The topic of today's post is something that is very near to me and really gets right to the heart of why I started This Lovely Day. For years the idea of allowing my children’s interest to drive our studies pulled at my heartstrings, but it seemed like every time I tried to make things more open-ended, it wouldn’t work. My children would end up sitting around looking lost, or worse, start to entertain themselves by getting into arguments or some kind of mischief. My oldest, who is highly driven and likes clear boundaries (checklists, fill-in-the-blanks sheets, etc.), would be frustrated. This made me sad because I was passionate about interest-based learning in my years as a professional early childhood educator. Why did it seem to work so well in a classroom but fall flat in what should have been the ideal learning environment- the one I could personalize to my children? In this post, I will attempt to explain in detail what I think I was doing wrong and what I did to fix it so that you can hopefully draw from my experience and bring interest-based learning into your homeschool in a successful way.
To some people, utilizing interest-based learning in their homeschool means avoiding any teaching from the parents or caregiver unless specifically requested by the child. Some even further say that asking a child to do anything under any circumstances is contrary to this way of learning. Some people also feel we should not try to be our children's teachers. Learning is a part of living, but children do need involved educators, in my opinion. However, being an educator and teacher means different things to me than many people.
My stance is that academic goals, learning standards, and interest-based learning can coexist. And you don’t have to sacrifice one to achieve the other. I do not see interest-based learning as the only way children learn. I see it as a valuable tool that can be used alongside more traditional learning approaches. Let me say that another way,
Interest-based learning is NOT all or nothing.
Ok, please bare with me here while I say that one more time.
Interest-driven learning can be a part of your school day and interwoven into everything you do, AND you can have specific academic goals for your child.
Alright, I am going to stop repeating myself now, and get down to HOW I integrate interest-based learning into our homeschool. Still, before I get into specific teaching strategies, I will go back to a few basics.
Set Yourself Up For Success
If you are looking to start homeschooling with interest-based learning, whether you are a brand new homeschooler or a veteran, there are some things you can do that will make interest-based learning happen more readily in your home.
Be Present With Your Child
Children are learning all the time, so the more time we spend being aware of what they are doing, thinking, and experiencing, the more we will be a part of this learning and be able to appreciate it. When we start our new homeschool year, we always talk about how learning begins with paying attention and being aware of our world. To be a good teacher, you need to learn about your child, and that begins by being with them and giving them your attention. This doesn’t mean you need to be with them every second of every day, but I have noticed for myself at least that it can be easy to be so caught up in what I have going on, that I need to really consciously decide to stop everything and just be with my children, especially during their play or when they are the ones initiating the tasks. Don’t get me wrong, meals, caregiving routines, car trips, and cleanup time are wonderful opportunities to connect with your children, but there is really something amazing that happens when you stop and watch them doing their work, the things they choose to do. Don’t take over, don't barrage them with questions, don't offer helpful guidance, just be there with them. It may feel like there is no way you can find time to sit and watch your child play like this, but you can. It only takes a few minutes a day. I try to set aside 15 minutes in the morning to sit and watch my child play. I find that when I make a point to do something early, I am much more likely to be tuned into it throughout the day. Challenge yourself to set your work down for even a few moments a day and pay attention to your child. How many conventional teachers have the opportunity to sit with their students and just observe them as they go about doing whatever it is they truly love? How different would our education look if this is where we started?
Create the Right Kind of Environment
One of the things research on human behavior has revealed over and over is that our environment influences us significantly. People who fill their homes with healthy foods eat better, and people with pools probably swim more, and tidier spaces help many people be more productive and organized. In the same way, children thrive and grow in high-quality environments. This was actually a huge hurdle for me when I first started homeschooling. As a professional educator, I only had one classroom to worry about, but the thought of engineering my entire home to be an environment that facilitated learning was overwhelming. So many other things happen in our homes. We cook. We clean. We pursue hobbies. But here’s the thing, we are learning too! We can facilitate our homes to be excellent learning environments because learning and being alive really go hand in hand. And if you haven't stopped and noticed your own interests and passions and how those things are reflected in your environment, now is a good time to do just that. I bet that facilitating interest-driven learning for your child will change your approach to how you live your own life.
Here are a few practical tips to get you started with setting up an environment that fosters interest-based learning:
1. Keep materials that encourage play and discovery in the MAIN area of your house. It's okay for your children to put things they love in their bedrooms, but the common areas of your home shouldn’t look like a hotel lobby. Puzzles, blocks, books, art supplies, a family computer, tools, and crafting supplies are a few things that your children might be drawn to, but use your knowledge of them (from when you observed them playing or doing what interested them :)) to add more things you think might ignite a spark. Put the materials out there and wait and see what happens!
