6 Unique and Independent Projects for Socially Distanced Classrooms

independent project ideas

Teachers across Canada are heading back to the classroom soon. A concern among many is how to facilitate fun, engaging, and independent projects in a socially distanced classroom. There’s a lot of emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, especially in elementary schools, but social distancing will change that. Below are 6 unique project ideas that can be facilitated in a socially distanced classroom, online, or in a blended environment. There should be little to no interactions between students. Depending on your school and yearly budget, these activities should be able to be implemented without needing to share supplies or spend any extra cash.


1. Class Timeline Project

(Of course this doesn’t depict social distancing, but it shows the process of creating a class timeline)

In this activity, students work independently to create a factual and visual representation; either of a specific person or event to stick onto a class timeline. For example, your inquiry may be about Indigenous groups in Canada. Each student could research a particular person or event of their choosing using iPads, laptops, or conduct research at home. While some students are researching, other students could be designing a title for the timeline, cutting out images, or gluing information onto the timeline itself.

If your school has implemented a blended schedule with some at-home learning and some in-school learning, students could conduct research at home, bring it in with them, and take turns adding to the timeline. This can be a fun way to introduce a new inquiry topic throughout the year. Also, it serves as a great display board piece that you can refer to throughout the inquiry unit. If you’re new to inquiry learning, you can download a sample inquiry unit to try out here.


2. Independent Focus Painting

Encouraging creativity through the arts is a great way to engage students in their learning. In this art project, students are provided with a large sheet of paper or canvas board, an individual watercolour palette and brush, some water, and some paper towels. The teacher displays a thought-provoking quote, image, or topic web on the board and students paint their interpretation independently. For example, you may show an image of a European explorer on a boat looking at Canada from afar. Students can choose to paint the boat, the ocean or what the explorer might see once he arrives. Alternatively, they may choose to paint an Indigenous group, trees, or even a portrait of the explorer.

The goal is to have students paint their interpretation of the prompt and to eventually have a unique collection of paintings to display in the classroom. Furthermore, students can write a caption or short paragraph explaining their painting and their interpretation of the topic or prompt. This would make for a fun socially distanced gallery walk (either in the classroom or through a virtual exhibit!)


3. Nature Journaling

There are plenty of benefits to nature journaling. Getting outside for some fresh air and exercise, connecting with nature, and encouraging students to be creative are just a few of these benefits! The fact that it is a socially distanced activity makes it even better. Choose a setting – a park, field, forest, or even a small stream – and let students’ creativity flourish. Try to encourage students to focus on capturing what they see, hear, feel, and smell and the process involved in recording these things as opposed to making sure their observations are recorded perfectly. Students can choose to sketch, colour, texture-rub, or write about the things around them.

Nature journals are also beneficial as writing prompts; students can choose a drawing from theirs or another students’ journal and write something creative. Furthermore, students may wish to compose a song, create a video, or channel their findings into another creative outlet. Read more about getting started with nature journaling.


4. Socially Distanced STEM Project

STEM projects usually call for collaboration and teamwork, which can be tricky to implement in a socially distanced classroom. The idea here is to prepare individual baggies with an assortment of everyday materials: popsicle sticks, buttons, bottle caps, cardboard, plastic utensils, string, paper towel rolls, craft supplies, and tape. Then, write each child’s name on the bag and distribute them to students. Many of these items can be found at the dollar store or thrift stores; sometimes even lurking in the back of the supplies closet! If it is safe to do so, you could ask students to bring in some craft material or recycled items to use.

In terms of activities, it’s important to choose ones that have a low-floor, high-ceiling; these types of activities can be accessed by students of all levels and made as complex as students are willing to take them. This is an excellent STEM activities book filled with great ideas for smaller-scale projects that students can recreate in the classroom or at home. (My students in the past have particularly enjoyed the straw rocket and clay cabin activities). Some other great resources include the PBS Design Squad Activity Guide and Instructables.


5. My History Project

In this activity, students get the chance to examine their unique background or the background of their country or community. It can be done at school, at home, or both. Students can find places of historic significance in their communities and create pamphlets or posters to highlight them. Taking photographs and creating timelines or photo essays depicting historic buildings and significant historical figures might interest other students. Another suggestion is to create a family tree that depicts their family members, ancestors, and perhaps even some photos. Students may choose to create a digital family tree, or put together a scrapbook showcasing their family’s unique heritage and history. Much like the painting activity, these can be viewed through a socially distanced gallery or museum walk.

Activities like this are especially important right now with social justice movements at the forefront of our news cycles. Learning about current events related to social justice issues against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era and other historical events can be an extremely powerful way to engage students and make their learning relevant. This activity can also be part of a larger inquiry unit on social justice issues.


6. Independent Passion Project

This student was interested in dreams, so decided to create a pamphlet about dreaming

This final idea is one of my favourites to do with students. Not only does it allow students’ creativity to truly flourish, but it also shows me another side to the students I teach. Students typically have a lot of hobbies, but don’t always get the chance to explore them at school (this can be for many reasons).

Passion project time (also known as “genius hour”) is something many large companies encourage their employees to participate in so that new ideas can flourish. Essentially, it works the same in the classroom. The teacher provides a set amount of time for the students to work on their passion projects; usually about 60 minutes per week (but this can fluctuate). Students are challenged to explore something they want to learn about, spending several weeks researching the topic before creating a product to share with their classmates, teachers, and friends. In my experience, students use this time wisely and are grateful for the sliver of time to explore what interests them.


7. BONUS: Scholastic’s “My History Project”

Scholastic is currently looking for students to submit documentation of their own experiences during COVID-19. Submissions can include:

  • Field journals that record observations and reflections of the world around you
  • News stories about what’s happening in your community
  • Observations of kindness and people who help others
  • Reflections about how another person might be feeling during the pandemic
  • Letters sent between friends and family members
  • Photo essays that depict what’s happening in your home or neighbourhood
  • Poems or songs that describe how you’re feeling at home
  • Documentation of daily routines and schedules (this could take the form of a picture book, calendar, journal, or graphic novel)
  • Digital records of videos, songs, games, podcasts, or books you’re enjoying at the moment

Check out more information about the project here: My History Project (PDF)


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