Infusing child-led opportunities into a traditional approach

Infusing Child-Led Opportunities into a Traditional Approach

The following is a post by contributor Angie Kauffman of Real Life at Home.

While I have always been extremely interested in child-led learning, it’s been one of those things that just doesn’t seem to flow in our home. Despite my desires for it to be otherwise, it seems that a primarily child-led approach just isn’t going to happen.

I finally had to evaluate why it doesn’t work for us, and if there was anything I could do about it.

I have found two reasons that it doesn’t work out well in my house.

The first is that I like to plan our studies. In this way, I have often wondered if my two education degrees have been more of a hindrance than a help to our home education.

The second, and more important issue, is that my kids and I have something in common: they also like it when I come up with a plan of study for them.

If you’ve found yourself in the same situation, don’t give up on a child-led style of learning quite yet. These options might not look like what you had originally envisioned, but they just might be the perfect fit for your family.

Take a hybrid approach to child-led learning

Child-led learning doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you’re naturally bent to want to come up with more formal lesson plans that you’ve initiated, you could hand over the reins to your children for just a portion of the subjects that you normally study in your home.

This could mean implementing a plan where studies are half parent-led/half child-led.  It could also just be where your child takes more of a child-led, or even unschooling, approach in only their favorite subject(s).

Ask for your child’s suggestions and feedback

In order to help give my kids an ownership of their education, I have always asked for their suggestions prior to planning each school year.

I ask them about subjects they would like to learn more about, projects they would like to complete, and places they would like to go.

I never promise to do all of those things, but I do try to make as many things happen as possible.

At times, they don’t seem to have any suggestions, and just offer up an “it all seems good to me, Mom.” To help them at those times, I give them options such as, “Would you prefer if we did X or Y?” That usually causes a lightbulb moment for them, and sometimes even makes them say, “Wait. Can we do Z instead?” They just needed a little guidance, and that’s okay.

In addition to asking for suggestions before a new school year, I have also always asked the kids what they think has worked well and what hasn’t worked well as we finish up each school year. Having gone to public school before we began homeschooling, they were very surprised the first time I posed this question to them at the end of a school year.

Even though they were young at that time, they looked so grown-up as they shared what they had enjoyed and what hadn’t worked so well for them. That grown-up look, I realized later, was the look of pride in having some ownership of their education.

child-led learning opportunities
Photo by PublicDomainPictures

Show your children options for curriculum and resources

As my children have gotten older, I have really enjoyed not being the only one to make curriculum choices.

If you’re like me, you feel a lot of pressure to make all of the “right” choices. Now, however, I can research and find what I think are some of the best choices for our family. Then, I talk to my kids about all of those options to gauge which sounds the best to them.

In this way, they are leading the direction we take throughout the year, even if I’m the one writing out the daily plans.

For the coming school year, for example, my middle child had already expressed his displeasure at our history resource that we had been using. He studies history with his older brother, since they are just one grade apart. My older son was happy with what we were using, but was also very open to switching it up.

I narrowed down what I felt were our best options from a variety of approaches including resources for unit studies, a literature-based curriculum, a classical/cyclical approach and two textbook options.

After a lot of discussion with me and with each other, I was surprised when they were both excited about one of the textbook options. Without their feedback, I might have chosen another option. In this way, however, I gave them that chance to lead the direction of our history studies for next school year.

If you are not currently using a child-led approach in your home education, what are some things (little or big) that you are doing to encourage your children to have more ownership over the education?

About Angie Kauffman

Angie, a domestically challenged nerd, writer, and mom of three very fun kids, is the founder of Real Life at Home, as well as the Real Life at Home Podcast. She loves music, lives on caffeine, and is married to her best friend. Angie can also be found on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+.


  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Every year I feel the pull toward child-led learning, and every year it is not the right fit for our family (and I’m talking over a decade here!). I do work hard to give the kids choices, to help them figure out ways to take charge of at least a portion of their own educations, but they LIKE it when I’m in charge, and our home runs far more smoothly for us all. I’ve spent this summer right back in the thick of my annual dilemma of how much control to keep and how much to urge them to take on, and here you are offering the very perspective that I’ve secretly thought might be key, but none of the “experts” offer–that a balance might be just right. For years I’ve been doing just what you’ve described in your post, and I feel happier than I’ve felt in a month knowing that I’m not alone. I was doing it because it worked–regardless of what anyone else said–but it’s nice to have some company.
    Anne’s latest post: To Everything There is a Season

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Anne. It makes me feel better to hear that I’m not the only one having those same struggles too. I think it’s especially difficult sometimes online when we see all of the amazing hands on activities or child led projects. It’s easy to feel like there is something wrong with our homeschooling. There is such comfort in knowing we’re not alone, huh? Thanks!
      Angie Kauffman’s latest post: Preschool Learning Games

  2. This was such a helpful post. Sometimes child-led feels ‘all or nothing’ and requirements in our state make that hard (though it LOOKS so great!), and my personality just needs a bit more structure. I feel this post was so helpful in the fact of making one or two subjects child-led. I feel like that’s totally do-able, and I love the questions you asked your kids. I recently asked a few similar questions (based on Jamie M’s recent post about the compass) but they were also a little bit “yeah, whatever you plan sounds good, mom”, though I think if I presented it the way you did I might get a more honest answer! I’m going to go back and do that. Thanks for the encouragement, this was great.
    Sarah M
    Sarah M’s latest post: June Book Titles

    • I hope that your new line of questioning works out better for you and your kids. It’s so helpful to me when I can get that feedback from them. Of course, most of the time, it’s still, “It’s all still good, Mom. Thanks for asking.” Sometimes it even includes that cool guy head nod kind of thing because those boys of mine are getting old.
      Angie Kauffman’s latest post: Preschool Learning Games

  3. YES! This is a constant struggle for me, and we haven’t even “officially” started homeschooling yet.

    As a former teacher, I find child-led, project-based learning very appealing. My son (who is only 5), much to my dismay, seems to have other ideas! His vision of “school” and learning has been influenced in large part from hearing about his older siblings’ school days, books, and my own stories of the classroom.