2. Rotate Materials: Studies have shown that children with fewer toys actually play more. This may seem to contradict the last point, but the key is balance. You don’t want things to be cluttered, but you want to have enough stuff around that they have some choices. Rotating materials solved this dilemma with the added perk that when a material is taken out after a while, it is fresh and new. Try to pay attention o what your children are not taking an interest in, and go ahead and get it aside and take something else out. Older children can be a part of this process.
3. Lead by Example: Ok, so I touched on this before, but remember that YOU are an essential part of your child’s environment. If your child sees you pursuing the things you love, reading, and taking care of your space, they are more likely to do these things themselves. Perhaps as we take this time, as we give it to our children and to ourselves, we will actually find that we begin to rediscover the things that we loved as children, the things we forgot as we grew and more and more expectations were placed on us by our parents, teachers, bosses and even peers. As we rediscover our own joy of learning, we can share this authentically with our children.
4. Think Outside the Box (Your House): One of the best things about homeschooling is we do not need to spend all our time at home. While cultivating your home base is worthwhile, you can also take your children to other high-quality environments and give them the space and freedom to explore (with adequate supervision). Some examples include anywhere in nature, the library, museums, art galleries, antique shops, community centers and gardens, arboretums, and historical sites. The possibilities are endless!
When I think back to my own childhood, a lot of stuff was far from perfect, but I had two parents who genuinely loved learning, and my home was filled with interesting things. We had a big set of full-color encyclopedias, and they were much loved and used. My maternal grandfather lived in Mexico for many years, and my mom would bring back traditional Mexican clothing and instruments when she visited him. Despite being really busy taking care of my five siblings and me, my mom found time for her art, to read books she enjoyed, and to pursue other interests like baking and gardening; for each of the things she loved, she had stories to tell about how she learned to do and from whom, or a fond memory associated with it. My dad was an English and Communications professor who loved playing chess, scrabble, and other words games, writing poetry, and having friends, students, and colleagues over to discuss ideas with. My siblings and I had a combination of different schooling types (private public and homeschool) but I learned so many important lessons in my tiny, wood-heated home and out about in the world with my family. It's not surprising to me that even for children who go to school, the most significant predictor of their success is how involved their parents are and what their home environment is like.
Tips for Facilitating Interest-based Learning and Avoiding Common Pitfalls
So you have set up your environment, you are modeling the right things, and you are being present with your child, but interest-based learning is falling flat. What do you do next? In this next section, I want to talk about strategies you can utilize to help guide your child in their own journey of interest-based learning and discovery, as well as tips and tricks for creating structure and goals for your children without taking away the joy of learning.
Interact With Your Child Around Their Interests
I have talked about being present with your child and observing them without asking questions or trying to direct what they are doing. However, not all of the time you spend with your should be simply observing them. In fact, one of the main reasons being present is so important, is that you can be there when your child does initiate interaction. This can happen when you are already present and observing them, but it's also helpful to practice being aware of the opportunities for interaction that might come up spontaneously. I know personally once I started being mindful of this, when my would daughter come up to me and wanted to tell me about her project or show me her drawings, a light bulb went off that these are the moments where I needed to be willing to set aside whatever I am doing and talk with her. these are what professional educators call "teachable moments." But to me it goes deeper than that; relationships are all about give and take, and the more we give our children our attention when they come to us, the more they will be willing to give us there's. Relationships really are the heart of quality teaching, and relationships are built on shared interactions that go both ways.
Possible Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
One issue I have had in the past with trying to extend and create learning opportunities off of my children's interests is them suddenly losing interest in the topic once mom is involved. Over the years I have learned that there is a very fine line when it comes to taking an interest in my children's passions. Especially for the older ones. But what it really boils down to is you cannot take over. Don't try to turn your child's interests into "school." Learning and interests can absolutely overlap , but it must be done in a way that doesn't push your child away from it. I suspect the "right" way to do this is different for every child and family, but one thing that has worked for us have has been giving my children open ended assignments with some basic guidelines so that IF THEY WANT they can incorporate a personal interest into it. So for example asking them to do a semester project on the topic of their choosing rather than saying, "Hey I noticed you like dragons, how about we do a semester project on dragons."
