What is Child-Led Learning? (Explained + Examples)

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Letting your child lead their learning is not always easy, but it can benefit their development. It allows them to explore and create in their environment and base their learning on interesting things. I’ll explain more about the benefits and details of child-led learning and provide examples of what that may look like in your home.

What Does Child-Led Learning Mean In Terms Of Montessori?

Montessori-inspired parenting leans heavily into child-led learning. In Montessori homes and even in Montessori schools, parents are encouraged to observe their children and let them learn from their environment. Rather than always stepping in to help their child, which often turns into the parent just doing the task, they allow the child to problem solve over time and complete the task independently.

Also, in Montessori homes, children are encouraged to learn based on their interests and explore independently, which is also the definition of child-led learning. In this method, when a child asks a question, you can ask them guiding questions to help them problem solve and lead themselves to the answer, just as with Montessori.

In child-led learning, it is the parent's job to facilitate, not direct, and provide them with the resources they need to learn.

Is it the same as child-initiated play?

Child Initiated Play and Child-Led Learning are very similar concepts. In the child-initiated play, the child decides on the narrative and direction of their play experience. Play should not have structure or directions; rather, it should be open-ended and free for them to create and imagine.

Similarly, child-led learning allows the child to control the narrative and determine where they will go and what they will learn next. It can be guided by a prepared environment, similar to the Montessori style, but parents should step back and let the child learn independently by exploring their environment.

What are the benefits of child-led learning? 

There are many benefits of child-led learning. It can be very beneficial for a child's intellectual development as well as their social and emotional development. You will start to see them reach developmental milestones while playing and doing activities they created and enjoy.

By letting the child learn what they want to learn, they are happier and more engaged. They will also be more motivated to learn and develop a love of learning. This method also helps them discover their interests and their hobbies. They will start leaning towards and exploring these things during their child-led learning.

If they are not rushed through learning about a concept and are not put on a timeline, they can dive deep into the subject matter and become experts over time. This allows them to learn and grasp interesting concepts, and they will learn other things along the way.

By being in charge of their learning, children gain independence and self-confidence. This contributes to them becoming life-long learners. It also teaches them to be self-starters, and they learn to have initiative.

Child-led learning helps their brain grow! It enhances their brain structure and grows their executive functioning skills. 

Are there any disadvantages of child-led learning?

The only disadvantage to child-led learning will be if your child thrives off of structure and direction. This is usually a child that is older and has had a structured learning environment. They may not be able to adjust quickly and should be eased into it. It can also be a difficult adjustment for the parent, especially if you crave structure. It is an adjustment to learn not to give kids directions and structure; it takes a conscious effort. But also remember that you can still create a consistent routine that isn’t a strict schedule. 

Is Child-Led Learning only for homeschooling families?

No! Child-led learning is for anyone, even if your children go to school. Some schools, particularly Montessori schools, encourage child-led learning in the classroom. In schools like these, the teacher serves as more of a facilitator, and they do not only do structured lessons. While the Montessori guide teaches children skills, it does so in such a way that centers the child’s individual needs. Keep in mind in Montessori schools, the teachers are skilled at observation and focused on preparing an environment that is geared towards learning.

When can child-led learning start?

Child-led learning can start as soon as a child is born. When they are infants, this learning happens naturally. They learn through the experience without even realizing it. It is how they discover the world around them. When you see a baby doing simple tasks such as shaking a toy, they are learning a skill – they are learning about motion by moving the toy, they are learning about cause and effect by hearing a sound when the toy moves, and they are learning sensory skills. When toddlers stack cups, they learn motor skills, gravity, weight, and even colors. By letting them keep this sense of free play as they grow, you are moving towards child-led learning with your child.

What does child-led learning look like?

In child-led learning, the child decides what they want to learn, how they want to do it, and how long they want to do particular activities.

What child-led learning looks like will vary depending on your child’s age. Children are given the autonomy to decide what learning looks like; while the role of the parent (or teacher) is focused on facilitating and setting up the environment in such a way that it's primed to promote learning, creativity, exploration, and thinking.

Learning is not linear and will vary by your child and their age. It is important to remember that and not set expectations but focus on your children progressing toward mastering concepts.

How to implement child-led learning in your early years setting

Implementing child-led learning at home will let your child learn at their own pace, create a deeper understanding of concepts, and cause learning to become a natural event. To reap all these benefits, you want to set your child up for success in self-led learning.  

