Child-Led Learning: 4 Ways to Try It

Today, although the concept of child-initiated learning still hasn’t made it to most mainstream classes, progressive educators have embraced the philosophy for the way it allows children to build self-confidence, develop a growth mindset, and become life-long learners.

Prisma Staff
January 12, 2023

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In the early 1900s when Dr. Maria Montessori proposed an approach to early childhood education starting from the interests of a two-year old, she had an uphill climb to convince the world that she wasn’t proposing anarchy.

Today, although the concept of child-initiated learning still hasn’t made it to most mainstream classes, progressive educators have embraced the philosophy for the way it allows children to build self-confidence, develop a growth mindset, and become life-long learners.

When you empower your children to be partners in their education, it incentivizes them to develop communication skills — so they can make their voice heard loud and clear. (We see this skill build with every cycle our learners complete at Prisma, as they bring more to the table each time we ask them for feedback.) Instead of feeling like learning is an item to cross off the to-do list, children who get involved in their own education understand learning is a mindset that can carry them through their whole life.


What is Child-Led Learning?

In terms of the day-to-day experience, the child-led learning approach can look vastly different based on the child (of course!) but also the level of involvement of the adult facilitator.  Project-based learning balances structure and freedom to help a child navigate endless possibilities, while unschooling — when practiced in its purest form — is wholly child-led.

The degree to which you encourage your child to lead their own learning experience will vary with their age and maturity. But you also want to consider your own comfort level, and how much involvement you want to have. (Are you available to drive your child to wherever their interests might lead them?)

Here are some things to consider as you decide how to incorporate child-led learning into your daily routine.

How to incorporate child-led learning into your homeschool experience

1. Start from your child’s interests — in the broadest possible sense

There’s always time for a learning experience to get more specialized. So if you have a child who is already deeply passionate about one specific subject, start by taking a step backwards to see how it could connect to other topics, core skills, and big ideas. If you have a budding paleontologist on your hands or a train conductor in the making, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be spending the next 12 years learning how to spell brachiosaurus or learning about steam engines.

From dinosaurs you can expand to learn about geology, archeology, and the scientific method more generally; you can explore climate change, and evolution, as well as teach literacy, creativity, critical thinking skills, and math. In short, any interest can be a springboard to a full complement of core skills.

Even an interest that might seem non-academic can be an on-ramp to a well-rounded education: We’ve seen students grow a love of writing from the seed of a video game, embrace math from an interest in baking, and translate a love of writing into a newfound interest in programming.

2. Set the ground rules

One of the ways to toddler-proof a house is to create different kinds of spaces. In one zone — such as the child’s bedroom — they’re free to touch everything in reach: with everything dangerous or delicate removed, they can do what they please without ever hearing the word ‘no.’ Then, outside of those designated spaces, there might be rooms where the child can only go with adult supervision — as well as rooms full of no-touch objects where they’re never allowed to enter until they get to a certain age. There are different rules for different rooms, but within each room, the expectations for child and caregiver are clear.

Self-directed learning can work according to a similar principle: Set times and learning environments when your child is free to explore everything and anything (with the understanding that they’ll clean up after themselves before moving on). Other parts of their learning journey might be supervised — whether it’s using the stove for a cooking project or diving deep into a reddit forum for research.

Other things might be off-limits, whether for safety reasons or your specific needs as a family. (No playing videogames in the living room while your siblings are finishing their school day, etc.) Consider setting these boundaries as a family — younger children included! — so you get their buy-in.

We find that a kind of structured freedom facilitates the learning process: it helps students manage their day-to-day expectations and allows their creativity to thrive — while allowing parents to work from home without infinite distractions.

3. Encourage them to set their own learning goals

Part of learning to direct your own education is knowing when to celebrate and knowing when to troubleshoot, when to keep moving forward and when to change course. This can only happen if the learner is fully invested in their own goals — not just academic, but also social-emotional and personal.

As part of this responsibility, you’ll want to teach them how to set goals — to pick things that are measurable and meaningful, while moving at their own pace. Rather than pick numeric goals that don’t correspond to any specific reality (read x number of pages), encourage goals that demonstrate growth (read 5 minutes every day this week, and 10 minutes every day next week).

One way to provide some guardrails to this process is to set a regular schedule to review and revise goals with you. (We find every six weeks to be a long enough interval that the learner can make meaningful progress but also short enough for them to change tack when needed.)

4. Step back and let them find learning opportunities all around them

One of the true rewards of child-led learning is that it invites you to find learning activities in the most surprising places: at home, on your travels, and in everyday experiences in your community. Let your child take you to a museum to give you a tour of the art, walk you through a supermarket to teach you about making healthy food choices, or guide you on a  nature walk to point out flora and fauna. You never know where they might lead you.

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