Think back to when you were a kid. What fascinated you? What were you passionate about? How much time were you able to devote to those topics?
For many of us, the act of pursuing our true interests was relegated to small pockets of time in the evening after homework was finished, or on the weekends in between extracurricular activities and family time. But what if we’d had more freedom to explore and engage with the world around us, on our own terms?
There’s been a push lately for more child-directed or child-led time both in and out of the classroom. The concept of child-directed study is simple: it’s the idea that kids should choose their educational pursuits.
There are already movements that take this idea and run with it: there’s “unschooling,” which is a homeschooling philosophy that gives tremendous control of education to the student. Democratic Schools can be found across the country, where students and teachers have equal say in how the school is run and how the days are structured.
While these are examples of institutions or models that take child-directed study to the maximal end of the spectrum, child-led learning is becoming more of a norm across the board, no matter the setting. Many types of homeschooling families practice this in some form or another. Independent and private schools often dedicate time or entire classes toward student-focused projects and initiatives. And public schools are also finding value in the principle.
It might seem like giving children the chance to drive their education is in contrast to a structured school environment, but that’s not necessarily the case.
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Here are some ways to incorporate child-directed learning and invite kids to participate more in their education. These can be done in the classroom, after school at home or in shared community spaces where kids gather together, and while homeschooling.
- Assign open-ended projects.
- Allow children to choose their own topics when researching, writing, or investigating information.
- Let kids express themselves with a variety of media, instead of insisting on one format for an assignment.
- Give kids flexible free time during the day to work, read, play, build, or daydream.
- Ask children about their interests, then encourage them to really dig into the topics they find inspiring and fascinating.
- Stock the classroom or home with books, materials, and objects related to those pursuits. Go to the public library and help check out every book that has to do with this interest. Hop online and search for free videos, resources, lectures, or nearby workshops. It’s extraordinary how much material is available, across topics and fields of study.
- Take field trips that relate to these academic pursuits. That might mean visiting museums, touring historical sites, attending events, spending time out in nature, and much more!
- Check out online classes that are module-based, like on Outschool.com, which can fit nicely into a weekly schedule.
So, why is this trend of child-led study becoming more popular across the board?
Child-directed study can:
- Enhance brain structure and function, promoting executive function.
- Boost creativity.
- Foster independence.
- Grow self-confidence.
- Help foster responsibility.
- Build a growth-mindset.
- Improve social skills.
- Support curiosity and connection-building
Most importantly, allowing children to take the lead teaches them that learning can be fun.
One great way to begin bringing child-directed study into the day is by engaging kids in conversation first. Ask questions, mention pathways and rabbit holes for them to examine, and help kids think outside of the box. Then, encourage them in their ideas. Try not to offer criticism or tell them that their interests aren’t serious or a valuable use of their free time.
It’s helpful to view learning as something that happens all around us, every day-—not only during prescribed times at set locations. Giving children some power over their education and their studies can be transformative.
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Christie Megill is an editorial and marketing intern at Cardinal Rule Press and she spends most of her spare time reading children’s books. She has experience as a writer, elementary school teacher, curriculum developer, and literacy specialist.