Inside: Ever wondered about the magic formula for instilling a lifelong love of learning in kids? The answer lies in balancing child-led learning with structured guidance. This approach creates a flexible yet focused educational experience that sparks curiosity and allows skills to develop at each child’s unique pace.
When I first started teaching my son at home eight years ago, I had lots to figure out. But one thing was clear from the start: keeping his natural curiosity alive was my top priority.
This led us to a blend of child-led learning and following a structured curriculum, a flexible and eclectic approach where his interests guide us within a clear framework.
Now, as we’re about to begin our eighth year of homeschooling, I’m excited to share the real stories and practical tips about this eclectic way of learning. In this article, expect real talk on striking the right balance – letting your child lead while keeping a steady course with a planned curriculum and making room for deep dives into their sudden sparks of interest.
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What is child-led learning?
You might have come across terms like child-led learning, child-directed education, or even delight-directed learning. In its essence, child-led learning is about giving kids the steering wheel in their education.
It means allowing them the freedom to pick what they learn, when they learn it, and how long they spend on each topic. This approach can really spark a love of learning and I’ve seen firsthand how it helps retain information and understand it deeply. Pretty neat, right?
But here’s the thing – it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Every homeschool family might have their own take on child-led learning. And this is ours:
In our house, child-led learning isn’t about total freedom without structure. Think of it as a see-saw between guided learning and letting your child’s interests lead the way.
We keep our eyes on our educational goals with a clear plan and curriculum in place. But, if Marc gets intrigued by a new topic, we’re flexible. I’ll pause our schedule to help him dive into this new interest, finding resources and giving him the time he needs to explore.
What child-led learning is not
Understanding what child-led learning isn’t can also be quite enlightening. Here’s my take on what child learning isn’t:
- Giving Up Control: It’s not about parents stepping back completely. It’s more about providing support and resources while keeping up with a structured plan.
- Just Free Time: It doesn’t mean kids do whatever they want all day. We have a flexible plan that adapts to accommodate spur-of-the-moment learning.
- Always Easy or Quick: This approach can sometimes require patience and time. Not all kids will fall into this naturally.
- Forced Learning: You can’t push child-led learning. It happens organically as children’s interests emerge while you work diligently through your curriculum.
- One-Size-Fits-All: Every child is unique. Child directed learning doesn’t work wonders for everyone.
- Early Learning: Unlike early learning which often focuses on memorization, child-directed learning is about following the child’s interests for a deeper understanding.
- Unschooling: While similar in giving freedom, child-led learning in our approach happens within a structured learning plan.
The secret sauce? Balance.
Blending structured learning with the freedom to explore individual interests is bringing out the best of both worlds.
This balance will look different for every family and every child. Some kids thrive on more freedom, others need more guidance. As parents, our job is to understand our kids’ preferences and learning styles and adjust accordingly.
Why does it work? The benefits
Ever wondered what fosters a lasting love for learning in kids?
It’s not just about the content of what they learn today, but how it embeds in their minds for the future. This got me thinking: could child-led learning combined with structured learning be the key to enduring knowledge retention?
There’s intriguing research out there, like a study from the University of Cambridge on play-based learning. While it doesn’t focus exclusively on child-led learning, it shares many similarities, particularly in how it empowers kids to take the lead while being guided by an adult.
The study from the University of Cambridge reveals that play-based learning, particularly through ‘guided play,’ is more effective for skill development than more traditional teaching methods. The reason? It combines freedom of exploration with just enough adult guidance, making the learning process enjoyable, engaging, and self-directed.
This mirrors the parent-support-based child-led learning approach, where children’s natural curiosity and interests drive the learning process but this is enhanced by adult guidance.
Another study emphasizes the importance of structured homeschooling:
“Although homeschooling is growing in prevalence, its educational outcomes remain unclear. The present study compared the academic achievements of homeschooled children with children attending traditional public school. When the homeschooled group was divided into those who were taught from organized lesson plans (structured homeschoolers) and those who were not (unstructured homeschoolers), the data showed that structured homeschooled children achieved higher standardized scores compared with children attending public school. Exploratory analyses also suggest that the unstructured homeschoolers are achieving the lowest standardized scores across the 3 groups. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)”Martin-Chang, Sandra & Gould, Odette & Meuse, Reanne. (2011). The Impact of Schooling on Academic Achievement: Evidence From Homeschooled and Traditionally Schooled Students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement. 43. 195-202. 10.1037/a0022697.
