One of the most fruitful practices that we have incorporated into our homeschool is interest led learning. But when I talk about it to other moms, many of them don’t really understand what it means or how to do it. Often times they think that to embrace interest led learning, they have to completely unschool, give up curriculum, or throw out any and all structure or plan. But just like no two homeschools are the same, interest led learning can take on so many forms!
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In the beginning of our homeschooling journey, I leaned heavily on curriculum. Partly because I had been an elementary teacher, and I was familiar with teaching with worksheets and a daily lesson plan.
But over the years, I’ve discovered that the root of it was not really my experience as a teacher. The root of it was the system. The education system (that most of us were part of for our whole childhood) has led us to believe that learning looks like opening up a textbook or a lesson plan, learning exactly what it says, and producing the end result that it tells us to produce. Even if we don’t say this out loud, it shows up in the feelings of guilt that we aren’t “doing enough” or the worry that our kids are “behind” when they aren’t reading at six years old.
This mindset can be hard to unlearn.
Through our 11+ years of homeschooling, I have had to rewire my brain to think about education very differently than I did before. I’ve had to relearn what learning looks like. And once I realized that learning doesn’t have to look anything like timelines, textbooks, lesson plans, and curriculum, it freed us up to learn in the way that fits our family.
As I started this unlearning process, we swung sharply to the other side of the pendulum, using no curriculum at all. We read a lot of books and most of our learning came from questions my kids asked and experiences we had in our everyday life. It wasn’t a free for all – it was still intentional learning, but none of it was guided by a curriculum. This season was good for us – and for me in particular – to unlearn the system mindset.
Eventually we turned to a more balanced interest led learning approach – using curriculum as one of the tools in our toolbox. Not the enemy, but not the only tool either. Our days are filled with learning, regardless of whether or not we are following a curriculum or lesson plan.
What is interest led learning?
Interest led learning is basically what it name says: learning that’s led by your family’s interests! There is no formula for interest led learning – it won’t look the same in every home. Some families might choose for all of their learning to be interest led, while for others, some learning might be more parent-guided.
I personally use the terms “interest led learning” and “natural learning” interchangeably. When kids are following their interests, learning naturally happens, because kids are born curious and filled with wonder! It’s only when we make education look a certain way that we squash that desire to learn.
Interest led learning can guide some of your child’s day or all of your child’s day – you get to decide what’s best for your family. But when we let our kids be in the driver’s seat of their learning, instead of us, they take more ownership and they are more invested. When kids are connected to their learning, they are more likely to remember and get excited about it.
Can we still use a curriculum?
Of course! There is no one right way to do this. Maybe your family will choose to use a math curriculum, but choose to let your interests lead for science and history. Maybe you’ll decide to do projects based on books you read as a family. Maybe you use a curriculum as a guide, but skip the lessons that don’t feel like a good fit. Maybe you purchase or create your own unit studies to guide your family through topics your kids are interested in learning. Maybe you follow curriculum in the mornings, and afternoons are free for pursuing interests. You get to decide what fits your family’s needs and your kids’ development.
Homeschool the Non-School Way will show you how to ditch the system mindset, guide your kids in natural learning, and use curriculum as just ONE tool in your toolbox. It will also teach you how to create your own unit studies, so you can spending so much money on new curriculum!
Is interest led learning the same as unschooling?
No… but also yes. Let me explain. ;)
Interest led learning and unschooling can be the same. But that’s because there really isn’t one definition of unschooling. Some people say that unschooling means you never do any formal learning or use any curriculum, but many unschoolers will use some curriculum or guide their kids in learning about specific topics. The truth is: you get to make your homeschooling fit your family, and labels really aren’t important.
I personally think that most people are opposed to the idea of unschooling because they equate it with kids playing all the video games they want, wandering around aimlessly in the yard, and parents not paying attention to their kids at all. But the truth is that every single unschooling family that I’ve ever met has been very intentional with their learning. They just choose to do it without formal curriculum, and generally they want their child to direct the majority of the learning.
So whether you call yourself an unschooler or not, you can follow your kids’ interests some or all of the time, and give your child amazing opportunities to connect with their learning outside of a curriculum. But you can still guide your kids in learning things that they might not be naturally inclined to learn on their own. Find the balance between child-led and parent-guided that fits your family!
How does interest led learning look practically?
When kids are young, interest led learning looks like learning through play and everyday life skills. It looks like not pushing kids to learn before they are developmentally ready. It looks like letting your child’s development determine the timeline for their learning, not the state standards.
As they get older, it might look more like reading books and finding out information for themselves, asking a question and diving into research, or doing an experiment to see how something works.
Here are just a few practical examples:
- going outside and exploring nature, reading books about the things you find, and drawing about them in nature journals
- learning to read through play, not worksheets
Play Your Way to Reading is a play-based literacy program. Teach your child to read without worksheets or flashcards, but through intentional learning invitations, hands-on fun, and everyday activities!
- using everyday life experiences (baking, building, sewing, etc.) to learn concepts and ideas
- building a library of books that encourage independent learning
- listening to audiobooks and podcasts about topics your child loves
- reading books about electricity and then opening up old appliances to see how they work
- setting aside the curriculum when your child is interested in learning about something that isn’t in the lesson plan
- changing the plan when your child has a different idea of how to learn something
- using hands-on learning materials in place of curriculum or worksheets
- letting your child have a say in what you’re learning about together
- carefully observing all the ways your child is learning throughout the day without any direction from you!
Can you still meet legal homeschool requirements?
Yes! While every state or region has their own legal requirements for homeschooling, there are many ways to incorporate interest led learning in your homeschool and still follow the legal guidelines.
First, become familiar with your local laws. If you are in the United States, head to HSLDA to find your state’s homeschool laws.
Once you know your laws, you can discover ways to fit your interest led learning into those requirements. Does the law say you must use a formal language arts curriculum? Does the law say that you need to do workbooks to learn math? Even states or regions with high regulation have room for natural learning to take the place of curriculum.
Can this possibly work for high school?
Absolutely! In fact, I highly recommend curating your high schooler’s projects, curriculum, and activities around their interests instead of around a “typical” high school curriculum. That’s the advantage of homeschooling high school – we get to let our teen’s future plans help determine how they spend their days.
If their future plans include college, be sure to meet the basic requirements most colleges will ask for – but this can still include following their interests! Homeschool the Non-School Way gives more details on how we are making this work for high school years.