adults-role-child-led-learningOverview: There are many different ways an adult can be present in a child’s education. An adult can be very involved or not involved at all. I like to find a happy medium which is why I follow a child-led approach to learning. Here are 4 adult roles for a child-led approach to learning.

Welcome to the #ChildLedEnvironments Series where we are exploring how to set up and cultivate an environment conducive to child-led learning.

  1. How to Cultivate a Love of Learning
  2. Toy Rotation: Why It’s Beneficial for You and Your Child
  3. How to Incorporate an Encouraging Home Preschool Environment
  4. 9 Reasons Why Worksheets Are Inappropriate for Young Children
  5.  4 Aspects of the Adult’s Role in a Child-Led Approach

Curiosity drives wonder and learning. It’s that simple.

And that, Mama, is the reason why the adult’s role in a child-led approach is to be the facilitator. So how do you become a facilitator in your child’s learning?

There are 4 ways you are involved in the learning process: Observer, Environment Provider, Letting them Lead, and Guiding.

1. Be an Observer

We get to truly know our kids and their learning styles by simply observing and reflecting on what we have observed. These observations help us plan out our days and activities, so we are best meeting the needs of our little learners.

Related: How to Cater to Your Child’s Learning Styles

Trust me, your silent presence is enough…most days.

As your child is playing, simply sit and observe, but don’t hover. I like to sit in the lounge chair and feed Kade or play with him while I’m observing Sicily.

I’m looking for and taking note of things that interest her and the signs of readiness she is showing. These two things tell me the types of activities I need to plan and offer.I’m also taking note of how she learns. I’m asking myself:

“How does she learn?”


“How does she represent ideas?”

Sicily loves pretend play. I see her mimicking me and the events that have happened in her life through pretend play. She loves to paint, but doesn’t really express her ideas or things she is learning in her art.

This tells me that I should plan activities and invitations that involve pretend play. Things like dramatic play set ups, small worlds, and retelling baskets are going to pique her interest the most. You want to provide learning opportunities in a way that your child can connect with.

Related: How to Plan for a Child-Led Tot School


Keep in mind that what you observe today may be different next week. Toddlers, especially, are testing out new things and ways of learning, so it’s important to keep observing to notice any changes.

Observing may sound like a formal word, but observing your child playing is very informal. I just keep an eye on her as she plays and quickly jot down anything I notice on my wonder journal page. As I sit down to plan the week, I reflect on those things and how they can help drive the plans.

2. Be an Environment Provider

I think this is the most important aspect of your role in a child-led approach. My belief is that a child will develop an interest in those most important concepts as long as we provide an environment that encourages it, but doesn’t force it.

Related: How to Create an Encouraging Home Preschool Environment

You want to set up an environment that includes meaningful and multiple exposures of concepts and interests. If you want your child to learn how to count, then set up invitations that involve counting, but don’t force them to do the activity. Show them how important counting is by counting out loud in your every day life such as when you are cooking.

Keep in mind that every child plays and learns differently, so if you have more than one child your environment should reflect each individual’s needs. In our learning area, I have a large area dedicated to pretend play since Sicily learns best this way. I dedicated another large area to floor play for Kade. He’s very much into eating his toes and tummy time, so we need space for him to explore these things.

Related: Play and Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?

Now this doesn’t mean you ignore all the other areas of learning. I have smaller areas set up for block play, art, and concept exploration. If you have a smaller area, you will just dedicate more shelves to the things your child enjoys.

You want to challenge them to try new things by providing the opportunity. If they take it, great! If not, let it be and keep providing those experiences.

When setting up your area, inquiry should be your top priority. What is your child most interested in right now? Once you get out the materials you have for their interests then you can start to think about their signs of readiness. Last, fill in the empty spaces with materials to provoke and expose them to new concepts.