To start child-led learning with your little ones, just let them play. It is as simple as that. Did you know that children learn more through play than they do from being taught a lesson? Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child,” and that phrase is grounded in a ton of research on child and brain development.

So focus on creating a carefully prepared space in your home with toys that encourage appropriate play and development.

You also want to provide your child with open-ended materials. This means giving them things you might not think of as a toy to play with. The first example that comes to my head is an empty box. You would be surprised at all the things your kids will come up with to do with an empty box! You can also give them cups to stack, spoons, sand, or just about anything else you can think of (as long as it is safe, of course).

You want to ensure that you are not setting expectations for a goal when implementing child-led learning at home. Your child may start an activity, and you begin to expect that they are learning a certain concept, but their mind may be in a different place, which is okay. If you want them to learn that concept, you can present them with open-ended questions and let them explore. 

Acknowledging and praising your child's work will go a long way with them and building their confidence. Display what they have done and help them feel pride in their work.

The most important thing I will stress about child-led learning is remaining hands-off. If you see your child struggling with something, you don’t always have to jump in and help. That often turns into the parent just doing the action, and the child does not learn how to do it. You can provide guiding questions if you feel that you need to, but allow the child to problem solve on their own. That doesn't mean you NEVER help. It's about learning when it's appropriate to let your child struggle through something (also called productive struggle) versus when to offer help. If you do offer help, it's best to ask questions that encourage them to think of solutions vs. you just doing it for them.

Examples of Child-Led Learning activities

Playing with a Ball

Give your child a ball (or one of various colors and sizes) to play with, and let them begin whatever activity they want. This can develop many skills, such as hand-eye coordination, sorting, spatial awareness, learning about gravity, and more. These could be sports balls, bouncy balls, beach balls, or even Wiffle balls. Wiffle balls are especially handy for toddlers because they are not choking hazards, and they can grasp them through the holes.

Building with Blocks or Legos

This is another beneficial child-led activity. Give them blocks of different shapes, sizes, and colors, and see what they will build with them. You can also give them Legos as another option. If they have a certain interest, you could give them Legos of that theme, but otherwise, give them basic Legos and let them use their imagination to build what they like. Check out all our favorite building sets here.

Playing with kitchen items.

A child can do a lot with spoons, bowls, and measuring cups. Have some of these in their play area and see what they will play with! Sometimes they will ask for water or even sand to play with, which is beneficial for their sensory development. They may even start to make music with them or begin stacking them. Leave it up to them which direction they will take with these “toys.”

Give them toys based on their interests.

You want to give them toys or items that cater to their interests and are grounded in the schema of play they are focused on. It’s important to ensure that the toys you provide will encourage learning vs. the toy doing all the work for them. Click here to get my Toy Evaluation checklist for free.

Busy Boards

Busy boards are another great way to foster independence and growth through child-led learning. These boards are full of different options, and your little one can choose which ones they want to do. There are many options for these, both large and small, but it could also be fun to let your child create their own. Just use a bulletin board or peg board and let them choose what they want to put on it. Usually, you will see busy boards with items like buttons, zippers, locks with keys, all the things that children tend to gravitate towards that aren’t toys.

Water Tables

Water tables (and mud kitchens!) are a fun way to encourage kids to self-lead their learning. Water and mud play is a very natural desire for most children. Playing with water allows them to be creative with which toys they bring to the water table, what game they play, where the water goes, etc. They could even add food coloring to make the water different colors. Providing them with simple things like measuring cups, spoons, and a whisk are all great ways to encourage children to play with water.

Pikler Triangles

Pikler triangles are a fun way for kids to play while developing their gross motor skills and coordination. They are set up so that kids can choose how they want to play on them–meaning they are open-ended. Pikler triangles also encourage healthy risk-taking, which is crucial for child development. Shop our favorite Pikler Triangles here.

Arts and Crafts

Open-ended arts and crafts make a great child-led learning activity. Simply leave out paper, paint, crayons, stickers, etc., and wait and see what they choose to create. It’s important to focus on the process of the art and not the product. When we focus on the product, we take away the children’s ability to create based on their imagination. So let go of expectations and be OK with messy art. Here are some of our favorite art supplies to add to your art space!

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