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What Is Child-Led Learning?

A lot of modern day learning in schools has become hyper focused on performing well in competitive exams. Education is viewed only as good as the number of degrees we hold. In an eco-system that has become increasingly competitive, where is the value for deeply involved, self-directed learning? Parents of today feel the need to teach their children right from the age of 2 and 3. With toddler activities and all manner of new age curricula being thrown a young child’s way, is child-led learning even possible?

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From our own experience I can say, there is a lot of unlearning to do on the parent’s part in order to be able to trust the child-led learning process. It starts with accepting that learning is a living process. There are no end goals or bench marks when you want to raise a learner. It is all about embracing the day-to-day living process.

Disclaimer: I want to clarify here, that I am not an early childhood educator or expert of any manner on childhood learning. The blog here is written to document how we experienced child-led learning in our home and what I feel we gained and struggled with in the process.

what is child-led learning
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WHAT IS CHILD LED LEARNING?

If I were to define child led learning, I would say it is a child-led, interest-based process that is as flexible and structured as the child would like it. Child-led learning is full of endless possibilities and based more on fact that children are naturally curious about the world they live in and that curiosity drives the learning. 

OUR EXPERIENCE IN INFANT YEARS

Early on in motherhood I was introduced to the Magda Gerber’s RIE (Resources For Infant Educarers) method. Magda Gerber an early childhood educator coined the term “Educarer” for parents and carers. According to Gerber, babies should be treated as capable and curious to understand and live in the world around them. Educarers must create safe places for the child’s exploration with age-appropriate toys and tools for exploration. They must observe and trust the child’s learning process .Educarers must treat even the youngest infants with respect and try to nurture their “authentic” child.

Read here to know more

What RIE did was that it gave parents and carers the confidence to nurture their child and it gave the child the freedom to learn without interruption. The parent was more an observer and guide. 

A lot of what Magda Gerber talks about resonates with me both as a parent and a scientist. We are all born with a deep innate wisdom and seek to learn about our world through an inner drive, unfortunately, somewhere along the way this gets lost in the noise put on us by the outside world. When we say child-led it is just this very concept, the child learns by using his own innate intelligence.

I was very much interested in following our child’s path and did just that from the beginning. He was fed on demand, when it was time to transition to solid foods at 6 months of age he was self-fed (baby led weaning has been a blessing in many ways, one in that it taught me to trust my child’s growing up needs). As he grew older we learnt more and more to trust his learning and he figured out each milestone by himself from self-feeding to crawling, walking and talking.

But, you may ask,

WHAT ABOUT THE ADULT?

Do I have no role to play as a parent?

You do have a HUGE role to play.

And do not for one second under estimate the role you will play as a parent.

You are not just observing the child grow based on his genetics, you are a GUIDE.

What is it you do?

You attune to the child’s needs. Attunement means to become aware or bring into harmony.

The more time you spend observing your child, the more you gain insight into your own authentic child. You know what gets your child excited? What kind of materials he enjoys playing with? What frustrates him? What are his fears ? and you use this insight to your advantage as you guide your child through life.

This may sound like nothing, but believe me, after nearly 5 years of parenting, I can tell you, you need insight in your child’s inner world. You need to learn about your child before you begin to teach him anything. So, start by simply spending one-on-one, distraction free time with your child.

Related reading: What your toddler needs from you

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WHAT ABOUT ACADEMIC SKILLS LIKE READING AND WRITING

Dr John Holt says “Any child who can spend an hour or two a day, or more if he wants, with adults that he likes, who are interested in the world and like to talk about it, will on most days learn more from their talk than he would learn in a week of school.”

Coming to academics. One of the first questions I get asked when I talk about child-led, interest based learning is, how will my child learn his/her ABC’s or numbers and shapes. 

Another question parents ask is, what if my child has limited interests?

First, learning is not only about academic skills like reading and writing.

Learning is in everyday living. Child-led learning means you follow your child’s interest and look for signs of readiness in order to guide them to meet their own curiosity and achieve said academic skills. 

