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Super Practical Project-Based Learning Ideas

by Lori Oczkus
 | Nov 04, 2014

Project-based learning is one aspect of the Common Core’s with extra buzz. PBL engages students in purposeful ways by providing opportunities to develop a laundry list of 21st century skills in areas including critical thinking, research strategies, collaboration, communication, and literacy. If your head is spinning and you are wondering how you are going to make time for and create appropriate PBL opportunities for your elementary students, don’t worry! The good news is there are many ways to incorporate practical project-based learning into your elementary classroom.

Some quick and easy project-based learning opportunities include fourth-graders cruising the playground interviewing students about their after school snacks for the posters they will make to promote healthy nibbling; second-graders learning about chickens and read books to raise funds to provide chickens for families in third world countries; fifth-graders working in teams to write letters to the city council to promote better citywide recycling; and kindergartners baking and wrapping healthy dog treats for an animal shelter as they learn about taking care of animals.

Haven’t we always offered engaging hands-on projects in our elementary classrooms? Yes, but PBL is different. Rather than assessing student knowledge by grading the final product or administering a quiz on the text material, PBL involves “along the way” formative assessments and observations to evaluate how students are progressing in their research and collaboration.

The process for PBL may last several weeks and includes these steps:

  • Start with a driving question or issue for students to consider (recycling, safety, healthy eating, the environment, school rules, etc).
  • Research using multiple resources to address the issue and collaborate with others.
  • Work together to create a project to share with an audience.
  • Reflect on the process.  

 The celebration is in the experience, not just the end product! To ensure that you are including all the elements that make a project a true PBL experience check out the free resources on

Here are some practical ways to get started or keep going with PBL in the elementary classroom:

Start with Read-Alouds to Inspire PBL Projects

Many wonderful read-aloud books can inspire students to think about ways they can get involved and is a way to find an interesting problem to solve or issue to explore. Here are some books that can serve as a base for projects. Thanks to Booksource for compiling this list.

Endangered Animals
Dobson, David. (1997). Can We Save Them? Endangered Species of North America. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Publishing.
Hirsch, Rebecca. (2010). Helping Endangered Animals. Mankato, MN: Cherry Lake Publishing.

Water Use
Frost, Helen. (2000). Keeping Water Clean. Minneapolis, MN: Capstone Press.
Strauss, Rochelle. (2007). One Well: The Story of Water on Earth. Toronto: Kids Can Press.

Williams, Rozanne Laczak. (1998). Let’s Take Care of the Earth. Cypress, CA: Creative Teaching Press.
Sturm, Jeanne. (2009). Our Footprint on Earth. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publishing.

Barnham, Kay. (2007). Recycle. New York: Crabtree Press.
Green, Jen. (2005). Why Should I Recycle? Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.

Helping Others
Ring, Susan. (2005). Helping Hands. Minneapolis: Capstone Publishing.
Sundem, Garth. (2010). Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change: Courageous Actions Around the World. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Exploring Your Neighborhood
Smith, David J. Illus. by Shelagh Armstrong (2011). If the World Were a Village: A Book about the World’s People. Toronto: Kids Can Press.
Sweeney, Joan. (1998). Me on the Map. New York City: Random House.

Meiners, Cheri J. (2006). Be Careful and Stay Safe. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.
Greathouse, Lisa. (2011). Emergency! Be Prepared. Huntington Beach: Shell Education.

Healthy Eating
Sohn, Emily and Diane Bair. (2012). Food and Nutrition: Eating to Win. Chicago: Norwood House Press.
Rockwell, Lizzy. (2009). Good Enough to Eat. New York City: HarperCollins Publishers.

Practical PBL Projects for Elementary Students

Work with your class to brainstorm a project that will address a central question regarding an issue or problem. Here are some projects:

  • Writing letters
  • Creating a collection—a museum or display
  • Producing class books
  • Conducting interviews
  • Producing various media presentations—slideshows, video
  • Writing articles for local papers or online school website
  • Creating posters or brochures for local businesses or community organizations
  • Writing procedural texts such as cookbooks or how-to guides
  • Designing game boards
  • Producing videos or plays

Inspire Projects with Hand to Heart/Paw/Earth

The Time for Kids nonfiction series has three really great texts by Jessica Cohn to inspire many different service projects on every page!

Hand to Heart: Improving Communities: Some ideas from the text include writing letters of thanks to firefighters, sending care packages to soldiers, writing to newspapers or politicians, planting a garden, and making bookmarks to donate.

Hand to Paw: Protecting Animals: Some of the ideas for projects include: making homemade dog biscuits for a dog shelter, writing letters on endangered species, collecting pet food for a shelter, and putting a pet show and donating earnings to a pet shelter.

Hand to Earth: Saving the Environment: Some of the ideas for projects include: cutting down on water while brushing teeth, reusing plastic cups, unplugging appliances, recycling, and crafts from recyclables.  Students can research and measure their carbon footprint

Teach Students to Ask Questions/Research Across Texts

One easy way to help students research their topics and issues is to create a chart to display their questions and then answer the questions across several texts.
As the students read at least two texts (or more), they enter the information gained from each text.  Students use the information gathered to write letters, articles, or make a presentation.

Try Ready-Made Books and Projects with Heifer

Currently, I am working with preK—fifth-grade students to learn about chickens and we are raising funds to buy flocks for the Heifer Project.  We read the Heifer picture book, The Chicken and the Worm by Page McBrier to learn about chickens. Check out the many ready-made project-based learning suggestions on the Heifer Project website including the popular Read to Feed program as well as fabulous picture books you can order to read aloud to your class.  I keep coming back to Heifer Project because the PBL project possibilities are endless!

Lori Oczkus ( is an independent literacy consultant and author. Lori’s latest book is Just the Facts: Close Reading and the Comprehension of Informational Text (Shell/IRA, 2014). Lori can be reached at



Leave a comment
  1. LBZ | Jul 25, 2018
    Thank you for posting your ideas. They are very practical and applicable.
  2. Joel Herder | Nov 09, 2016

    Interesting. Some of things mentioned were very helpful. things mentioned will be in our PBL.

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