California Mission Project - Life Lessons

In the 4th grade, kids in California schools have to do a mission report and build a replica of a California mission. The project is so established as part of the curriculum that arts and craft stores like Michaels sell mission kits - all the materials in one package to complete the project. All this building activity means parents must get involved. Here are some of the ways parents are expected to help:

  • going out to get materials
  • visiting the library to help do research and check out books on missions
  • supervising computer and printer usage; supervising online research
  • helping with the cutting and gluing and assembling of the building
  • proofreading the report
  • keeping the child on track so that the assignment is complete by the due date
  • finally helping the child to carry this bulky item to its final destination at the school without any damage

No wonder parents complain that it's more work for them than for the kids! But with some direction and guidance, there really can be a point to the whole thing. More than one point, actually. All it takes is a little forethought on the part of conscientious teachers, parents and kids. With some advance planning, children (and their parents) can learn and practice some valuable lessons in life by doing the mission project.

Each child is unique in his/her learning style. Some are better in math; others struggle with it. Some enjoy self-directed work while others like a more regimented atmosphere. The child brings to the project his own strengths, abilities and perspectives. Above all, it's his project - let him do the work. There's nothing wrong with parent guidance, or buying a pre-fabricated mission kit. But learning is a process, not a destination. So let's make sure it's the kids that do the work and get something valuable out of the process.

Some of life's most basic lessons can be put into practice when doing any big school project. After all, schoolchildren are learning and practicing the disciplines needed for future success. So parents, take a moment and have a conversation with your child about what a successful mission project looks like for him. What's most important to the child? Does he want a professional looking model, or would he be more pleased with a hand made creation? My artistic daughter would never opt for a kit, but my perfectionist son might not be satisfied with anything less than a pre-fabricated scale replica.

Either way, there are plenty of life lessons for the kids as they work on their mission projects.

Lesson 1: Following Instructions

Ever tried to assemble one of those bookcases from IKEA? The ones that come packed in a dozen or more separate pieces, with the connectors in a plastic baggie and a single page of illustrated (no explanatory words) directions? Yet after much frustration and grumbling, somehow people manage to get the things put together.

So for the child and parent that chooses to go the pre-fab kit route, think of it as a practice in following directions. For some kids, that will be a big accomplishment all by itself.

Life lesson: Being able to follow instructions is one of the most important things that a young person will ever learn.

Mission made from a kit
Mission made from a kit

Lesson 2: Math Matters

When making a model, scale matters. Fortunately, 4th graders are also developing the appropriate skills in geometry, multiplication/division, scale, and measurement which are needed. So, parents, you may have to do the cutting since you're understandably not letting the child handle a razor blade. But let the child do all the measurement and calculation they are capable of when putting all the pieces together. Review any math terms you can remember with them - names of shapes, types of angles, fractions of inches, scale calculations, anything. It will be good practice.

Life lesson: measure twice, cut once (an old carpenter's adage)

Lesson 3: Planning Matters Even More

Doing big long term projects is an exercise in planning. All big projects require a planning process, something that does not come naturally to most kids. Planning might include these items: gathering information; breaking down the work into sequential steps; making a list of materials and getting them; making a diagram or blueprint; keeping on a schedule. Writing the steps on a calendar might be a good visual aid to help keep the student up to date on what to do and when to do it.

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win." (Sun Tzu, Chinese philosopher and military strategist)

Life lesson: Plan your work, then work your plan.

Students working the mud
Students working the mud

Lesson 4: Getting Down and Dirty

Life is tough. It's not easy to build things. Building something of significance - a shelter, a building, the Great Pyramids - requires intelligent planning, knowledge, hard work, risk taking, and more hard work. Human beings have been digging, dragging, scraping, chopping, and chiseling to create structures as long as we have existed. Sometimes people have even died in these efforts. Today's students can only imagine how difficult everyday tasks were before the advent of power tools.

Life lesson: If you want to build something great, you gotta work hard and get your hands dirty.

Actual mud "adobe bricks"
Actual mud "adobe bricks"

Lesson 5: There is a Higher Purpose

The mission project may be perceived as a lot of busy work to learn a bunch of historical facts which will be forgotten within a year. A 9-year-old will not have the background or experience to fully put all that history into the context of a bigger picture. But every experience for a child somehow becomes a part of him. We can encourage children to view their schoolwork as something with a higher purpose.

Many years ago, a man traveling along a road saw some workers. He asked the first one, "What are you doing?"

The first worker didn't look up, but replied in a gruff tone, "I am busy cutting stones."

The worker did not seem to invite further conversation, so the traveler continued, still curious about what was going on at the site. He saw a second man and asked him, "What are you doing here?"

The second worker said, "I'm cutting this stone for a wall there. The stone has got to be straight and smooth or it won't work. But I'll be glad when my shift is done so l can collect my wages and get out of here." He looked back down at his watch, and returned to work.

The traveler came across a third worker. When asked, this worker looked up to the sky and smiled. "I building a cathedral," he proudly proclaimed, "a magnificent place for all the people to come to worship."

When a student works on a project, is he just getting the assignment done to get it out of the way? To get a good grade? Or is he laying down a foundation on which to build a cathedral of his dreams?

Life lesson: Sometimes we need to look up and get a clearer vision of why we're doing all this work!

Mission made from sugar cubes - how clever!
Mission made from sugar cubes - how clever!

The Spanish missions of California are national treasures. They serve as landmark reminders of a complex heritage of colonization and cultural development in the American West. There can be great value and enjoyment for students in working hard at a challenging task like a mission project and successfully accomplishing it.

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