For eg. As your child is playing in water, he is observing how the water flows, how bubbles are formed and broken, how it feels to be wet, how some objects sink to the bottom while some others float on the top of the surface. Playing with water ends up becoming a sensory experience that encourages observation and use of analytical skills. It involves use of both gross motor skills and fine motor skills. It is teaching him about the density of objects. So, many complex lessons all wrapped up into one exercise we call as water play.

The more you will observe your child play, the more you will see how play is learning. As the parent and guide you will know about your child and how he takes up to learning things and you can use this insight to thoughtfully introduce age-appropriate concepts.

Depending on our son’s interests and what basic educational concepts he would begin to learn by age I research age-appropriate learning toys and books and introduce them in his environment.

There is no pressure to use any of the new materials I introduce, but, he is a curious child and sure enough, he uses the new materials as soon as they are part of his environment. There were also times in the past, he didn’t find this new material interesting, in that case we would leave it aside for the time being. There is no rush.

By following this child-led method and without much help from me, our son was able to pick up his ABC’s, colours, numbers, shapes by age 3. 

All simply picked from a rich environment that included interested adults and conversations with them, age-appropriate toys and books, outdoor play and exploration, visits to sites with natural beauty like beaches, parks and mountains, and lots and lots of sensory play. That is all we did, and still do!

Related reading : Toddler Activities : Things I do with my child all day.

EXAMPLE OF HOW A PARENT GUIDES AND SUPPORTS CHILD LED LEARNING 

Let us say, your child is 2 and you want to introduce the alphabet to your 2 year old. You start by researching and buying age-appropriate toys and books on the alphabet. Maybe an alphabet puzzle and a board book. Keep these in his play area/room.

The child is free to explore his environment as he likes. He is naturally curious and will explore the puzzle toy and books. In time, he will come to you with the book and ask you to read it, or point at familiar pictures in the book. You will read the books, play with him, join in his excitement when he recognises an alphabet on a car number plate. 

Basically, you will be around as he figures it out himself. As he begins to enjoy learning about the alphabet you can support this need to learn by making an activity for him. For example, as you drive, ask your child to spot the A’s on store signs. Or count the number of red cars on the road. Get it? You will know when it’s time to introduce these activities if you have been observing your child develop through these stages. The child starts to point at alphabets, older children start to obsess over a topic they are interested in by playing pretend games or asking questions around it. These are moments that you grab and support the child’s learning through new books, toys or activities to aid his learning.

Any parent who has gone through child-led learning will tell you, when the interest has developed and the child is ready, the learning happens quickly. 

Another example of child based interest learning:

Our son loved pretend play cooking as an activity. We bought him a toy kitchen, he really enjoyed playing in his kitchen for hours. This interest of his was a direct result of him watching me cook in my own kitchen. You see how they are picking up from the adults around them?

Now, because he was in such a phase with his love for all things cooking and pretend play cooking, I used this time to introduce concepts around naming fruit and veg (bought him vegetable/fruit toys, board books, took him to the market with me ),we did counting activities with fruit and veg as he helped me put our produce in the fridge, he was introduced to cleaning and chopping some fruit and veg (like peeling garlic and chopping garlic, removing peas from their pods, cleaning methi leaves from the bunch, chopping apples, peeling egg skins and slicing eggs), we started talking about the different cuisines in the world, names of common kitchen ingredients, etiquette at the table, learnt to make snacks, learnt about measurements.

You see how many topics we covered through his love for pretend cooking?

This is how a parent can build activities around the child’s core interest to aid his learning.

Ultimately, the child will model you. Reading and writing will happen. At the right developmental stage with your support your child will learn to read and write. Until then focus on the environment you create for your little one. One that supports his emotional needs, encourages creativity and free play.