The thing is you can have both! Homeschooling is just that flexible.
In our homeschool, this blended approach has been transformative. We follow a curriculum and a schedule, but when Marc takes the lead in his learning I drop it all and follow him. When he’s really interested in something I noticed he’s not just memorizing facts, he’s immersing himself in the subject.
This deep involvement means he’s more likely to retain and understand the information. With this comes a lot of confidence in what he knows and clarity in what he has yet to understand.
So, what’s the big takeaway?
Child-led learning, especially when combined with parental guidance and a clear structure and curriculum, can significantly enhance understanding and long-term retention.
Child directed learning develops a love for learning long term, encouraging curiosity. Here are some of its tangible benefits:
You Pick, You Stick: When kids get to pick what they learn, they care more. This means they pay better attention and get more involved into their lessons.
Confidence Boost: Being in charge of what they learn makes kids feel more confident and self-reliant. They learn to trust themselves and especially trust what they know.
Learning That Fits: Each kid is different. Child-led learning allows kids to learn in a way that’s just right for them, unlike the one-size-fits-all approach.
Digging Deeper: Kids love diving deeper into things they like. This means they are more likely to understand what they’re learning about, not just memorize facts.
Learning Naturally: Learning at their own speed about things they like makes kids more relaxed and happy about learning.
7 ways to implement child-led learning in your homeschool
Ok, so now to the good part. How do we implement this in our homeschool? It’s all nice and easy in theory but in reality, it’s not so easy anymore.
Here’s how I did it in our homeschooling:
1. Encourage and model questioning and thinking
Remember, curiosity starts with questions.
I won’t go at length into the importance of asking questions and encouraging curiosity because that’s a topic for another time.
Encourage your child to ask as many questions as they want. Answer them, search the answers with them, and model to them how YOU think and research.
Don’t forget to ask questions in return. Wonder out loud! This models critical thinking and shows them your OWN thinking process and how you make connections. It also teaches them an invaluable lesson: even adults are continuously learning.
If your kids come up with big, complex questions, breaking these down into smaller questions can help model executive functioning skills and how they can take smaller steps to solve a problem.
It’s also a great way to encourage them to follow new rabbit trails and sometimes spark real child-led learning.
2. Keep a question notebook
If your child is like mine, questions tend to pop up at the most inconvenient times, like just before bed. (Although I am pretty sure this is a tactic he developed to get to stay up late.)
Keep a special notebook for jotting down questions that pop up at random times. This way, you show you value their curiosity and plan to explore answers together at a more convenient time.
Because question asking is a skill that needs encouragement and modeling to develop, I created my There Are No Stupid Questions Workbook, which you can find on Amazon.
This workbook acts as a guide for your kids. It has two parts. Part one is all about questions- showing them how to ask questions and offering a safe space for them to record any and all questions. part two is about answers – giving them a space to record answers they think about, answers they find in their research, interviewing adults, or even conducting experiments or visiting a new place.
I even added a fun section where kids between 6 and 13 can take up more challenging tasks: the little ones can think about very difficult questions to stump their parents, and middle schoolers can give their creative answers to challenging mysteries or questions with no answer which they might come across.
If you’re curious to see how this workbook is set up, subscribe below to get my There Are No Stupid Questions Workbook sample pages. This includes 30 sample pages from the original workbook which you can find on Amazon. You can print as many of the freebie pages as you need to encourage thinking in your homeschool.
Please note that the full book also contains helping sections for both parents and children to encourage curiosity and research as well as many more templates.
3. Don’t delay
I often hear parents and teachers say, “We’ll learn about this later”. But why delay? We live in an era of fast and readily available information.
If your child wants to learn chemistry in first grade (like mine did), don’t postpone it! There are curricula, games, and books on chemistry targeted at young curious minds.
They won’t learn it “in order” as they would traditionally, but conceptually, they will remember what they learned because it stemmed from their own curiosity.
And sometimes it doesn’t even take much to satisfy a curiosity. Marc was asking me what’s smaller than an atom at 6 and he was happy with “protons, electrons, and neutrons” (an answer I had to ask Google about). A couple of year later, he wanted to know even more and he went on a personal learning quest to find out everything he could about particle physics.
Look what not delaying did to my 10-year-old (I miss that tiny voice!):
This was his original blackboard versus an improved blackboard as he started understanding more:
The best part? He still remembers it and he can explain it to you! Me, on the other hand, I never understood it.
