What is child-led learning?

What is child-led learning?
Read and Spell blog
What is child-led learning?

Child-led learning is a term used to describe education programmes in which children are responsible for deciding what to learn. In some cases, it extends to kids being in control of how long they spend on a particular lesson and the methods and materials used for study. Quite often it is undertaken in a home-school environment or in a private tutoring context.

While this movement typically stands in opposition to a fixed curriculum, some schools offer individual classes or after-hours programmes that take a more child-led approach. There are also situations in which giving a child a greater role in deciding how much and what to learn is more appropriate, such as sessions for kids who struggle with learning difficulties.

In this type of environment, a child will often be given free range to engage with material as he or she pleases. This might include doing art, singing or role-play instead of traditional question and answer worksheets. It may be that parents introduce options and the child is able to choose one that he or she would like to pursue.

In other cases, adults select the topic and lesson but students steer it in a particular direction. Depending on the setting, parents and tutors work to create balance and introduce materials that go along with and support the child’s needs. 

Self-directed learning and self-esteem

Not all educators who practice child-led learning interpret it in the same way. Nonetheless, it is based on the idea that we are naturally curious about the world around us. By allowing kids to explore, you encourage them to be life-long learners and to take responsibility for their education.

Instead of satisfying requirements and ticking off boxes, students are given a central role in deciding how they will spend their time. It may make them more aware of their personal interests, strengths and weaknesses. It can also teach them about how they learn best (auditory, visual, kinesthetic).

Exploring the world is a natural activity and when children trust themselves they develop confidence and a more positive self-image. This is particularly important for kids who struggle with specific learning difficulties and may experience discouragement and negative emotions in a traditional classroom setting.

The adult’s role

Just because children are in the lead it doesn’t mean adults are absent from the equation. In reality, the opposite is true as parents must work harder to provide the right kind of support, including resources, encouragement and the structure students need to make progress and achieve their goals.

They may need to model certain activities or help kids set reasonable targets. It’s also important to break tasks down into smaller steps so children stay motivated and work on one step at a time.

In a room full of students, the teacher may become a moderator instead of an instructor, guiding the activities and keeping everyone together vs. dictating what will happen next.

Tips for ensuring children have fun

Tips for making it fun

Go exploring.

Getting outside and delving into nature is a great way to let the child lead the way. Have a walk around and talk about what you can see, smell and hear. Learn about the birds, the plant-life and the history of the places you visit on a daily basis. Movement also helps children who struggle with attention disorders. Learn more in our posts on ADD and ADHD.

Get creative.

Just because black and white pen and paper activities are standard fare in a classroom, it doesn’t make them superior. If a child wants to take notes in purple, let them. Give them access to coloured paper and images and allow them to play around with structure and design in note-taking. Child-led learning encourages experimentation and creative outlets may be particularly welcome by kids who have dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyspraxia.

Involve the senses.

Multi-sensory learning is an important part of child-led learning. Babies learn through touch, sight, sound etc. not necessarily through reading and writing. It is possible to provide sensory experiences for older children as well, to enrich learning and create more lasting memories.

Make use of context.

Problem solving and discovering things while you are actually engaging with them makes for a more memorable learning experience. If you’re studying about something go to an environment (even an online environment) that will make the lesson more relevant. There’s nothing wrong with taking virtual field-trips!

Encourage role-play.

Kids can learn a lot from role-play, a process by which they become a character and explore a topic via experimentation and reflecting on how an individual would behave and speak. Try putting on a few different hats and let your child lead the conversation in new and exciting ways.

Deliver plenty of feedback.

Children need lots of praise and encouragement to keep them motivated. Let them know they are on the right track. Constructive feedback is important too, as long as it doesn’t stifle development or creativity.

Summarize and display progress.

Without a fixed curriculum, some parents can feel a bit lost. It helps both kids and their tutors to look at what has been learned, appreciate the achievement and plan the next lesson accordingly. You might try a white-board or keep a journal that logs each lesson.

More education resources

Additional resources

Child-led learning will not necessarily follow a pen and paper desk-based model. For this reason, you may find it in education programmes where children struggle with specific learning difficulties and require a non-traditional approach to literacy skills.

The Touch-type Read and Spell programme is a way of reinforcing spelling, sight reading and decoding skills by teaching keyboarding. It’s a great solution for kids who love to work on the computer and encourages children to take the lead and set the pace at which they move through a series of modules.

Learn more

Built in feedback and progress charts help students direct their activity and a multi-sensory approach grounds them in phonics.

Do you have any experience with child-led learning to contribute? Join the discussion in the comments!

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About the Author 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
Reviewed by 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
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