Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners

Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners | Happiness is here

Recently someone asked me how and when we first started encouraging our children to be more independent and managing their own time and learning. I wasn’t sure how to answer as there wasn’t really a starting time, it has just been a natural progression since they were born. My older girls at 5 and 3 years old are now pretty independent with things like dressing themselves, making food, getting drinks, cleaning up, and some household jobs. They also mostly decide everything they do in a day, when they play and what they want to learn about. They come up with their own ideas and work out how to go about making it happen and only come to me if they need help, never for ideas on what to do. Thinking about it I actually never hear them say ‘I’m bored’. I remember pestering my Mum a lot with that question when I was little so I’m glad to have escaped it so far. I have been pondering how we got to this point and have finally come up with a list of suggestions and things that have helped us to raise independent kids and self-directed learners…

Don’t entertain them.

That’s right. Kids (and babies!) don’t need you to entertain them. They are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. They have fabulous imaginations. When you get into a situation where your child is always coming to you for ideas or needing you to always be involved in their play and provide entertainment, I honestly think it is less of a need and more about what they have come to expect. It’s just a habit and it can be changed. Playing with your kids is great but they shouldn’t need you to be involved in all of their play. It is important and really good for them to have lots of independent play time, to come up with their own ideas, to be entertained by their own mind. And if they’re bored? Well let them be bored!

‘Kids need time to be bored; that is how creativity is born’

                                                                                 -Melanie Jean Juneau

See them as capable.

Sometimes we jump in and do things for our kids before they’ve even asked for help. Instead, we can wait to see if they can do it themselves, showing them that we believe they are capable. Maybe they are able to make their breakfast themselves now? Maybe they can brush their own teeth and hair, or get themselves dressed? Maybe they can be trusted with little household chores. Kids love to be involved in meaningful work. When they do ask for help, instead of jumping in and doing it for them, show them how to do it themselves.

Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners | Happiness is here

Don’t interrupt.

As much as possible try not to interrupt them when they are playing. It may look like ‘just play’ to you, but play is a child’s work and it is important to them. They are fully absorbed in that moment and that is something you want to encourage, not interrupt. This is how they learn this focus and concentration. Lunch time can wait a bit until you see a break in their play. You want to show them that you value and respect their work. There are times obviously where you have to interrupt, but as often as you can, let them be.

Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners | Happiness is here

Let them ask the questions.

When my children were a bit younger and I first discovered pinterest I looooved looking at it and finding all of these amazing activities for them. There were so many great ideas! I wanted them to do them all. A lot of them they liked, but many of them they weren’t all that interested in. Because it wasn’t meaningful to them. Now I resist the urge to set up random activities and wait and watch to see what they are interested in. What questions are they asking? What do they want to learn more about? How can I support and encourage them to take this interest further?

Provide open-ended explorations.

Provide them with inspiring and beautiful materials and let them explore and create what they like. Set activities that have to be done a certain way leave no room for creativity and allowing them to direct their own play and learning. Get some loose parts and let them go for it! I love this post on The Theory of Loose Parts from An Everyday Story. I frequently see my children representing their learning through open-ended art and loose parts play.

Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners | Happiness is here

Let them answer their own questions.

When a new interest arises and there are questions upon questions, instead of just giving them the answers, try to encourage them to research themselves. I might say:

‘What do you think?’

‘How do you think we could find out?’

‘Where could we look for the answer?’

‘Who could we ask about this?’

‘Where could we go to see this in real life?’

Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners | Happiness is here

Create a learning space that encourages independence.

If you want your children to be independent then you need to make sure your home is set up so they are able to be. Can they reach their own clothes and shoes? Can they reach their cups, bowls, and plates? Are their belongings kept where they can access them without your help? Do they have free access to learning materials and art supplies so they can utilise them whenever inspiration strikes?

Does your attitude reflect that you want your kids to feel free to help themselves and direct their own learning? Or are you frustrated easily by messes and children taking their time? Your attitude can make a big difference and children can sense when they are being a ‘bother’. Sure, it takes a little longer to let them do things themselves, or let them help you with things, but the rewards are worth it! Yes, cleaning up mess is frustrating sometimes, but an artist can’t feel inspired without the freedom to create.

Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners | Happiness is here

Display their work.

Show them that you value their work by displaying it around your home. They will see that not only is it meaningful to them but it is meaningful to you as well, and they will do more of it.

Don’t judge their work.

When they show you what they have done, try to stay away from comments like:

‘What is it?’

‘Good job!’

‘Good girl!’

‘That’s cool/good/fantastic’

Instead, you could just ask them to tell you about what they have done, or comment on what you see. You want them to be intrinsically motivated to create/learn more and feel satisfaction within themselves when they achieve something, rather than getting into the habit of seeking praise from you to feel good about what they have done.

Be available.

Lastly, be available. They are still learning to be independent and they need our guidance and attention. You don’t need to be available all day every day but you could dedicate a stretch of time every day to be fully present and helping them with whatever they are currently working on, or playing. When they have your full attention for some of the time every day, then they are less likely to be demanding attention at times when you are less able to give it.

