Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Child led learning or how it feels to not be in charge

Giving control over content and intent of play and learning to children

Child-led learning sounds like it should be easy, just see what the children are interested in and excited by and then follow it. Actually, when you put it like that it is easy and in the context of outdoor learning  allowing the children to lead can be wonderfully simple to implement. There is so much to discover and interact with. It is hard NOT to be learning.  Where child led learning becomes more challenging is in the personal internal battles you face as a practitioner.

I am thinking for example about a time when a group of children decided they would have a ‘bug market’ where they could trade things with each other. They decided they could bring things from home, or trade conkers, interesting leaves and other found natural things.  They asked us to provide materials for signs, sheets to set things out on and they left the session really excited about the upcoming Bug Market.

It was only after they left that we started to realise the gaps we had left open, what sort of things would they bring from home? What were the ethics of trading live insects? Who would decide what trade was fair? How would we agree the rules?
One of the key lessons I have learnt over the years is to never imagine that I am in charge. It can be a real challenge to master my ego, not listen to the voice that says “Well, I know best because I am an adult.”  Or allow the part of me that already sees how this could go horribly wrong to be too dominant. 

When the children arrived for the Bug Market it seemed that the children had all understood what the rules were to be without me having to get them into a discussion. No-one brought their favourite toys to swap, you don’t have insects in a bug market, (and apparently I should have know this!) and the adult role seemed to be to keep currency moving around as more people wanted to be stall holders than to barter. 

But child led learning doesn't start the moment you decide to step back. When I walked into a woodland with a group of nursery children, most of whom had never been in a woodland before, it’s almost like they couldn't see the potential, and didn't know yet how to interact with it. It took a few sessions of going back to those same woods, with practitioners and staff providing encouragement and permission to the children to collect things they saw, asking them to describe their finds and to interact with them, to follow trails of feathers and touch mossy stumps and smooth leaves. Then the children started to notice and to lead. A long worm stopped us in our tracks as we walked up the path. The children are acutely observant, “it is coming towards me,” “now it is going to you,” “it is a letter C for Callum” “it feels sticky, like a fish” They put things in its path to see if that changes the direction it goes in.

When, during the following session we brought magnifying glasses and pictures of the minibeasts they could find they responded really positively and were quickly immersed and interested. Child-led learning can take time to emerge, as group dynamics settle and the children gain the confidence to lead and to believe their ideas will be listened to.  This is one of the reasons why effective outdoor learning takes place over time.

They start to see your role as a provider of resources, ideas, ways and means rather than the instructor, which can often run counter to the normal relationships they have with teachers and other adults.
The natural environment is an unpredictable place, you never know what you will find. You can plan and prepare for certain learning experiences to take place, and they may happen, but what you cannot plan for and only be receptive to, is the unexpected.

"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
–General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sometimes like with the Bug Market, the children are explicit about the direction they want to take, sometimes child-led learning comes about by following a particular line of questioning and sometimes an observation is the key. In the first week in the woods with another group, William picks up a sharp stone and uses it like a tool; another child watches him and copies, using a stick with the same motion. It occurs to me they are whittling. Even though I don’t usually bring tools in this soon, their behaviour intrigues me and I bring potato peelers for them to whittle with for the next session. 

Outdoor play and outdoor learning provide enough scope for each child to be following his or her own line of enquiry and for them to collaborate with other children and adults. But those internal battles I mentioned... how do you feel about how you are perceived in your role? Not by the children, but by other practitioners, visitors, parents and parent helpers, a passing head teacher or an Ofsted inspector. What happens when the lines of enquiry that the children choose to follow includes squishing living things, making weapons, having battles....? 

*This post, written by Lily, was originally published on forestschools.com in Oct 2010 and is republished here with their kind permission. 


  1. I love this post. It is so true to my experience. I have noticed, however, that children who have always been in control of their own learning do not hesitate to explore a new environment, not requiring prompt or direction. The hesitation you describe is a process of 'healing' from the 'shoulds' that children have learned in controlled situations and institutional settings. Otherwise, they explore naturally, in a process that began and extended from discovering a fist with their mouths, observing facial expressions or discovering by accident that they could move a limb of volition. Of course this is how it is. We are naturally primed to do this. :-) The impact of our training of children can be incredibly stifling. (How many times did I have to experiment just now to get the correct spelling of stifling?????) lol.
    Indeed, 13 years into unschooling 3 of my 4 daughters and I have come to see any attempts I may make to structure or influence their learning as tantamount to something like giving formula milk over breast milk! I have so often found that it has been serendipitous that I didn't manage to divert them from what they would otherwise be doing, with my ideas of what they might otherwise do ... because in retrospect the thing I was going to suggest really did not answer, organically, and naturally ... and at the right moment, any question or need they had in the moment. What they devised and carried out was so much richer that to have missed it would have been a travesty. :-) lol.
    That is not to say that they don't end up doing things that I'm doing. Indeed, part of being in this kind of relationship involves doing, with integrity, something which truly interests me for my own sake and own reasons ... and maybe comes to interest my children by osmosis. I really do believe that if we live a rich and authentic life, which satisfies our individual interests and needs ... whilst being willing for others (our children) to join us if they feel like it, but otherwise letting them live their rich and authentic, parallel life, undisturbed and undiverted .... interacting with them without an agenda, but just because it takes our fancy ... that we cannot but be allowing them to 'breastfeed' an 'education' far superior to anything we could bring about by formula feeding (including the concept of 'strewing').
    You speak of the difficulty arising in personal, internal battles! That is so true. My personal, internal battle with what I'm describing has been truly difficult ... but I find it impossible to deny that any contrived interference ... be it ever so subtle (even to the point that I wasn't really conscious it was contrived) ... is very quickly picked up and rejected by my children, who instinctively feel that it is both inauthentic and disruptive and they seem to instinctively protect their 'education' with a force field. lol
    However, they respond so well to my personal, authentic fascination with things (including their things) ... being happy to listen to me rattling on for quite some time. :-)

  2. Really good article Lily..There is a need to get past your own ego and take a step back

  3. Sally, Thanks so much for sharing your experience and thoughts. That concept of 'strewing is one that fascinates me. That opportunity to leave something in someone's way that they may find useful.. and thanks Shaun! I always enjoy getting feedback.


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