Encouraging Self-Directed Learning in Kids

by Amanda Boldenow, TLC Development Manager & Parent

Cultivating curiosity and independence in children are the first steps to helping children become self-directed learners. Self-directed learners know how to use resources to find answers to questions or to learn skills to solve problems. Self-directed learners do not need micro-managing from an adult to help them complete tasks or projects, (but it's important to recognize the difference between asking for assistance from an adult to complete a task and relying on an adult  to make sure the task is completed).

Self-directed learning is not a trait that some children are born with and others aren't; it is a skill that can be taught and nurtured in all children from a young age. So how can you help a child become a self-directed learner? Below are a few steps you can take to help a child gain independence and drive: 

Have Patience and Remember Kids are Capable

When a child is struggling to complete a task, whether the task is tying their shoes or a math problem, it can be tempting to step in and complete it for them, thinking we are "helping" by showing them how the task is done properly. To help kids discover their own capabilities, have patience as they struggle through something new and difficult. Let them make a wrong turn in pursuit of figuring out a problem, and be there to encourage and advise as they wrestle with the difficulty. Ask questions, such as: "What do you think would happen if we tried it another way?" "Where could you look to find help figuring this out?" "Where could you go to learn more about that?"

Encourage Effort Over Success

Studies have shown that children who are praised for their effort at completing a task, rather than completing the task itself, are more likely to put effort into future difficult situations. Praising success in children can teach children that success, rather than the process of learning something new, is what is valued, and thereby make them afraid of failing at future endeavors. Children who are afraid of failing are less likely to try something new, whereas children who are praised for effort are encouraged to continue putting forth effort into new and increasingly difficult challenges.

Connect Play Time to Learning Experiences

Nurture a child's interest by connecting what they enjoy to the wider world. If a child likes building, help them expand on their interest by introducing engineering and architectural concepts. If a child likes sculpting with clay, help them explore structures that animals sculpt in nature, like swallow's nests or bee hives. 

Allow for Free Play

It's also important to remember that children inherently learn while playing, so allow time for uninterrupted, unstructured play, where children can fully use and explore their imaginations and creativity.

Create Opportunities for Exploration

Creating opportunities for children to learn can be as easy as leaving paper and colored pencils in easy reach for children to use when inspiration strikes. It can entail making sure that utensils for making a bowl of cereal are in easy reach so children can learn to take care of themselves, and take pride in their independent skill. 

Nurturing self-directed learning is a combination of allowing for free and loosely-guided play and activities. Children thrive in routines, but making sure that their routines include open-ended exploration fueled by their own curiosity can help lead to independent kids with a life-long love of learning.