4. The child leads the way and you assist
Remember, learning isn’t limited to structured settings.
Even activities like video gaming can be educational (although I still believe in moderation and balance in everything). Respect their interests, no matter how trivial they may seem, and provide the necessary resources to explore these avenues.
Often we don’t realize what skills and knowledge are being activated while our kids follow a rabbit trail or do something that doesn’t look like much for us.
A mistake I often made with Marc (because the words rushed from my mouth before I thought them through) was to sometimes interrupt whatever he was doing and call him to do something that I regarded as “more important”. I realized his work was as important (sometimes even more so) than what I had planned for the day.
So if I see him deeply engrossed in a project, I let him be until he takes a break.
He designed a cardboard car on his own once when he was 7, using a lot of hot glue and cardboard, but what began as a seemingly unimportant mess of glue and pieces of cardstock turned into a lesson on how to make functioning wheels and an opening hood. I let him have at it, answering when asked or even prompting him with smaller questions until he figured out the answers on his own.
Letting them try and fail, and supporting them when they need it are valuable lessons in themselves teaching them to build resilience but also to know when to ask for help.
5. Don’t fall into extremes
Keeping a balance in homeschooling is everything. I might repeat myself with this one, but it’s so important.
Encourage child-led learning (as it’s an efficient tool) but don’t go overboard! By pushing too much, you will undoubtedly take away from the joy of learning.
I know it’s so easy to see your kid develop an interest and go overboard and overwhelm them with materials and books and you eagerly jump in and buy all unit studies on their new interest.
But keep it real. Sometimes all the kids need is some quick Google answers and they move on. And that’s ok. You don’t need to go overboard, just provide answers and materials to the questions being asked and the level of interest shown.
I see parents fall into this trap all the time. Especially if you love the idea of unit studies in your homeschool, you tend to want to go all out with every subject. Sometimes kids just aren’t that interested, and it’s ok.
By keeping an open mind (and open senses) to give them exactly what they need, when they need it and at the intensity and level they need it, you are ensuring they have the time and resources to dig into the things they are curious about – and not forcing them through activities that lost their appeal 5 hours ago.
6. Rabbit trails and staying on track
On the other hand, sometimes a brief answer isn’t enough, and as you start digging for more, you’ll find yourselves pulled into other directions for deeper research.
This is a rabbit hole or rabbit trail.
Any learning happening from pure curiosity and your child’s own initiative will stick with them longer than hours of repetition on a subject that doesn’t interest them.
Set aside time for exploration and ensure your planner includes this!
Some homeschoolers keep a day like Friday off for this purpose, but we just take time off whenever the need arises to dig deeper into a topic of choice.
We chose to homeschool year-round because this allows us to pause whenever we want to go deeper on a subject. It doesn’t matter that it’s Wednesday and we only finished Language Arts for the day if Physics came up with a super interesting concept we just NEED to try or find out more about.
We take the rest of the day (or one hour… or even several days) off until we’re happy with what we found out.
In our homeschool I make use of student planners (yes, I am biased, I designed these ones we WE LOVE THEM) to plan week by week. This ensures I am not freaking out for being “behind” because I only plan one week at a time, and my planners offer a 12 month plan, so we have PLENTY of room to shift things around as we mold our homeschooling to our curiosities as they come.
*Available worldwide through Amazon: look for Monkey and Mom Homeschool to find me near you.
7. The right tools
Surrounding your kids with good resources allows them to explore all sorts of subjects and learn to their heart’s content. This doesn’t have to be expensive, but intentional.
This process can be trial and error, but eventually, you’ll know what you’re looking for and how your kids learn best. These materials can range from unit studies, hands-on toys, board games, books, to apps or online platforms like Elephango which ensure kids have reliable resources to answer their questions.
And hey, if you have 6+ year olds, I put together a huge list of educational toys so you can get inspired: 30 Must Have Educational Toys For 6 Year Old Boys.
And remember, don’t overdo it!
Child led learning & academics. The best of both worlds
Okay, next let’s chat about something super important in homeschooling: Flexibility.
Now, when I say child-led, I’m not talking about an all-or-nothing approach (like 100% child driven and nothing else). What I’ve learned over the years is that you really can have the best of both worlds. And the secret? You guessed it – Flexibility.
It sounds straightforward, right? But being flexible in homeschooling is pretty difficult because it’s all about adapting on the fly. Sure, we’ve got our weekly plans and daily curriculum, but I’m always ready to switch gears when a genuine learning opportunity knocks on our door.
