Have you ever observed a child who is truly delighted with learning? It’s amazing. You can see the intense concentration. You can hear the joy and excitement. The child isn’t asking for snacks or breaks or fewer math problems. For that magical moment, nothing else matters. That child just wants to learn more. This is the goal that everyone who pursues child-led learning longs for.
You as a homeschooler want that joy-focused learning experience for your child. Maybe that’s why you chose to homeschool in the first place. You may be interested in child-led learning because of its emphasis on child-initiated activities and homeschooling at your own pace. But before you implement child-directed learning in your homeschool, consider its strengths and weaknesses.
What is child-led learning?
Child-led learning, or child-initiated learning, is an educational model that gives children some amount of freedom to choose what to study, how to study, and how long to study it. Children begin an activity or an act of play which the educator uses as a starting place for additional learning. Other times, the child may find interest in a topic or area of study, leading to other activities. Because child-led learning is self-guided, students can learn at their own pace, and because it is child-directed, students can learn according to their preferred learning style.
What is Montessori child-led learning?
Montessori child-led learning is an educational approach developed by Italian educator and psychiatrist Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. After opening a school to provide a quality educational environment for poor and underprivileged children in Rome, Dr. Montessori observed the behavior transformations of these children when they were engaged in hands-on, meaningful activities. The success of this school and others sparked the interest of educators around the world.
The American Montessori Society describes Montessori learning as: “student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment.” Most Montessori classrooms are intentionally a mix of different ages and emphasize multi-sensory, self-paced learning as well as group learning.
For example, students in an early-education Montessori classroom (ages 2-6) would first watch a teacher demonstrate a learning concept and then would be free to choose an activity, work on it as long as they want to, clean it up and put it away, and then would move on to another activity of their choice.
Child-led Learning Vs. Delight-Directed Learning Vs. Unschooling
The terms child-led learning, delight-directed learning, and unschooling are often used so similarly that they are confused for each other. Each is an educational model that focuses on giving children agency in learning so they develop a love for learning. To differentiate between these models, we divide them according to whether they will use a structured curriculum. Those who follow the delight-directed model are most likely to use a curriculum, chosen by the parent with the child’s insight. They may also often ignore structured lesson plans, choosing instead to dive deeper whenever their child has displayed interest in the topic. Child-led learning may use a structured curriculum, but its use is often directed by the child’s interests. Unschoolers will not use a structured curriculum unless the child has specifically chosen one.
Examples of Child-led Learning
Examples of child-initiated learning might include learning through books (the library is a great resource!), learning through experiences (such as a visit to a museum or a zoo), and learning through play. Many Montessori inspired homeschool families use common house-hold objects for enrichment and learning, such as child-safe kitchen tools instead of toy kitchens. Learning can truly happen anywhere!
Homeschoolers can follow a child-led learning method in all subjects or just in one subject. For example, let’s say that one of my daughters is a history enthusiast. After reading a historical fiction book set during the Civil War, she suddenly is obsessed with the time period. She checks out just about every Civil War book available from our local library and pours over each one. We visit Civil War battlefield sites in Fredericksburg and Petersburg Virginia, and spend time at the Museum of the Civil War Soldier. Through these other activities and experiences, she gains an understanding of the Civil War that is more in-depth than any singular textbook, and it was all self-initiated.
Benefits of Child-led Learning
1. A Love of Learning
Most educators agree that child-led learning leads to a lifelong love of learning. Since children are choosing what to learn based on what interests them, they are motivated to learn and will likely be engaged in the learning process.
Children who can take ownership of their own learning are likely to be more self-confident. These children have practice in making their own decisions and experiencing the joy of discovering knowledge.
3. In-Depth Knowledge
Because children who are initiating their own learning are engaged and motivated, they can become experts in the content areas they choose to study.
Disadvantages of Child-led Learning
1. Learning Gaps
Unstructured or unguided child-led learning may lead to knowledge gaps because students tend to focus their learning on their passions instead of studying a a broad range of topics. I never would have chosen to learn about many of the topics I was exposed to during my education, but I know that learning things I had no interest in prepared me to learn when I needed to, not when I wanted to.
2. Difficulty Adapting to Highly-Structured Environments
In an article discussing the pros and cons of a Montessori education, Hannah Meinke writes:
“The entrepreneurial mindset that can be so valuable can also make it hard for students to collaborate in teams and work under a rigid authority.”
If children are going to be successful in places such as college classrooms and many workplaces, they are going to need to learn to work under authorities and meet defined expectations.
3. Lack of Knowledge Structure
Child-led learning can also lead to a lack of knowledge structure—how concepts fit together in their minds—because they may not study a subject within its context. Textbook learning follows a systematic structure that builds on itself, constantly preparing students for the next level of learning. That lack of systematic learning may result in a poor understanding of how topics relate to each other.
Homeschooling at Your Own Pace Vs. Child-led Learning
You can homeschool at your own pace without using a child-led learning method. Child-led learning allows children to study a topic until they are either bored of it and abandon it or they have mastered it. Homeschooling at your own pace allows you to adjust your schedule so your child can master a concept before moving on or take some time to study a subject in more depth than is covered in your curriculum.
You as a homeschool parent are in charge of your daily homeschooling schedule. But you also want to be aware of what your children are studying and how they are responding to it. Are they struggling with a concept? You might need to pause your schedule so they can take time to truly understand what they are learning before moving on. Are they unusually fascinated with a topic? Again, you might want to let them take the time to explore the topic further while their curiosity is piqued. Don’t worry about falling behind—remember that you, not your curriculum, are in charge of your homeschool. You don’t have to do every single lesson.
Why is it important for children to learn at their own pace?
Children are all different. They have different abilities, and they learn at different speeds. Children in a classroom setting often have to move according to the pace of the “average” child. Because of that, the children who learn quickly lose interest, and the children who learn slowly fall behind. But one of the great benefits of homeschooling is the freedom to allow children to learn at their own pace. When children learn at their own pace, they are more likely to master the material and have fewer learning gaps later on.
Do kids learn better at their own pace?
Kids do learn better when they are able to learn at their own pace—they can spend less time on the easier material and devote more time to the more difficult content. Because students can pick up each day where they left off and are not automatically rushed on to something else, they are more likely to master the material.
Should you incorporate child-led learning in your homeschool?
Ultimately, the decision to incorporate child-led learning in your homeschool is yours. You are the best person to determine whether it is or isn’t right for your family. However, it might be important to consider the Christian perspective of a full-scale child-led learning approach in your homeschool. The Bible teaches that parents bear the responsibility for educating their children. In Deuteronomy 6:5-7, God mandates that parents teach their children the ways of the LORD, and in Proverbs 22:6, God commands parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.” Neither of these verses allow parents to be passive in their child’s education. In fact, in both of these verses the very success of the educational mission requires the active participation of the parents. Your child needs you to be a personal, involved teacher.
However, there are components of the child-led learning approach that would be especially beneficial to incorporate into your homeschool. First, consider letting your child learn at his or her own pace. As mentioned before, self-paced learning does lead to mastery learning. Tools like BJU Press’s Homeschool Hub make a self-paced learning model easier to manage. Second, consider supplementing your curriculum with other types of learning experiences. Other learning opportunities leave room for discovery-based learning and for exploring his or her interests.
If you are just getting started on your homeschool journey, you may want to check out our introduction to homeschooling post as well as posts on how to choose the best homeschool curriculum for your family and how to pursue academic excellence in your homeschool.