“Mom, I found the tiniest snail ever in the yard!” After a morning of virtual school meetings (and, let’s be honest, needing a break myself!), I sent my children outside with no particular plan. I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to structure this time, especially with in-person school canceled. I had forgotten that boredom and unstructured play are great for children’s creativity, build independence, and offer stress relief.
My son’s eyes shone as he leaned in to examine the teeny little creature. In that moment, I was able to take a breath and recognize the spark of interest that holds great opportunity for children’s authentic and independent learning — especially during the stressful and disrupted times of COVID-19 when school and learning has been a struggle.
Explore “Authentic Learning” Projects
So, what can parents do to support their children’s learning at home? The answer can be found in “authentic learning” projects, a natural way for families to engage children in learning.
Authentic learning projects enable kids to explore concepts through meaningful real-world explorations, choosing the topics for learning based on their own interests. The adult then serves as a support person, helping children gather resources, develop approaches to answer their own questions, and pursue their own projects. (Younger children may need more initial guidance in choosing interests.)
This act of stepping back encourages a child’s ability to work independently, and is great news for burned out parents short on time. But you can still learn together, which can deepen family connections.
So how is it done? Follow these five steps to support authentic learning experiences:
1. Begin with the child’s interests.
Look for moments when your child notices or shows excitement about something. This could be a kindergartener looking at an insect on the sidewalk, a third grader spotting a plane and wondering how it can stay in the air, or a middle schooler’s new-found obsession with Hamilton. No matter the topic, this spark of curiosity becomes the foundation for a child-led exploration.
2. Look for supports and resources.
Help your child think about things you have available in your home or community that could facilitate their exploration. Do you have a relevant book? Can you find one at the library? What websites can you use to learn more? Can you find a related video online? Who else in your family or circle of friends has similar interests?
My son’s excitement about the tiny snail in our yard led him to grab an old book on snails we had found in our Little Free Library. Flipping through it, he began a plan to make a habitat for the snail he had found. He also read about other larger snails that are often kept as pets and got even more excited about the possibilities of a snail pet.
3. Ask questions.
Throughout the project, ask questions rather than issuing directives. For example, ask “What kind of tool might help you solve this problem?” rather than saying, “Here’s a tool that might help.” Ask “What do we already know?” “What else do we need to know?” “I wonder what would happen if…” and “How can you find out?” Questions like these let the child lead, while supporting independent thinking and problem-solving.
Through internet research, my son learned that the largest species of snails are not native to the US. He also learned that snails will reproduce even if alone. If he got one as a pet, what would become of the many invasive babies?
4. Link in learning.
Use every opportunity to bring math, science, literacy learning and creativity into your child’s projects. The links between learning about insects and science are pretty clear. But drawing the insect with labeled parts or sending an email or letter to a local expert can also promote early literacy skills. Pursuing the question of whether there are more insects than people on the planet will prompt thinking about math in a whole new way.
When it came to the snails, my son hoped that it couldn’t be THAT many babies, which prompted some calculations about how quickly the snails would reproduce. Finally, here was math he was excited about! Discovering that we might have as many as 5,400 invasive snails in our yard in five years led him to learn about what native snails could be found. One walk in the Ozark mountains later, and two native snails joined our family.
5. Share and extend.
One project often leads to new related questions and discoveries. A child’s initial quest to learn about the beetle she saw on the sidewalk might lead her to pursue interests in other insects, like creating an ant farm or learning about fireflies. Adults can help by finding ways to share children’s investigation with others. Consider a video chat with a friend or grandparent, emailing last year’s teacher, or sharing with a local organization or neighbor. This builds community connections and gives children opportunities to share their excitement and curiosity with friends, while taking some of the burden of supporting the project off parents.
To share his excitement about snails, my son typed up directions on how to make a snailery and sent them to friends he was missing from school. A snail-focused correspondence with one of his friends began. The snail project was recently extended when he discovered a tiny walking stick that must have hatched from an egg in the leaf litter he had collected for the snail habitat.
In the end, this project linked in science, math, writing, reading, and social studies — with creativity, outdoor exploration, and friendship-building thrown in. For my child, this was home learning at its best.
Additional Project Ideas
Other real-world families at home have shared example projects that they’ve engaged in to help support their children’s interest-based learning:
A 9-year-old and her grandmother learned about history and women in power by watching The Crown and then discussing each episode’s historical events over Zoom.
A 5-year-old who loves cooking has worked on measuring and math skills through baking projects. And she added pretend play: she pretends she’s hosting a cooking show and self-records the “show” to share with others!
Two young siblings haven’t been able to visit their grandparents’ farm this year, so they used math, art, and writing to create their own farm experience.
With a little practice, this approach can help children develop independent learning strategies while easing parental burnout and anxiety. And we could all use that.