What’s really cool about taking a structured approach (parallel with child driven learning), is how we can actually boost the learning process by giving our kids more exposure to discover things they love.
Plus, we are also equipping them with certain skills they will need as they grow to be able to continue learning in a passion-driven fashion.
This opens up a whole world of exploration and curiosity. Let me share a few examples of how this played out for us, both in the short and long term, so you understand what I mean.
Examples of child-directed learning from our homeschool
So how does this magical blend of Child-Led Learning + Academic Learning look like for us?
- Literature-Based History: We’re not big fans of social studies, so we opted for a literature-based approach to history using BookShark books. I chose to adapt a subject that was less loved (history) to an approach Marc likes (reading/ literature-based).
What happened? Sometimes just going through a regular curriculum can spark that curiosity your kids need to want to learn more.
Just this year, while learning about ancient Rome, Marc suddenly got curious about Roman numerals. He printed a list of Roman numbers up to one million and learned most of them! Now, he can read the dates on ancient monuments!
This curiosity was sparked by our regular curriculum and is a perfect example of child-led learning sneaking in within the apparent confines of traditional learning.
- A Slow-Burn Love for Writing: Marc’s always been reluctant about writing, despite my constant nudging. I also know how important writing is in terms of skills and communication.
I didn’t want to force him to learn it, and I knew he would benefit from having writing explained to him the way he needed it, so I dug for a curriculum that fit him. We chose IEW’s Structure and Style for Students (I have reviews on IEW here) because they explain writing step by step, focusing on form and structure.
Did he love it? NO! But he found it okay enough to trudge through.
So we persisted. And guess what? Two years in, he’s now writing his own novel with over 100 pages, complete with Roman numeral page numbers! It’s funny how things turn out, right?
A perfect example of how sometimes it just takes some time to start developing a taste for something. Had we only followed his lead, we would have missed this opportunity.
- The Chemistry and Math Connection: Marc’s been into chemistry since he was 7, and he learned all the conceptual stuff he could gather, but he hit a wall when he needed more advanced math.
So, we shifted gears and jumped into high school math earlier than planned with Mr. D Math (my Mr. D Math reviews are here). This not only helped him delve deeper into chemistry but also sparked his love for higher math.
He’s now exploring topics like the Pythagorean theorem with such enthusiasm!
What does this show? Sometimes you need to take a traditional path to gain the skills you need to be able to understand more difficult concepts you are interested in.
Remember, not all kids will dive deep into academics, but core subjects like Language Arts and Math are crucial, no matter what. When planning your homeschool, think about the subjects that’ll have the most impact on their future, prioritize these, and balance them with child-initiated learning opportunities.
I see structured learning as a stepping stone to… more child-led learning!
It’s amazing to watch how my plans and Marc’s interests weave together to create a beautiful tapestry of learning. It takes patience, perseverance, and a willingness to follow your child’s lead, but trust me, it’s worth it if you want to raise life-long learners!
The role of the parent
When the child-led approach is on, I shift from being a traditional teacher to being a facilitator. This means I encourage Marc’s explorations and questions, and we learn together. This approach creates an interactive learning environment where both of us are engaged in the educational process.
When it comes to child-led learning, there’s a common misconception that parents just hand over control and take a back seat. But, let me tell you, the reality is quite the opposite. For child-led learning to really work its magic, we as parents need to be even more engaged and deliberate in our approach. Here’s what being a parent in a child-led homeschooling setup really involves.
Create a supportive learning environment
Our job is to really listen and follow the interests of the kids. Then fill their explorations with learning opportunities while also ensuring our educational goals are met and they are equipped with essential skills.
A supportive environment just means listening and observing and adapting as you go.
It can mean we start by using a curriculum (try to choose one that’s the closest you can possibly find to your child’s preferred method of learning) and pause when an interest shows up to dig further, then we return to our initial curriculum.
For younger children, this naturally means more play and exposure to concepts (and I have for you the perfect list of 30 educational toys for 6 year olds to encourage learning and curiosity) and less desk time.
For elementary years, I suggest you focus on Math and Language Arts as “non-negociable” or core subjects that you do following a curriculum that fits you, and for the rest of the subjects, let your children lead and create that environment where they WANT to find out more.
Finding the harmony between structure and freedom
I believe it’s all about finding that perfect rhythm where structured learning meets spontaneous discovery.