And that’s pretty much it! My girls spend their days engrossed in imaginary play, learning about things that interest them, being creative, reading and writing, playing inside and outside, and giggling A LOT. We spend a lot of time together, but they never ask me for ideas on what to do. I sometimes set out open-ended explorations for them but that is as far as my direction goes. Their play and learning is initiated by them and they are becoming increasingly independent in the rest of their lives too. It works for us!

84 thoughts on “Raising Independent Kids and Self-Directed Learners

  1. I love this! I try to do most of these things, too, and my three-year-old daughter is pretty independent in a lot of things (getting dressed, using the potty, getting snacks, etc). I’m really inspired by Montessori, and have worked to make a child-friendly environment that encourages independence.The only difficult thing is play, because so far she’s an only child. I don’t think she gets bored so much as lonely. She always wants me involved. It gets tiring.

    I noticed that in almost all of your pictures, your girls are playing/working TOGETHER (or at least, side-by-side). They have each other to keep company. My sister and I had that growing up, too. I covet that so much for my little girl! We do finally have another one on the way, and I hope they can eventually play together like that.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I just came across your blog recently and I LOVE it. I’ll be a regular reader from now on!

  2. This is wonderful! I don’t have any children, but having worked in childcare, I can appreciate all of this. My partner and I often talk about what we want our future children to be like, which is mainly that we want them to be like us: intrinsic learners, who just want to read, make, play music, et cetera. (Realistically we don’t get to choose what our children will be like, but we can foster certain characteristics!)
    Once again, this is marvelous. I’ll have to print out your list and keep it somewhere as a reminder of what I want to achieve.

  3. I love this. I wish I’d had you to guide me when you were a child. I hope you think that I didn’t do too bad…………….. Hang on a minute. Look at what you’re doing with your girls (my beautiful granddaughters) and this blog. Turns out I did great. Well done you (my beautiful daughter) and I (your fantastic Mum) Xx

  4. Well done Sara. I wholeheartedly agree with your post. As a childcare teacher I believe in children creating their own learning. I also can see distinct differences in children that have parents that hover and control, albeit with good intentions and those that allow their children to discover,explore, create, design, re-purpose and make mess.

  5. As a parent from yesteryear I love to hear this advise. This parenting style is the way we and our parents grew up and were parented, we found our own fun and had adventures along the way, mostly outside except for really bad weather. When things went wrong (and things did go wrong but no one died) we learnt how to problem solve. This creates resilience which is the thing that makes capable independent adults. Your post is great advise, the difference in this and helicopter parenting is evidenced in the outcome of the children .. One last point.. Helicopter parenting creates anxious children and anxiety disorders are on the rise amongst the upcoming generation good luck to all young parents of today it is a challenge worthwhile…..

  6. Thank you for this.

    Judging work is still a struggle for me. I want to give my opinion or ask, ‘What is this yellow squiggle’? I find when I make a comment while they are still creating, they lose interest, and I become so sad, so I know it is best to keep quiet while the artist is working!

    Best, John

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I really needed it, because every night I find myself thinking of how I can entertain my baby the next day. So, my child is 18 months. What things you think she can do independently on her own at this age? Also, what materials do you provide for your girls to play with? I saw play dough, painting stuff, blocks. Did you first have to teach them how to clean up their messes, or do other chores? They seem so good at mopping the floors. How did you approach it? I am trying to teach my daughter how to pick up her toys but she doesn’t seem to get it very much. Sorry for the many questions. Thanks again for this post!

    • I guess it depends on the child! I think at 18 months mine would get their own plates and cups, take their plates to the sink after dinner, choose their clothes, etc.

      We try to stick to open ended toys that can be used in lots of different ways. I’ll be posting about our learning spaces in the near future so that might be helpful. They like blocks, play silks, dolls, animal figurines, play kitchen, and art supplies.

      Yes, I taught them how to do things at first, or they learnt just by watching me and then eventually wanted to help. I would just let her join in at her level when she wants to.

      I hope that helps 🙂

  8. The first tip is one I had to learn on my own – I felt I had to entertain my daughter, keep her “learning”. Wish I had figured out sooner that she was better off being a little bored sometimes. But I know it now! Great tips!

  9. I like and agree with everything you’ve said. But I was a parent who entertained my older child when she was a baby. I didn’t so it on purpose, but just felt that I should be with her every second. I did much better with my second, giving her time to play and explore on her own. But now my oldest, who is 7, does expect to be entertained. Do you have any advice on how to help us change this habit? She comes to me looking for a playmate, I offer her a suggestion on what she can do, she goes off by herself or I play with her, then 10 minutes later, she is asking me for some other suggestion or to play with her again. It is an exhausting cycle and I would love to try and change it.