Related: Toy Rotation: Why it Benefits You and Your Child

Here’s what that looks like:

As I was preparing for school a few months ago, I knew Sicily had a strong interest in trucks which led to a transportation theme. I gathered all the materials I had that related to transportation, put them on the shelf, and planned activities around transportation.


Next, I knew she wanted to start learning how to use the scissors. She had been asking about them when she sees me using them, so I set out a playdough cutting invitation. She also shows signs of readiness for learning letters, so I set up a letter exploration area with the letter S for her first name.

I still had a few shelves open, so now it was time to fill those in with other types of materials. I placed markers and paper on one shelf, blocks on another, and a puzzle on the last shelf because these are things I want to encourage her to use.


I love invitations. They are my little secret to providing multiple and meaningful exposure to learning concepts. I use the interests and signs of readiness I gained from observing to plan our invitations.

Some invitations I set up and leave out all week while others I will set up the night before. And sometimes, I will set up an invitation on the whim if I notice an interest or sign of readiness that I want to take advantage of quickly.

Related: 5 Tips to Finding Time to Prepare Materials

An invitation can be as simple as laying out sidewalk chalk or as complex as setting up an area to explore a concept.


3. Let Them Lead

Now that your environment is prepared, your job is to sit back and let them lead. Give them the choice of what to do, when to do it, and for how long. Trust in their ability to know what they are ready to learn and to follow their play urges.

Watch and wait to be invited into their play. Most of the time you won’t get invited, and that’s okay. I like to sit for a few minutes then if I’m not invited, I will go do something else.

When you do get invited, they are still the leader.  You are just a puppet in their play. Do as they say, and definitely don’t tell them how to play even if it’s not the “right” way. This is their way of exploring and learning. Respect their play choices.

Sometimes they won’t ever choose an activity that you set up, and that’s okay too. I know it can be super frustrating to set up an activity and it never gets touched. I use to get frustrated all the time over this, but I’ve learned to set up simple invitations. This way if it never gets touched then I don’t have to worry about all the time I just wasted.

4. Be a Guide

Last, you want to be the guide. Yes, you want them to lead, but some times we do have to step in. This is why I call my approach a structured child-led approach.

I want to follow my child’s lead, but sometimes they need us to show them how. For some activities, especially tot trays, I will model the activity first. Then I ask if they want a turn. If they choose to do the activity, I let them be to explore on their own even if they don’t do it the way I just showed them. At least they saw how you did it and that’s learning. Sometimes kids need to explore different ways of doing something. Let them explore. They are building problem solving skills and creativity.

Related: The Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play

Ask questions, but only if it will enhance their learning in that moment. If they are stuck or are continuously doing the same thing and not making growth, then ask a question. An example would be if your child is building a tower the same way and it keeps falling over which frustrates them, then you can ask “Is there a different way to build the tower?”

Last, it’s okay to start playing with a toy your child hasn’t touched in a while. I want to encourage Sicily to explore new ways of playing, so if I notice a toy hasn’t left the shelf lately, I will sit down and start to play. Usually she becomes curious and starts to play as well. Once she starts to play, I let her take the lead and become the puppet.

A word of caution though, only do this if your child is bouncing from activity to activity. If they are engaged with an activity, do not pull another off the shelf until their focus breaks.

Most of the time, all the support they need is a smiling face.


I get asked all too often:

How do I keep the sibling out of their learning?

And the answer…You don’t!

Be the guide here as well. Sit back and watch because they just might surprise you with the solutions they come up with. If you do notice tension seeking in, help them solve the problem, but don’t solve it for them.

State what you see:

“I see you are angry that brother is grabbing your blocks.”

If needed ask an open ended question:

“How can we solve this?”

“Can you think of a way we can include your brother?”

Usually, the older child will come up with a solution that works for everyone.

When we sit back, observe, and be a guide, our children flourish in a child-led environment. They develop to their full potential, reach milestones on their own timeline, gain confidence, trust their own instincts, and increase their attention spans.

Happy Learning!