Overview: If you’re like me you love the idea of child led learning, but hate the lack of structure. Today I’m sharing my best kept secret to a structured child led learning environment.
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True learning – learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning — can arise only out of the experience, interest, and concerns of the learner
John Holt could not speak any truer words, and these words are something I believe in 100%. I was a teacher for 11 years. I taught infants through middle schoolers during those 11 years. Take it from my experience that the things my students remembered were the things they were interested in and had control over.
When a child has a connection to the material, learning becomes meaningful and this is exactly what child led learning is all about. But if you’re like me, you need to have a plan. You can’t just wake up every morning and ask your kid what they want to do that day. It just doesn’t work for me.
That’s why I created a structured child led approach. Today I’m sharing exactly what this structured child led learning approach is and how I stay organized with all the interests.
What is Child Led Learning?
You can look up child led learning, read 10 different articles, and get a different answer for each. But basically a child led approach to learning is simply what it says…letting your child lead their learning. This approach allows a child to follow their own interests and learn about the things that are important to them.
Related: 3 Ways to Encourage Natural Curiosity in Kids
Child led learning allows a child the time to gain readiness for academic concepts. This means, as parents, we do not force our child to learn any academic concept without observing signs of readiness for those concepts.
Your child may not come out and say “Hey I want to learn my letters now.” So we have to be detectives and look for clues like spending more time than usual reading or asking what certain letters are as you’re driving through town.
Nothing is forced in a child led approach. We may set goals and have a flexible plan for learning, but we do not force our children to do activities that meet these goals. We simply provide a rich environment that encourages the learning of the goals then wait until they are ready.
As parents of a child led approach to learning, we are supporters, resource providers, question askers, and instruction givers. We do all these things based on our child’s interests.
We are constantly noting interests, honing in on the specifics our child wants to learn about that interest, then setting up the environment and activities that help our child learn about the interest.
Benefits of Child Led Learning
One of the biggest benefits to this type of learning is how easy it is to foster a love of learning in our children. When we give them the freedom to choose what they want to learn and how to learn, they begin to enjoy learning.
Think back to your school days. Did you enjoy structured activities that your teacher planned without any input from you or any consideration for your interests? Probably not, and learning probably became another daunting task you HAD to do.
With child led learning, the child gets to advocate for their learning. They are in charge, and they LOVE being in charge.
Related: The Secret to The Toddler Attention Span
Learning happens quickly in child led approaches. I remember spending weeks getting Sicily to learn her colors, but nothing would stick. Then all of a sudden, one day it clicked. Why?
Because she was finally ready and interested in colors. When a child is ready to learn something, it’s all they think about. The learning happens quickly because it’s their time, and it’s where they want to put their focus.
Not only do they learn quicker, but they learn deeper too. When you are interested in something, you ask lots of questions and seek all the possible answers to your questions. This results in learning on multiple levels. They have time to explore, investigate, and experiment. They figure things out for themselves, and in turn grasp a deeper understanding of the topic.
One of the best things about following your child’s interest, is that one small interest can ignite multiple learning opportunities. You never know where an interest might take you. One day you could be learning about nutrition because your child has an interest in eating healthy. But a few weeks from now that healthy eating interest changes into body systems, and eventually into animal body systems.
An interest may take a few days to explore or it could take a whole year to explore. It all depends on the child.
But this is where it gets tricky. How do you keep track of all these interests if your child keeps digging deeper and making all sorts of twists and turns?
Even young toddlers can make a child led approach difficult by constantly changing their interests. This is where my friend a wonder journal notebook comes in handy.
Using a Wonder Journal Notebook
I created a little wonder journal notebook that I print off and keep near me at all times. This is my pride and joy. I would be lost without this notebook because it’s where I keep track of all of Sicily’s questions, interests, and signs of readiness.
When we are in the middle of playing, it’s easy for me to jot something down in my wonder journal and move on. Sometimes I’ll even snap a picture to throw into the journal. These pictures help when we begin a new theme that was based on something I wrote down a few weeks ago.
Many times parents think that with a child led approach, you must stop what you are doing and create a whole new unit right then and there. This isn’t true. Usually interests stick around for a while, especially in older kids, so you have some time to plan out good themes/units.
Related: A Hands-On Toddler Curriculum
I like to use the pictures as a reminder to my toddler of her interests. In the picture below, Sicily was really fascinated by the cicada shells, so I planned a few insect lessons to see if this was a viable interest. The first day, I brought out this picture and asked her if she remembered the cicada shells we saw at the park. We spent a few minutes remembering before moving onto a few activities.
After one day of introducing insects, I learned that this wasn’t a good theme. Sicily really didn’t seem interested in learning about cicadas or any other insect. This is why I test out a theme with one or two activities before planning our a full theme.
Some times what seems like a good interests, really isn’t.
How I Use My Wonder Journal To Plan
Planning has become so much more simpler with my wonder journal. I try to plan two week themes with the flexibility of them lasting shorter or longer depending on Sicily’s interest level. Whenever I sit down to plan a new theme I pull out my list of goals and my wonder journal.
Related: How to Plan for a Child-Led Tot School
I first look at the wonder journal and think about the topics that seem to be the strongest interests. Once I decide on a theme based on her interests, I look at the signs of readiness and my goals for Sicily. I plan a few activities that meet my goals for her that she is showing signs of readiness to learn. Then I plan fun, hands-on activities that help her learn about the interest and answer the questions she has.
With this method of planning, I’m able to keep our approach child led by following her interests and signs of readiness. At the same time, my approach is structured because I can plan ahead and make sure she is reaching goals I set in place at the beginning of the year.