Whenever Possible, Offer Choices
Another area that interest-led educators and parents seem to have differing opinions on is whether children should learn certain things. This can vary greatly from everything from whether children should be reading by certain age to asking if children need to know about the French Revolution. At the end of the day this is up to each family and their state or country's homeschool requirements, but for me personally it is resounding yes! However there is A LOT of room for creativity and choice within these guidelines. I love to compare the idea to a grocery store or farmer's market. You can let your child choose the produce you buy most of the time, but you have to get them to the market so they can see what's out there. As a parent, I really see it as my responsibility to both offer a range of acceptable choices, and find ways to encourage my child to try new things at least once.
Possible Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
Honestly the biggest problem I have run into in this area, and seen others run into, is not being clear enough with what the guidelines are for the choices. I have heard many parents talk about how their child only "chooses" to play video games all day, or to sleep 'till noon. Choices need to be developmentally appropriate. "Do you want to go to the park the woods?" is a good choice for the child who doesn't want to go outside, and "Would you rather tidy your room when you wake up, or come down and have breakfast first?" is a good choice for a perpetually late riser. Another thing I have had great results with is giving my children choices about what topics to study. So asking "Do you want to study as a family about the Renaissance or dinosaurs next?" for example. Then they can pick the topic that sounds more interesting to them at the time.
Notice, and Build on, "Magical Memorable Moments"
But what if your child is having trouble defining any clear interests? What if you strew lots of cool materials and your child doesn't want to use any of them, and you offer lots of choices and none of them appeal to your child? To answer this, let's come back to the idea of "teachable moments." This concept relates to something I read in article a while back about about love. Love isn't a lasting state of being like many people think, the article said, but rather a series of moments where people share things with each other or feel positively toward one another. When enough of these moments are strung together, we call it love. In the same way when I look back on my own passions and interests, I can actually remember specific moments when I began to "fall in love" with the topic.
For example, when I was a very little girl I visited a dinosaur museum. I was so young this is only a very vague memory, but I remember being enchanted by the huge dinosaur skeletons and a drawer full of dinosaur teeth. A few years later, when I was In first or second grade we studied dinosaurs. One day we entered the classroom to find dinosaur tracks cut out of paper leading up to the front of our classroom. At the end of the tracks we found a note from a dinosaur saying it hid one of its eggs for us to find. Following a set of clues we eventually uncovered a large oval object. This ended up being a watermelon wrapped in tinfoil. It’s hard to say if it was the moment I visited the museum, or the day my class found the dinosaur egg, or something else that I have forgotten entirely, that I really felt for the first time the magic of being awed by a subject I love, but in the end that isn’t what mattered.
As parents, we have a huge advantage. We get to be with our children for birth and can actually observe those moments of wonder as they happen. While we cannot generate spontaneous interest, we can be watchful for it, then we can plan memorable activities that will help our children turn that wonder into real interest.
Possible Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
There will be times we plan out an activity and put a lot of thought into it and for whatever reason our children will not enjoy doing it. One thing I do not want you to take away from this is that parents and educators need to become something akin to circus clowns whose sole job is the entertainment of their children. You don’t need to buy new treats, or have treasure hunts, or even go anywhere to make learning magical. In fact, too much of this can have the exact opposite effect. Every moment isn’t going to be magical, that is part of life, but we can also help our children find the magic in the ordinary. If we feel like learning is becoming too much of a power struggle we can always back off and just give our children the space to explore and grow.
Bring Something to the Table
One thing I recently discovered that has brought a lot of joy into our “school day” is centering our shared “family style” subjects around the time we eat. We have always done this to some degree or another, but in particular we added an afternoon and morning tea time(Morning tea is kind of like “second breakfast”- I have been joking that homeschooling is turning us into hobbits). Our afternoon and morning tea ranges from literally making a quick cup of tea to working together to create really delicious seasonal treats like apple crisp with fresh whip cream. Oftentimes I light a candle or even an electric tea light and we read a poem or share a story. While I usually prepare something to kind of set the tone, I also use this time to just listen to my children. They bring poems to read, pictures to share with the family, and their own thoughts and ideas. There is something so magical and cozy about these moments we sit together over tea or something to eat and just read and talk. It doesn't feel like school at all.
If you are looking for more ideas on how to start homeschooling with interest based learning, I highly recommend checking out my new "Celebrate the Seasons" curriculum. It is chock full of ideas, prompts, and practical advice for facilitating a rich interest-based leanring experience! Unit One Part One is available now, and you can still preorder Part Two or the whole series at a significant discount till the end of this month! I am also running a special "back to school" sale till the end of the month: 5% off everything in my shop! Use the code "back2school" at checkout.
I hope this post has encouraged you and maybe even given you more confidence to make some room for interest-based learning in your homeschool days. Let's make this school year a joyful one!