What is child-led learning and what are the 3 big benefits for your child?

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What Is Child-led Learning?

Child-led learning, sometimes referred to as child-centered learning, is a common catchphrase at the moment. Many educational philosophies, such as Montessori, Reggio and Waldorf promote a child-led approach. As their popularity has grown, so has the introduction of child-led learning experiences. 

Instead of following a set curriculum or being told what to learn, kids get to explore their own interests and ideas. This helps them become more independent learners and motivated to learn. They get to ask questions, be creative, and learn at their own pace.

Child-led learning also helps kids develop social and emotional skills, like working together and understanding their own feelings. Overall, it’s a fun and engaging way for kids to learn and grow.

Furthermore, this approach recognises that children are naturally curious and want to explore the world around them. Rather than provide them with a very rigid framework within which to play (or work), we should allow them the freedom to explore what they enjoy.

The aim of a child-led environment is to build a sense of independence, meaningful engagement and a love of learning that will last a lifetime. 

A Common Misconception

A common misconception however, is the idea that child-led learning means allowing children to do as they please without consequence. This is not the case at all. Children need – and should always have – boundaries to protect themselves and their equipment.

For example, a child may have an interest in playing with water, but this does not mean we let them play with water all day every day. Instead, we take the opportunity to provide safe water play, so this need is being met through play. Thankfully, child-led learning is an approach that helps children gain experience with how to stay safe and learn within boundaries. 

One of my favourite Montessori quotes is the concept of ‘freedom within limits’. I think this absolutely nails child-led learning. The idea is to allow children to explore their own curiosities, but it should still be within a context we, as the adult, feel comfortable with.

What are the 3 big benefits of child-led learning?

  1. Children become more independent and motivated to learn because they feel in charge of their own learning journey. It also means they are more engaged and excited to learn because they get to focus on what they’re interested in.

  2. They are encouraged to think creatively, explore, and ask questions, which helps them develop their critical thinking skills. This also ensures they learn at their own pace and in their own way, which helps them feel more confident and successful.

  3. Child-led learning promotes social and emotional development by encouraging kids to work together, communicate, and be aware of their own emotions and those of others. 

So... how do you introduce child-led play and learning?

As you probably know by now, I am big on keeping life as simple as possible! Parenting is stressful enough already! So, if you’re interested in introducing an element of child-led learning, I recommend starting small and building up as you (and your little one) gain confidence. 

Here are a few tips that might help: 

  1. Think about your child’s interests. For Arlo, I instantly think of cars – he loves any mode of transport, really! So, I would choose a few activities related to cars. For example, washing muddy cars in soapy water, matching a few toy cars to their outline on a piece of paper, ordering cars by size or colour.
  2. Make space to display a few different activity choices so your little one can select the one that interests them. If you aren’t sure about this, check out this blog post which runs through how to do a full toy rotation. This is where you display a few toys or activities at a time to keep your little one interested! 
  3. Provide opportunities for hands-on learning: Kids learn best through play and hands-on activities. You can give your child materials and tools that will allow your child to experiment and explore, like art supplies, science kits, and building blocks.

  4. Follow your child’s lead: Pay attention to your child is interested in and let them take the lead in their learning. If they show a particular interest in one thing, for example mark making, sorting, role play, lean into that and provide more opportunities. This is especially important for younger children as you might not be aware of their particular interests yet!

  5. Ask open-ended questions: Ask your child open-ended questions that encourage them to think critically and creatively. For example, instead of asking “What is this?” you could ask “What do you think this could be used for?” 

  6. Remember, certain activities are especially suited to being child-led. For example, if you are out on a walk, let your child lead the way and choose the direction. This is a great way to encourage them to follow their instincts! Learning happens everywhere and in all situations. Even setting the table for dinner! 

  7. Remember, the adult’s role is to observe. If your child is finding something difficult, that’s okay! Wait for them to ask for help. You’ll be surprised how often they keep going until they eventually do it independently! There’s a phrase called ‘sitting on your hands’ which means you literally sit on your own hands to prevent you from leaping in and getting involved. I know it is a natural instinct, but instead, sit back and observe! The best ways to help children is to encourage them to do it for themselves! 

Child-led Activity Ideas

Now you know what child-led learning is and have a few handy tips to help you introduce it, here are some activity ideas that are perfect for child-led exploration. 

  1. Arts and crafts: Provide art supplies such as paint, crayons, and paper and let your little one use their imagination to create whatever they want. You can also try making collages or sculptures.

  2. Object sort: Give your little one a selection of objects and encourage them to sort them however they choose. This could be sorting animals into how many legs, size, habitat etc, sorting household objects or toy cars. Anything your child would be interested in. 

  3. Outdoor activities: Encourage your little one to explore the outdoors by going on a nature walk, collecting leaves or rocks for nature art, making creations in their mud kitchen or planting their favourite flowers, fruits and vegetables. 

  4. Music: Provide musical instruments such as a piano, guitar, or drums and let the child experiment with sounds and rhythms. Remember, you can make DIY instruments out of household objects such as a wooden spoon and a saucepan.

  5. Building and construction: Provide building blocks, magnetic tiles, Lego, or other construction toys and let the child build whatever they want. You can also have a challenge like building the tallest tower or creating a cityscape.

  6. Science experiments: Provide simple science experiments like mixing baking soda and vinegar, making a volcano, or creating a balloon rocket. 

  7. Sensory play: Provide sensory materials like water, sand, or playdough and let the child explore and experiment with their senses. You can also create a sensory bin with objects like beans, rice, or feathers.

  8. Role play: Give your little one different outfits and equipment so they can choose to explore different roles. For example, firefighter, shop keeper, doctor, vet etc. 

There you have it! A ton of activities to get you going with child-led play and learning! 

Leave a comment and let me know what your favourite child-led activity is! 

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