Child led learning is an approach to education that differs from more structured teaching, wherein children learn by pursuing their interests rather than by following a particular schedule that an adult drives. The adult's role is essentially that of a facilitator.
If it seems contradictory to the brick-and-mortar approach of many school systems, it's because it is a different way of learning. Indeed, it's difficult for most mainstream schools to follow this approach with their inherent barriers to offering students one-on-one or consistent small group instruction. There simply aren't enough teachers to go around and their resources are limited. Further, there may be a global shortage of educators by 2030 (source). That said, some schools can implement child-led learning successfully (such as many Montessori schools, for example), and many homeschoolers use it quite successfully.
The short answer is at birth. It happens naturally when children are babies. They learn to roll over on their own schedule, then walk and talk. We trust them to do those things when they're ready, rarely needing intervention. The adult's job is simply to provide an enriching environment where they can practice those activities. Once they've mastered those skills, children learn primarily through play.
As kids grow, child led play happens naturally and as their primary mode of learning. We notice our toddlers stacking cans of cat food, for example, and realize they're not only building towers, but also exploring basic physics: weight, size, and gravity. They're not just stacking objects.
The opposite of child-driven play is, of course, adult initiated play. Using the cans of cat food to continue the illustration, an adult might intervene by adding instructions, such as, "Stack three in one pile and four in the next." Kids don't need directions when it comes to play; they're natural experts at it. In fact, we risk interrupting their learning if we drive too much of what we think they should be doing.
"...Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky. But as to the question of 'what' children are learning at any given moment, the only one who knows that is person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it. It's version of what in physics is called the 'observer effect.' As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative..." (source)
It's to their benefit that we not direct or "over-teach" them. They know best what they're learning. Once again, our job is to provide the flexibility and the resources for them to explore their environment.
This is true if we consider it from the perspective of playing with toys. Indeed, eventually, kids trade their toy trucks and stuffed animals for other activities. A 10-year-old isn't going to stack cat food. However, it's not necessarily true that "play" stops as a child ages; it simply manifests differently.
"Play is something done for its own sake," Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play, explains. "It's voluntary, it's pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome." (source)
Older-child play often manifests in their interests and hobbies. Perhaps a child enjoys music, sports, science, or reading. This "play" is every bit as important for the child's learning and development.
Max out the library card; watch every documentary on the subject. See if an expert (live or museum) is dedicated to teaching the aspects of whatever your child enjoys most. Exposure, exposure, and more exposure will help your child become a passionate subject matter expert. The point is not to force it.
There are many benefits to this approach to learning. They include the following, among others.
1. Foster a love of learning:
"The science of play is validating what gifted educators such as Alice Meckley, Ph.D., Vivian Paley, Sharna Olfman and Kathy Hirsch-Pasek have long been practicing and advocating. When students have fun at learning, they continue to pursue it for its own sake. It is how nature assured us how to learn about the world and our places in it. At any age, play acts to retain and enhance meaningful context, and optimizes the learning process. All gifted parents, master teachers, and wise executives know this." (source)
2. Grow the brain:
"Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions." (Source)
3. Encourage movement for good health:
"Unstructured materials, often called loose parts, encourage child-led play, and therefore may also promote physical activity." (source)
If a child has been in a traditional school system for any period of time, he or she will likely be accustomed to teacher-led instruction wherein very little, if any, input from the child was incorporated into the lesson plans. This child may need a period of de-schooling, or more simply stated, time to unwind from the prior approach and transition to this new method. Keep in mind that even radical unschoolers are still educating their children, be it through teaching them to cook, do chores, and participate in the economy. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from regular day-to-day life.
To get started, it may be beneficial to emphasize outings and experiences to continue, or perhaps foster, a love of learning. Rather than using worksheets or manuals about the child's interests (unless, of course, he or she genuinely wants to use them), activities where learning happens more organically can prove beneficial. Examples would include trips to museums, cultural centers, or if possible, travel. Younger children, in particular, can learn in nearly any setting at all if adults are helping them engage with their surroundings. Engaging can simply mean observing the environment if the child is disinclined to jump into something new.
It's helpful to take an interdisciplinary and holistic view of child-led learning. You may or may not dedicate specific time each day for any semblance of formal teaching.
Using the cooking, chores, and economy examples from above, it might manifest like this. The child wants to host a lemonade stand on a warm summer day. The adult might use this as an opportunity for reading (recipe, ingredients), math (measuring and proportions), science (cleaning and not leaving germs), and finance (price setting), art (making a sign), and so on.
The child wants to play a computer game. The adult's job here is to ensure the child has access to games that help grow the mind rather than hinder it. From there, the adult can explore the child's interest in, for example, making his or her own computer games. Coding is a great way to take this type of "play" to the next level. If the child's interest is simply in playing the games, even that may prove beneficial. (source)
Further, regardless of the child's age, it's important to remember that learning isn't linear. Although a workbook might suggest that a child should learn page 2 before moving onto page 3, for example, real-world experience tells us that it doesn't always work that way. A child might grasp the concept of positive and negative numbers, for instance, before being able to count to 20 on his or her own. This is perfectly natural.
Absolutely, yes. Just because you're following child-led learning doesn't mean you can't use tools to guide you. Although some curriculum are certainly structured and linear, others offer the parent and child learning resources that are much more flexible, wherein children can learn modules at their own pace and in whatever order works best for them.
To be clear, teachers in traditional and non-traditional settings are invaluable. There's no single one-size-fits-all to education, but there should be universal gratitude do all who invest in children's futures. To the extent that we can encourage our children to enjoy what they're learning, regardless of method, it will almost certainly correlate to their level of engagement with the subject matter.
Sarah R. Moore is an internationally published writer and the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. She’s currently worldschooling her family. Her glass is half full.