    • Carrie what I would do is just stop giving her suggestions. It’s ok for her to be bored for a while. And then just support her if she’s finding that hard. I would say ‘It’s hard when you can’t think of something to do, I know you’ll come up with something soon’ and just let her sit with that feeling. She’ll learn how to come up with her own ideas 🙂

  10. I’m with Carrie. How do you break the habit once it is already engrained? I feel like I spend at least 90% of my day entertaining my almost 4 year old son. He actually says phrases like “you have to play with me” and “someone has to play with me.” Outside of saying, “no, I really don’t,” what can I do to break this habit? He was the only child for the first 3 years and I also unintentionally made it to where he expects to be entertained all the time. His ten month old sister entertains herself all the time!

    • It’s hard when they say things like that! I would just have a time every day where you do play, and let him know that. i.e. ‘I can play with you for x amount of time now if you like, but then I will have to go and do x. You can come and help me if you like or keep playing on your own’. When he comes to you asking to play remind him that you are doing whatever it is now and that he can help you or play on his own. If he’s upset about it I would just support him saying ‘It’s hard to know what to do sometimes but I know you’ll think of something soon’.

  11. Thank you very much for taking the time to think back on strategies you have used and habits you have gotten into on the path to all this. It is a great list to help us all be more cognizant!

  12. Really enjoyed this post. Only this afternoon I had a conversation with a friend about letting children lead their learning more.
    Just being mindful and remembering not to interrupt, and to allow time for them to do it themselves – such simple strategies, but effective. Thanks for the timely reminder!

  13. This was seriously good advice – much needed for a mom who without realising might not be letting her older daughter guide her own learning.my younger daughter, age 3.5 yrs is more on her own than my older one. I do have one issue though – I find I have to really push them hard to leave home on a set time. They end up seeing an irritated and under-pressure mom and that’s not what I want them to learn to be like.

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  15. Thank you soooo much for this post! It really gives wonderful advice and will be implementing some of this very soon!
    I’ve been reading your posts about the Homeschool Life and all I can say is WOW – I’m inspired!! Thank you!!

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  17. Dear Sara,
    your text is one of those I know will stay with me for long, long past I have read it. Thank you for your words, ideas and suggestions.
    My name is Gabriel and I write a blog on Montessori Education in portuguese, it is a well read blog, for which I thank the Montessori movement in Brazil, and it is focused on helping families to help their kids. Our Montessori Family community has been comenting on your text as well, for some time now, but people are reading it on Google Translate, and they loose so much doing so.
    I come here to ask your permission to translate it into Portuguese and post it on the blog I write (larmontessori.com). I am happy to say we recently translated a text by Donna Goertz, from MariaMontessori.com , and I should inform you the blog is under a Creative Commons License. We never sell information there.
    It would be delightful for me and a great pleasure and benefit for thousands of families in Brazil if you thought it appropriate to let me translate it for us. Of course all kinds of references and credits would be kept and refered to.
    Thank you so much for considering,

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  20. I love this! I’ve read it before (several times probably) and it really speaks to me as such a great reminder. xx I’m just coming out of the ‘baby #3’ fog and really want to get my two big girls (4 and 2) back into their happy little ‘independent play’ 🙂 🙂

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  25. You have a great post. I would add that it works for some kids. My son is an only child. And if I left him alone with art supplies my house would be recreated. Which is not a bad idea but not wanted at this time. Plus you gave 2 kids. They have each other when they want to be with each other. So it is great if you have that option.

  26. Thanks for this great post with really helpful ideas. I totally agree with the value of boredom. I love watching my kids as they push past the boundary of feeling bored which always leads to the most in depth and creative play or making. It always makes me feel glad that I did not intervene.

  27. Great advice. Although I’m wondering how much having two girls (or siblings) affects the effectiveness of this though. With my one child it seems much more difficult for her to work independently as she is very social and loves company. Two children keep each other company, even if they are not playing directly together, plus they give each other ideas on how to play with materials in different ways.

      • I think the same applies! Although yes I would expect there wouldn’t be as much independent play as children love interacting with others. I would still try not to take on the role of ‘entertainer’ though. Just let them be involved with whatever you’re doing. Or sit with them and listen to what they’re doing when you can, etc.

  28. Wow, I just love your writing. I stumbled upon your site after someone posted one of your blog’s on Facebook. I love learning about new people who share simliar viewpoints when it comes to respectfully raising childrren. I’m a RIE® Associate and have been studying Magda Gerber’s Educaring™ Approach for over 15 years. Curious as to whether you’ve studied RIE®, as you seem to share very similar views with a lot of the basic
    principles 🙂

    I will look forward to reading more of your posts, and if it’s okay, would love to share some on my FB page.

  29. What if your child has no siblings. Jakob is almost three,. He is independent, but likes to interact with people, so alot of the time people is me. How best can I help him to be more independent at home when there are no other kids around. (we interact with other families alot, home school families, etc)
    Thank you :o)

  30. My 1 yo. Is walking, talking and has a full mouth of teeth. He’s been feeding himself since he was 7 months old. And likes to be independent, but only in little things. He fallows me everywhere during the day, no matter what I try ( finger painting in a bath, sand pit, sensory baskets etc etc). I do talk to him a lot, we always eat together, I spend at least 2-3 hours a day just playing with him or watching him play (but I can’t leave, he starts crying and winning). He just won’t play indefinitely. Is it just age or is there something I can do?

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