This allows children to be exposed to the best of both worlds (both interest-led and structured learning) in a blend that encourages them to become life-long learners.
It’s not a simple thing to achieve, this beautiful balance, but my secret is PRIORITIZE! As I explained above, have subjects that are most important for lifelong skills at the very top of your list. You can add more during middle school years, but I found our rule of 3 works even during middle school: 1-math; 2-language arts; 3-passion (for us it’s science, for you it can be ANYTHING). The rest of the subjects are there in our planner, but if we don’t have time to tackle them one day, I don’t worry about it at all.
Fostering curiosity is modeling curiosity
We’re the facilitators of curiosity.
But you can’t just tell kids to be more curious, it doesn’t work like that.
We need to model how our brain works when we feel inquisitive and that happens by simply thinking out loud and helping kids see our thought process from asking questions to finding an answer that satisfies us.
And, as I said, you have my freebie: There Are No Stupid Questions Workbook sample pages. This includes 5 sample pages from the original workbook which you find on Amazon. You can print as many of the freebie pages as you need to encourage thinking in your homeschool.
Please note that the full book also contains helping sections for both parents and children to encourage curiosity and research as well as many more templates.
Our role includes MODELING but also being the go-to person when those tricky questions pop up. Sometimes, we’re the guide, other times, we’re learning right alongside them. Children begin to see this way how learning is a natural process and nothing to be afraid of, and that learning happens at any age.
Pushing and pulling
Every now and then, our kids need a gentle nudge to go beyond the surface.
But this one is tricky. It’s about knowing WHEN to challenge them to dig a bit deeper into a subject or concept and when to let it slide.
I feel this one is double-edged because there’s such a fine balance between pushing too little or pushing too much. It’s just hard to tell how much is too much because each child is different. I reached a level where I can recognize if what I am seeing is REAL, valid struggle, disinterest, or simply not caring enough to put the effort in.
This topic is difficult to approach because you will need to be there and see how much your children are capable of and both these things: how much you can push and what battles to choose.
For example, I would never torture Marc into crafting a 10-page essay because I know his whole focus is on STEM. But I will push him to write a 5 paragraph essay even if he complains about it because that’s the minimum I know he can do. He could do a 10-page essay if I push hard enough, but I am choosing my battles wisely. I don’t see a benefit in forcing him to do more than the minimum required of him in subjects he doesn’t particularly enjoy (but I still feel are important for his overall development).
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like my other articles:
- Schoolwork refusal and how to motivate kids
- How to choose the best 6th grade homeschool curriculum | Eclectic curriculum
- 10 Tips for Teaching Multiplication to Struggling Students
What is the difference between teacher led and child led learning?
In teacher-led learning, the teacher decides what topics are covered, how they are taught, and the pace of the lessons. It’s more structured and follows a set curriculum. Child-led learning, on the other hand, is driven by the child’s interests. The child decides what they want to learn about, how they explore the topic, and how long they spend on it. This approach is more flexible and tailored to the individual child’s curiosity.
In a balanced homeschool environment you can do both!
Why is child led learning important?
Child-led learning is important because it taps into a child’s natural curiosity, fostering intrinsic motivation and a love for learning. It helps develop critical thinking and decision-making skills, builds confidence and independence, and offers a personalized education that suits individual needs. This approach can lead to deeper understanding and reduces stress, making learning more enjoyable and effective.
Wrapping it up – from an eclectic homeschooler’s POV
Well, there you have it – a “little” peek into the world of child-led learning from our homeschooling corner.
So far for us it’s been quite a journey filled with learning curves, surprises, and a whole lot of growth (for both Marc and myself!). The beauty of our approach to homeschooling is its flexibility and how it aligns so well with the natural curiosity of kids while never forgetting about those essential academic skills.
Remember, child-led learning isn’t about doing everything perfectly or following a strict set of rules. It’s about adapting to your child’s needs, interests, and pace. It’s about being there as a guide, a resource provider, and sometimes, a fellow learner alongside your child.
And from one eclectic homeschooler to another: you don’t have to choose a direction and follow it 100%, feel free to do a combination of teacher-led and child-led. I feel this is the best possible combination to have it all while nurturing life long learners!
I hope this article gives you some food for thought and perhaps even inspires you to sprinkle a bit of child-led learning magic into your homeschool routine. And hey, I’m all ears for your stories, questions, and insights. Feel free to share them in the comments below – let’s keep this conversation going!
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