What is Child-Led Learning: 3 Primary Approaches

Child-led learning gives the child the ability to choose what he learns based on his or her chosen interests. Beyond that, the extend of parent/educator involvement varies. This article explores the spectrum of involvement with a particular focus on three levels of educator involvement: unschooling (minimal involvement and structure), invitation to play (minimal involvement, moderate structure) and interest-based curriculum (moderate involvement and structure).


Unschooling is a controversial topic and can mean many things in and of itself. For this article, I reference John Holt’s “How Children Learn” to define unschooling as meaning that children are born with the innate ability to learn and instead of interfering with that desire, we should observe and allow them freedom to learn as they see fit.

The book is incredibly inspiring and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you are considering unschooling. We did a lot of unschooling during roadschooling, when we were traveling full-time in an RV. During that period, we were naturally learning so much as we visited various locations, so it really made sense for us. For example, we would be driving and my son would ask about something he saw on the horizon. Was it a volcano? And we would look it up and talk about it.

When we became more stationary, I felt that we needed a bit more structure. The flow of our day was so different and the kids needed additional prompts to get their brain juices flowing. That’s when we moved to more of an invitation to play approach.

Invitation to Play Approach to Child-Led Learning

The invitation to play approach helps guide children by providing them with opportunities to learn without a prompt or requirement to engage in the activities. For example, a hike could be an invitation to play. As you walk through nature, you might find a bird nest. This could raise questions such as: Why kid of bird lived here? Where did it go? Did it migrate for the winter?

nature walk as part of unschooling child-centric activities

The invitation to play approach is taken from the Reggio Emilia philosophy and is described in detail at Invitation to Play.

There are certainly ways to provide invitation to play opportunities in the home. Often, I will leave out educational puzzles that are half put together. A incomplete puzzle is a great invitation for the child to engage without actually being asked.

geography puzzle child-led learning activity

I also put out things like a magnetic white board and a box of magnetic gears, inviting the child to put the gears on the board.

invitation to play doesn't have to be complex

Something as simple as leaving out crayons and paper on the dining room table or making muffins with a step stool next you are great examples of invitation to play opportunities.

Interest-Based Curriculum

For my older son, I do find that he likes to have a bit more structure, but gets anxiety if too many demands are placed on him. It’s important for him to decide what he wants to do for homeschool, if he is going to have a positive attitude and get his work done in a way that’s enjoyable for us.

I usually use a democratic approach to homeschooling. while providing scaffolding. Often, I notice a few things that he is interested in. Right now, those happen to be LEGO Power Functions, a deck of vintage car playing cards and kinetic sand. Then, I will put a few ideas together for each interest.

For example, for LEGO Power Functions, I provided him with materials on how to use the tool, writing prompts and fun math activities related to it.

For the vintage playing cards, I asked him to pick his favorite vintage cards out of the deck and read them out loud and then he decided to draw them. We discussed creating a book with his favorite vehicles and a little information about each of them such as: when they were built, make, model and special features. As an extension of this, we can research what else was going on during each respective time period.

Our Current Child-Led Homeschool Method

Our homeschool method varies, and I try to reevaluate every few months to make sure we are really staying true to the child-led philosophy. Currently, what is working for my kindergartener is quite different than what is working for my third grade. For my kindergartener, we have been really successful with the invitation to play approach. For my older son, our best approach is discussing various learning opportunities around a specific interest and allow him to decide the best way to go about it.

invitation to play math games and manipulatives

The approach with my older son does seem a bit scattered at times. One week he will be really into typing, the next he will want to learn cursive and the week after he will want to journal in secret. My role is to maintain flexibility and openness, so he feels comfortable sharing these ideas with me. I want him to trust in me as his educator, that I will take his interests and offer fun and engaging opportunities to dive deeper into the topic.

Which Approach is the Best For You? 

I encourage you to try out each approach, as I did, knowing that what works for one child might not work for another. Some children thrive on workbooks! Others want to dig in the dirt all day. Whichever method you choose, the most important aspect is to make learning fun, simply by letting your child take the lead in their education.


child led learning is really more of a jungle gym than a ladder when it comes to learning

As an educator, we put away the notion that learning has to be a ladder, each step leading to another. Rather, let it be a jungle gym, giving the student the freedom to climb and explore and us, as the educators, supporting them every step of the way.

If you’re interested in trying our child-led learning for your family, but aren’t sure where to start, I suggest reading this post on transitioning to a child-led learning approach.







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