    Recently I’ve implemented two ideas that seem to be making a difference. I sat down and made a schedule which seems to be crucial to his idea of “school”–we’ve always had one, it just wasn’t written down; he likes the visual reminder of where we are in our day. Rather than have set times for each activity, though, I follow Lori Pickert’s advice of saying “this comes after this”. We do have times written down for meals (because THAT is important information!).

    Secondly, since one of my son’s other ideas about “school” is working in workbooks, I bought him one of those giant monstrosities at Costco–he works on pages that interest him during “school time”, and that seems to meet his need for structured learning at this point.

    As this post points out, just asking our children for their ideas and opinions can make things so much easier! I love the idea of giving them more freedom to choose with their favorite subjects. And, I guess the thing about child-led learning is that we have to be prepared to set aside our own ideas even when our kids head in an entirely unexpected direction!

    Thanks for these great ideas!
    Wendy’s latest post: experiment kit #2 (x 2)

    • I love this reply, Wendy. Child-led learning can look like what typical school might look-workbooks and all! If that’s how your kids want to learn, then why not? My kids love the workbooks from Costco, too 🙂 I was hesitant about unschooling at first, fearing it was way too radical and unstructured, but it doesn’t have to be. Helping my kids structure their own days is as good a lesson as any, in my opinion.
      Amy’s latest post: Poolside Science

    • Part of this made me laugh, because I could just imagine your hesitance at buying the big workbook from Costco. LOL Isn’t it funny what we sometimes have to do to give our kids the education they want versus what we think it should look like?
      Angie Kauffman’s latest post: Preschool Learning Games

  4. I like this melding of methods in order to make a method that works for your family. I have preschoolers. Although we don’t currently use anything formal, I have a loose idea of things to explore but I take cues from the kids with regards to current interests and curiosity.
    Mel’s latest post: introducing: the inspiration now app

  5. Samantha says:

    This was exactly what I needed to read right now. As a former school teacher now home preschooling, I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll be able to let go a little bit and follow their interests- one of my main reasons for wanting to homeschool to begin with! Thanks for providing a win-win solution!

    • I think it’s probably especially difficult for former school teachers. I figure that not only did I spend kindergarten through 12th grade in public school, but then an additional seven year in college for two teaching degrees – I just have a certain idea in my head of what education looks like, and it’s really hard to shake.
      Angie Kauffman’s latest post: Preschool Learning Games

  6. Ross Andrews says:

    Great post! 15+ years of homeschooling experience here – Try having your kids immerse themselves in something like the Little House on the Prairie series and then do activities based on the book (like cooking or crafting from the books). Sometimes you just need to get them using their imagination in order to get them to drive the bus. Once they catch on that you are there to resource them rather than lead them, the magic happens pretty effortlessly.

  7. Thank you for this post, Angie! I am blessed by your encouragement! If I may ask, have you ever used a more “textbook” approach and then added child-led learning throughout the year (ie: AOP LifePacs, etc…)? I feel disjointed having too much on our plate with many of the literature-based History curricula, yet do not want to leave it completely. I hope that makes sense!
    Jackie B.’s latest post: Businesses I Would Highly Recommend…

    • We get overwhelmed with a lot of literature-based curricula too. While we do a lot of reading, when I showed my kids a literature-based curriculum as a choice, they pretty much immediately said no. They prefer adding in literature with a textbook approach. But, that’s just us. When I feel like too much is going on, I kind of shut down. I am always looking for hands-on opportunities or ways for the kids to take the lead with their areas of interest. We try to keep things pretty fluid when we can.
      Angie Kauffman’s latest post: Preschool Learning Games

  8. I’m so very thankful for you right now. I get this line all the time, “Well, at least you’re equipped to homeschool since you have a teaching degree.” And then I read your words about wondering if those degrees are more of a hindrance than help. Exactly! Some days – no, MANY days – I want to be a momma teacher instead of a teacher momma. I’m working on it. It’s my own reform school 🙂 I know I can’t be anyone else but me, but it’s nice to know there’s someone LIKE me! It gives me a little more confidence as we blending our way into the future as my daughter’s unschooling style of learning and my “formal” style try to compromise instead of clash.

  9. Heather S. says:

    I have read countless hours of blogs & websites and books, but nothing has been able to sum up my perspective on the healthiest way to homeschool before your article: Thank you so very much! The idea of including and balancing child-led, with, parent-led learning is brilliant! I have renewed hope that I may be able to break away from our current on-line public school program to allow my children a choice in their education i/o just having it dictated to them. Thank you from the bottom of my worried little soul!

  10. Thank you for this post. I struggle with the desire to have a child led homeschool but I have a daughter who is just fine with mom telling her what to learn. I am hoping to take a couple of your ideas and try to incorporate them in our homeschool and encourage my daughter to be incilved a little more. Maybe changing the way I ask will get me more than I dont know and I dont care.

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