Learn how to tap into your kids’ natural curiosity with interest-led learning and give your homeschool renewed energy and momentum.
After homeschooling for more than 20 years, I can safely say that I’ve tried just about every homeschool method out there. If I haven’t tried it, I’ve read a book on it.
It’s just who I am. I love to learn about learning, which is a good thing since only one of my 8 kids learns even remotely like me and the rest are all very different from one another. We’re like an unofficial clinical trial over here! I’m constantly testing out new ideas on my kids to see what helps them learn and, dare I say it, enjoy learning.
Enter Interest-Led Learning
Speaking of enjoying learning, if you aren’t seeing enough of this in your home or homeschool, this post is for you. Traditional learning, things like listening to the teacher, reading, writing, following directions, or following the group don’t always come easy for our naturally curious, outside the box learners. They are often happiest when they’re playing, creating, exploring, or pursuing other interest-led activities. In fact, most kids probably are.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if our kids could learn by simply following their interests? Well actually, they can.
What Interest-Led Learning Looks Like in Our Homeschool
We noticed our daughter’s interest in animals from an early age and like most parents would do, began looking for opportunities to see, touch, or learn about animals in our daily lives. We took frequent trips to local farms, animal rescue stations, zoos, beaches, and parks, etc.
We began to gather resources such as field guides, binoculars, and library books on the animals that she was learning about. She started to keep a nature journal, drawing and labeling the animals that she had seen.
After reading some fictional books about the lives of animals, our daughter, who was dyslexic and as yet unable to write well, dictated animal stories to us that included characteristics of animals that she knew about.
We watched documentaries and read library books about various animals, learning about mating and other habits as well as the habitats that the animals needed to thrive.
We began to notice the role of animals in history, such as the fascinating ideas held by ancient Egyptians about animals and their supernatural powers.
Eventually, our daughter bought her first rabbit and learned how to care for it. She joined 4-H and began to learn more about rabbits, eventually buying a trio of rabbits to breed. She then studied breeding schedules and prepared for her rabbits to give birth.
She learned to document the rabbits’ pedigrees and sold rabbits at rabbit shows.
This eventually branched out into owning other animals, showing them at the local county fair and earning money by selling prize-winners.
She saved money so that at 15 years old she could afford to buy her own horse.
Over time, our daughter’s interest in animals waned and was replaced by other interests but she learned so much from this experience.
Interest-Led Learning and Academics
That’s cool, but is it school? Let’s step back and look at how pursuing these rabbit trails of learning (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) included traditional school subjects.
Handwriting. Keeping track of the animals she saw through a nature journal was a natural need for using good handwriting.
Art. Practicing sketching the animals that she saw using various forms of media.
Composition. Writing, or in our case – narrating, stories inspired by the information she was learning and the characteristics of each animal.
Observation. Sketching and photographing animals and trying to match them to our field guides helped our daughter hone her powers of observation, making note of tiny variations in species, etc.
Research. Using field guides to determine an animal’s species is a basic research skill.
Library Skills. Over time our daughter was able to find the animal sections in both the adult and juvenile sections of the library and eventually, she learned how to use the online catalog as well.
Reading. A struggling reader, she pushed herself to read the stacks and stacks of library books she brought home each week. She eventually cracked the code of reading and began reading independently while reading these books!
Biology. Applying her knowledge, she began breeding and raising young rabbits. This taught our daughter about the miracle and delicate nature of life.
Business. Unable to keep all of the rabbits she was raising, she learned the value of the animals and found a market for selling her specific, pedigreed breed.
Wow, that’s a lot of learning!
Hopefully, you can see now that interest-led learning not only covers many areas of study but does that in a more connected way which makes learning more personalized and meaningful.
Benefits of Letting Kids Pursue Their Interests
It’s how adults naturally learn. If learning about pregnancy and childbirth were required courses in high school, you would study your class notes, read the textbook, take the test, and move on to the next chapter – probably forgetting most of what you had learned.
How about the day you learned you were expecting your first child? You read every book and web site on pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting you could find. You probably spoke with others who had been through it. This is how people naturally learn. We pursue learning naturally because it is important to us.
It makes learning more enjoyable for everyone. When kids are following an interest, they are more internally motivated to learn which means external motivations (ie nagging) are minimized. This makes learning fun for kids and for parents!
It’s super flexible. Helping kids explore their interests is not only fun, but it is also super flexible. There are tons of ways to add to kids’ learning. You could plan an entire day out to visit a museum or historical site or if it’s ‘one of those days’ pop on an educational show for the kids.
How to Start Interest-Led Learning
For younger kids, this looks a lot like playing. Since you can’t possibly explore all of their interests at once, they will likely pursue learning on their own for many of their interests. However, you can maximize interest-led learning by being just a bit more intentional.
Choose one of your child’s interests.
This could be anything, yes, even video games. It doesn’t have to be their calling in life. Kids have lots of interests and they are constantly changing. If you have more than one child, choose something that is interesting to as many of them as possible or see my notes below on managing multiple kids’ interests.