IS CHILD-LED LEARNING POSSIBLE AS CHILDREN GROW OLDER AND MOVE INTO FORMAL EDUCATION

The beauty in creating a child led environment from the beginning of his life has led to him being highly curious, receptive to new ideas and concepts, self-directed, social

and cooperative. He has picked up what we all deem traditionally as school readiness skills simply by living and being allowed his freedom to explore as he likes.

I want to add here though, there have been times when I felt a little lost in how we balance our child led learning process and bring in the traditional academic curriculum into the flow of our learning. It does take a little bit of creativity and commitment on the parents part. 

Also, child-led learning can look to the beginners eye as simply, play. Which is, honestly, what it is. Therefore, at times as a parent, you will inevitably compare it to other measurable learning goals and wonder if you are on the right track.

But, over the years, as we have gone through a school year and now a home school year I can tell you, no matter what external situations build in your life as long as you stay committed to supporting your child’s interest you will see immense benefits.   

You have to find a way to balance what your child needs to know as per his age, what he wants to know and how to keep the process as enjoyable as possible.

As he grows older and joins school, we know that standard school curriculum will start to take more of a center stage. But, hopefully we can continue to do things the child-led way at home in our own time and always maintain our no-pressure parental attitudes to learning milestones.

Related reading : How to raise internally motivated children

SOME POINTS TO REMEMBER

  1. The child is in charge of his learning

Early this year, in an attempt to make sure our son practiced his writing skills, I almost started pressurizing him into the practice and soon noticed how it put him off writing. 

I observed how me trying to take charge of the situation had reduced his interest in writing work. 

I back tracked, went back to my own parenting mantra and let him lead the way. The minute I stopped making it a chore, I saw how much he loved writing. He was writing notes, writing letters, he included writing in his pretend games. Writing was everywhere. He is interested and picking up writing skills by himself.

  1. Learning can be a big mish mash of all things

Learning is a very complex process. Children go from periods of deep focus on one topic to the next completely different subject without having to categorize learning into subjects. A prime example of this was how our son chose 2 thematic subjects last quarter and learnt all about the solar system and the oceans at the same time. For him both topics were of deep interest and deserved equal attention.

  1. Learning is in everything and everywhere

Child-led learning will make your children life-long learners. Children engage deeply with their environments and are picking up cues and learning from their living environment at all times.

Every time I experience a moment of our son learning from his environment it leaves me awestruck at the process of learning. It is amazing how something really minute in the child’s environment can sometimes trigger a whole new set of learnings.

This should also serve as an example for us to be good role models for them. They learn more through their observations of our behaviors, relationships and coping skills than any book or mode of instruction can teach.

To sum it up here,

Child led learning has been complex at times, quick and deep when the child is ready and interested, can use a variety of tools both conventional and unconventional when decided upon keeping your child in mind. Basically, a beautiful mix of everything as suited to your child.

I feel truly blessed as a parent that I get to observe our son’s curiosity, explorations, learning attempts, and get an opportunity to answer his “why’s”.

If you have any learnings from your own child led learning experience to share, do comment below. I would love to hear about your experience.

3 thoughts on “What Is Child-Led Learning?”

  1. Wow, this is amazing. I really want to do this and make my kid more independent. My son is a pre-schooler and I’m struggling to get him to like writing. Can you elaborate on some ideas I can try to get him interested?

    Reply
    • Try and get him involved with fine motor skills based play and writing practice through play and topics of his interest.
      We have a lot of toys that help with fine motor skills and activities like cutting and pasting, art or lacing.
      Along side one way I got our son interested in tracing and trying out writing was by looking for free printable based on his topic of interest. He loves vehicles like cars and diggers, I find Alphabet tracing cards and tracing printouts that use these themes. He enjoys these as it feels like a game to him.
      Younger children also love sensory play, you can try a sand tray in which he can trace alphabet by hand.
      Other than these tips I would recommend a more relaxed approach, there will be days children are not interested in any writing work and others when its peaked their interest, and thats all they want to try.
      Introduce age appropriate tools and resources and then wait for him to try it out himself.

      Reply

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