May 5, 2010

What Does Interest-Led Learning Look Like for a Five-Year-Old?

I'm enjoying the comments to my unschooling article on SimpleHomeschool. One in particular brought up some the struggles we interest-led learners face in the beginning:

What does interest-led learning look like for a 5 yr old? Would you do any phonics? Do you do any spelling words? handwriting practise? DD thinks it's so great when she realises that the letter to the zoo is actually "school" but don't we need to practise the letters a few times before we can write the letter? I guess I am thinking a small amount of drill facilitates the real-life activities the child is interested in.

I find interest-led activities to be very demanding - my daughter is unable to read on her own, unable to make a lot of things on her own that she really wants to and most of her ideas are expensive, complicated and would require me to put in 99% of the work. She says she wants to grow flowers. She can't press the soil down firmly enough around seedlings for them to grow! She can't lift the watering can easily or turn the garden tap on herself.

I think DD loves me being in there doing stuff "for" her and would much rather me continually help her than do things herself. She enjoys interaction with others (including me) and is happy not to push herself mentally or physically. I like things to be done well and I think I often jump in to help sooner than I should.
Here's what I said:
Your comment makes me smile and brings back such great memories. Yes, teach her to read and write her letters as much as you both want. If she is eager to learn, make the most of it! We can't be afraid to teach--it's the overteaching that turns kids off.

And yes, interest-led learning can be very time consuming for the parent when the child is little. Do whatever you can, and remind her to be reasonable. Mommy only has so much time and energy! Sometimes you can get her started, show her how, then stand back and see what she does with it. And we have to loosen up on our perfectionism. At this age, the purpose is their exploration and discovery more than the finished product.

If her interests are too expensive, etc, try offering other ideas that she would like just as much. One of our daughters wanted to take riding lessons and get a horse. That was just not going to happen in our family. It was very hard to work through that, but we survived.

Kids need the freedom to follow their interests, but they also need to realize that they are not the center of the universe. Learning to defer to others, to be patient, to make the most of what they have--those are all part of being a successful human.

But we parents need to communicate this in a noncondemning way, as I'm sure you do. I always had to remind myself to be gentle and kind to my kids as much as possible, in all areas of life, and as a result, they respect me and follow my lead when it really counts.
Hope that helps!


Annie said...

It does help! thanks! ANd it wasn't even my question, but I'm sure it will be in a few months :) I'm not completely doing unschooling, but leaning heavily that way. I'm planning unit studies at this point, but the topics are based on the kids' interests and how long we hang out with any particular unit will depend greatly on their continued interest. Anyway, your post is definitely helpful, as I'll have a 7 year old, 5 year old, and 2 1/2 year old. Thanks

Jena said...

Hi Annie,

Our school looked a lot like yours in the beginning years. I liked to do unit studies too, and tailored them to their interests, and adjusted things as we went along. I think that's a great idea.

Hannah said...

This is such an important but tricky balance to strike. Two of my three kids are dream-biggers. My son when he was younger, and now my daughter, like to come up with these grandiose endeavors that require time/energy/money on my part ... all the time. I am constantly asking myself what I can reasonably say yes to. When I want to say no, is it just because I don't feel like it? And if so, is that valid (because maybe I've been asked to do ten other things that day)? Learning to stretch a bit for them but also help them appreciate my limits as a human being is part of my job.

Debbie's L'Bri said...

This is a great article. We do the same. With 9 kids we cannot do expensive projects, but then on the other had the kids learned real life ways to make money to do what they want. Now, the kids that are adults have found work doing what they loved as kids.

Kika said...

My middle child is super creative and crafty - very project oriented. This has the potential to be draining for me and expensive. When she comes up with an IDEA - as she often does - we discuss it; she creates a bit of a plan for supplies, etc., and we see if we can work towards it. Not everything can be done immediately just because she gets the idea. On the other hand, we allocate regular money in our budget towards supplies for baking, sewing, gardening, painting and so forth so that our kids have lots of supplies to work with at their fingertips. I really think that helping our kids know we are real people - as in not robots that can go on endlessly without breaks or time to think! - is healthy and profitable. We're a team, really, in this learning journey. All of our needs are important. If I am totally drained then I cannot be the mom I aspire to be. Our children do understand this little by little and respect it too.

Weiyun said...

Hi Jena,

Thanks for this post. May I clarify - is it ALWAYS interest-led for the child? Let me quote an example:

My 5 yo boy plays most of the time. I've recently introduced him to reading very gently. When the mood strikes, he can "read" for 5 minutes or so. Other times, he wouldn't want to do it and I don't push. After a few days, when I find that the time is right, I will gently encourage some reading again. I don't know if this qualifies as interest - led or child-led.

I don't see anything wrong with gentle encouragement as long as it doesn't become too harsh or stringent.

Another example is my 8 yo, where I introduced her to doodling comics. I had to initiate but she took over quickly and now is very into it. Again, is this considered child-led? If me as the parent do not initiate or encourage along the way, how will they be exposed to it in th first place? Furthermore, sometimes along the way, they just need a little gentle nudge or some different ideas or approach, and they will be on their way again.

Appreciate your thoughts pls. Thanks :)

Jena said...


Great question. Interest-led learning and child-centered learning are pretty much the same thing. And a parent does have to expose the child to various things in order to find out what he's interested in, so you are doing a great job! The child needs adults to give him opportunities and when something really interests him, he will run with it.

And I always had a to-do list for each child to provide some structure to the day. It was small, but it was the stuff they wouldn't choose to do on their own like make your bed, do a page of math, etc. If they ever complained, I'd remind them (with a smile) that my list was very small and most kids their age had to sit through school all day long. :)

Weiyun said...

Wow, you had a to-do list? Somehow I am always under the impression that the child kind of dictates the activities or the rhythms of the day! At least I know of some unschooling families who do that and call themselves unschoolers. (which is what is getting me a little worried there, haha!).

They don't ever do any teaching whatsoever. Skills like reading are picked up organically. Math is learnt through baking, measuring, weighing, etc, which is fine by me, but if the child is interested to pursue further, is it alright to point him in the direction or teach or provide resources that way? But after a while, it can come across as too parent- led........ ?

I'm just thinking out loud here..... :)

Jena said...

I think it's best to let the child direct his own learning as much as possible, but there has to be some teaching which can be direct instruction, modeling, or sneaking teaching, as I like to call it, when you are teaching them something but they don't realize it. :) I used to get library books on topics I wanted the kids to study and just leave them around the house, like bait, really, to see if they'd bite. :)

And I think a to-do list is a gentle way to help them build discipline in their lives for now and for the future. There are always things we don't want to do but just have to be done. And I think that instead of explaining things as "because I said so", we can talk about why it's a good idea to keep your room clean, do the dishes everyday, and do a page of math once in awhile.

Weiyun said...

Thanks Jena, you've just given me another perspective to my understanding of unschooling :). It's priceless, thank you! :).

My children are age 8,5,2 yo. This is our second year of homeschooling and we are from Malaysia. I'm an avid follower of your blog :). Pls share more of your homeschooling journey.

Jena said...

Thanks Weiyun! I appreciate the encouragement. I always enjoy writing about our journey. :) I think I need to write a cohesive explanation of interest-led learning as we did it. Maybe an ebook is coming soon. Thanks for connecting with me from Malaysia!

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