Using “Passion Projects” To Teach Motivation


Last year, my oldest son came home from school with a big grin on his face. “Mom, I get to pick my own project at school. They are giving us time to do something called a ‘passion project.’ It’s going to be so easy.” In his mind, he was totally phoning it in. But in the weeks to follow, he created a proposal, spent 4-5 hours a week at his local gymnastics studio practicing a new tumbling move, edited film of the trick, and presented the video to his class. Not exactly phoning it in. It required organizational skills, time management, frustration tolerance, and the ability to adjust the plan when things weren’t working – all important skills for him to be successful when he eventually enters adulthood.

Schools across the nation, and now parents instructing at home, are picking up on the growing trend of “passion projects” or a “genius hour” in which students explore their own passions and are encouraged to promote creativity in the classroom. The search-engine giant, Google, has a similar program in place with its engineers. They encourage 20% of their engineer’s time to be working on any pet project they choose. The idea is very simple: allow people to work on something that interests them, give them the flexibility to be curious without fear of failure, and productivity will go up. 

How To Promote “Passion Projects” At Home

Provide (Flexible) Structure

Allow your child to choose the topic and goal for the project, and then help your child focus and problem solve while they work towards learning and completion. Depending on their age and developmental level, project sessions could range from 5-10 minutes to 1-2 hours, with varying needs of support. Do they need help with brainstorming? Trips to the store for supplies? Lessons with power tools (the Arizona Science Center has you covered!)? 

Take Your Child’s Direction, Even If It Will Lead Off Course

One of the best parts of a passion project is that you’ll get to learn alongside your child as you coach, conference, and reflect throughout the process. Allow your child to take the lead. Sometimes this may mean a course correction will be necessary. Course correcting, or “Failing Forward,” helps your child build frustration tolerance and see that they are able to work through setbacks and overcome roadblocks through flexible thinking. 

Help Your Child Recognize & Develop Intrinsic Rewards

One of the best ways to develop intrinsic, or internal motivation, is to feed curiosity. Passion projects are a great way to do this. Help your child recognize those internal cues of satisfaction, pleasure, and excitement by asking direct questions about their internal experience. What was it like to hit a roadblock? How did it feel when you came up with that workaround? Does this project create excitement to learn about other things in the future? Does it make you less interested in certain topics that you thought you’d be into? This also helps you to understand your child’s internal motivators so that you can more effectively help them push through frustrations.

My boys have both had various “passions” throughout the years. We’ve had magic trick studies that could rival David Blaine, model train stints, several “entrepreneurial business startups” and a deep-dive into chickens (they still live in the backyard and eat all of our refuse). Even when the passions shift or the flame doesn’t fully ignite, I take pleasure in knowing that my boys are developing the motivation to learn for learning’s sake and I’m glad that their school is teaching them to do the same.


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