Show an interest in it.
Participate in what they are doing. Ask questions. Ask them to show you their video game. What aspects of the game do they like? Ask them to tell you about dinosaurs, or Legos, or chickens, or how to make lemon curd. Resist the urge to categorize these interests as academic or non-academic.
Dive deeper into that interest.
Without destroying their interest in it! Some ways to do this are:
Going to the library or research online. Gather a variety of books and show interest in them, read them out loud, and encourage your kids to do the same if they are able. For some subjects, it may be more relevant to look up more information online. It’s important to do this step together so you can observe and talk about what is being learned.
Pay attention to your kids. What questions are they asking? What thoughts do they share? Which photos or illustrations catch their eyes? This will help you choose more topics of interest or to hone in on other facets of this current interest.
Add hands-on, or experiential learning. Look for experiments, crafts, field trips, mentors, anything you can think of to expand on these interests in a hands-on or experiential way.
Make connections between interests and academics.
How could this topic also relate to reading, writing, math, science, art, music, etc? Look for ways to connect your child’s interests in any of these ways. You may not need to do this because if the interest really takes off, they will cover a lot of these things. Don’t force this. This should flow naturally from the interest.
Document your learning.
Make a list of the different areas of study: reading, writing, math, history, science, art, music, etc. Make a note of which subjects are being touched on. Planning too much ahead of time can take the fun out of this, so it is often better to ‘reverse plan’ and add in what you did after the fact.
Interest-Led Learning FAQs
If you’re like me, you’re somewhat skeptical that this kind of learning can be done and done well. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions I hear about interest-led learning.
What if my child doesn’t have any interests? For the very wary child, shut-down learner, one who is burnt out on school – try strewing (scattering around the house) books, DVDs, games, etc. See what they gravitate towards. Show interest, ask questions, listen, and follow their interests.
Help! My kids are resisting my involvement. Go easy there! If you haven’t been connecting to their interests and suddenly are in their face about them, you can freak out your kids!
How do I do this with a houseful of kids? My kids have tons of different interests. This can make moms feel like a ping pong ball being swatted back and forth between kids and their unique interests.
If that describes your house, try one of these:
- Schedule time for each kid. Find a natural rhythm to your day that allows you to focus on each child at least for some 1-on-1 time.
- Have the older kids work with the younger kids. This can look like an older child helping a younger child with their own interest-led learning or the older child teaching the younger child something about their own pursuits.
- Use these times for a lesson in patience. Remember, character training is a subject. Stopping ‘learning’ to help kids learn about social skills, and character (ie the Golden Rule) is not just a distraction – it is the lesson!
- Take turns. Take turns focusing on what is interesting to some kids and then choose the interest of others. You can find things surrounding that topic to do that are of interest to the other kids.
I’m afraid we’re not doing enough of one academic area – Here are some ways to intentionally add more academic type learning to interest-led learning.
- Math: Include games, STEM challenges, budgeting, manipulatives, puzzles, woodworking, garden planning, sewing, math books, documentaries, cooking from recipes, and menu planning.
- Reading/Writing/Language Arts: Read or listen to books about your child’s interests, watch documentaries and films, then journal about the subject. Let your kids perform their own skit or write their own play! There is also copywork and dictation that you can take from the books of interest. Try learning a foreign language or playing language games!
- Art: Incorporate art into your studies by listening to relevant music, creating artwork (the I Drew It Then I Knew It series from ChalkPastel.com is an amazing resource), or reading books about art and artists.
- Nature: Watch documentaries, take nature walks, visit zoos and farms, raise a pet, hang out bird feeders, look at field guides and other books.
- History: Visit museums or cultural sites. Watch documentaries, play games, and read books – especially historical fiction.
- Science: Join 4-H or a robotics club, participate in science fairs, play games, do experiments, rais tadpoles or butterflies, watching science documentaries.
What about grammar and math and history and science? If it makes you more comfortable, stick with a minimum viable day type of homeschool day (math, language arts). Approach these subjects with a do what’s next attitude. If you take a break from formal math or language arts for a time, just pick up where you left off when you get back to it. Try not to be ruled by finishing a curriculum in Sept-June.
We were zooming along following an interest, and suddenly, they aren’t interested anymore! Move on. This is the natural course of learning. Don’t be afraid to take off on any tangent of interest and let that explode into a new learning path.
Relax and enjoy learning
Research shows that when people work with their interests, other areas of weakness increase. People learn a lot more by going deep into a particular subject. Learning isn’t neatly packaged like id a curriculum but it is natural and organic and tends to stick more than other approaches.
I think we like the idea of more curriculum-based learning because we can PLAN out each topic and skill and SCHEDULE them. This helps US feel like we are getting it ALL done – which of course is a myth.
I encourage you to take some time this week to try some of these strategies to focus more on interests and see how much fun you all have!