential outing to a food kitchen. Or they shift from gathering dress codes to collecting photos of culturally diverse hairstyles.
It’s also helpful to provide frequent opportunities for reflection. Sometimes children (and adults) become so caught up in collecting data or having experiences that they forget to stop and wonder what it all means. Keeping a group journal or giving periodic presentations of their findings to their mentors creates space for identifying holes in their data, noticing implicit biases, and affirming or reframing the next stage of their work together.