What is interest-led learning, and how can it fit into your homeschooling?
Interest-led learning is just what it sounds like — letting a child’s interests lead the learning process.
This means parents take note of what a child is curious about, enjoys doing, and is naturally drawn to. Then parents help a child learn about that interest. Since this may involve field trips, library books, research, projects, and more, there are many academic skills which are practiced, and a lot of content knowledge is learned — just by helping a child pursue specific interests.
You’ll also hear it called delight-directed learning, passion-oriented learning, and even rabbit trailing — meaning we homeschoolers follow the rabbit trails of our interests as one thing leads to another.
Use Interests and Traditional Academics
Some families use interest-led learning alongside traditional academics. They work through a curriculum or use their chosen eclectic resources for learning, allowing children generous time and opportunity to pursue interests as diverse as baking, art, sports, music, animals, black holes, chess, Minecraft, money, or Medieval times.
Interests will vary from child to child and family to family. Parents may look for ways the interests can lead to more academic practice or knowledge, such as incorporating reading about that interest, going on an appropriate field trip, or amping up certain parts of the curriculum. For example, a parent could add more astronomical studies for a child who is fascinated by black holes, or a parent could add in field trips to battlefields and museums for a child who becomes interested in The Civil War in the U.S. For a child interested in soccer, a parent could help him or her learn geography by plotting team locations together on a world map.
Use Interests When the Timing’s Right for You
Some families pursue interest-led learning for part of an academic year. I have one friend whose son always did curriculum work (which was also selected and shaped partly based on his interests) through March of the year, and then did all interest-led learning for April, May, and June, followed by a traditional summer break.
Some families simply weave interest-led learning into their regular days and weeks of homeschooling. Other families come up with other rhythms for incorporating interests. For example, Melissa Wiley describes her family’s ebb and flow of interest-led and more parent-led homeschooling as Tidal Homeschooling.
And some families, like unschoolers, are “all interests, all the time.”
Use Interests in Unit Studies
Some families use interest-led learning as part of a unit studies homeschooling approach. A mom or dad observes a child’s interest in dogs and cats, for example, and creates or finds a unit study that will cover many things that can be learned or practiced through studying pets. There are resources for designing your own unit studies, and there are many pre-packaged unit studies available free or for purchase, covering a huge range of interests. Unit study parents may choose some unit studies they believe their children should cover to learn specific content, mixing those in over time with unit studies chosen to match kids’ interests.
Use Interests in Project-based Homeschooling
Homeschoolers who are using project-based homeschooling frequently help their kids do projects involving their interests. A child with an interest in baking might do an entrepreneurial project selling homemade cookies at the Farmers market. A child with an interest in building might receive help in designing and constructing a doghouse, tree house, or work bench. A child who is interested in nature might be encouraged to do a project in cleaning up a nearby stream or testing and recording water quality.
Projects use organizational skills and research skills that can have a child writing lists, making budgets, sketching plans, reading how-to books, talking with mentors, and watching online tutorials. Those are all fantastic academic activities, and the motivation of the project can keep a child moving forward.
Use Interests for All Learning
Families who use an unschooling approach to homeschooling are pretty much entirely using interest-led learning. They differ from unit study parents because they are not pre-planning “units” about their children’s interests, and they are not mixing them with unit studies that fit adults’ agendas for learning. Unschooling parents are facilitating their children’s interests all the time rather than following any prepackaged curriculum. They observe a child’s interests as they develop and change, finding resources and experiences that children enjoy using to learn more.
Unschoolers “trust the process” of interest-led learning to help a child learn academic skills and content that will help him or her get along in the world and make future choices about what to learn. They don’t worry (or try to learn not to worry) about how those things match up to school expectations or grade levels, since that might interfere with a child’s natural learning. They are also comfortable with children having shorter term interests or changing their interests. Unschooling parents will frequently strew their children’s environment with new resources, ideas, events, and activities, partnering with their children in discovering whether something that is yet untried might become a new interest.
Get Out of the Way
I’m writing another post on interest-led learning which will have specific tips for implementing interest-led learning. However, there is one thing that you need to consider early. There is a line between helping a child with his or her interests and taking over or turning something that is a joy for your child into a way for you to force academics.
Too much schoolifying an interest can cause it to cease to be an interest. Interest-led learning works best when parents capitalize on interests without coercing.
If you can avoid living perpetually in teachable moments while helping children with their interests, you’ll find an effective balance where learning can really take off.