Interest-Led Learning: What About the Basics?

I made this outfit for my daughter for her birthday recently. It’s a tradition now. I make each of them something special on their birthdays and that’s the outfit we take special birthday photos in. I have only learned to sew over the last few years, and this is why. Because I wanted to make them things! I’m so happy I can now. I think I could make pretty much anything at this stage. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how I learned this skill.

I did it the way any person learns something they’re interested in. How my children learn everything in their lives. How everyone should be allowed to learn. The interest-led or unschooling way.

Things I DID NOT do:

  1. Hire a teacher.
  2. Read the instruction manual for the sewing machine.
  3. Practice sewing different stitches in a straight line over and over.
  4. Start with a pillowcase.
  5. Move on to a drawstring bag.
  6. Schedule 45mins in to practice at the same time every day, no more, no less.
  7. Ask someone to judge how well I did after I finished each project.
  8. Ask someone what I should sew next.
  9. Finish everything I started.
  10. Check off all the subjects I covered in my learning.

Things I DID do:

  1. Jump straight into sewing a dress for my daughter.
  2. Download a pattern and figure out how to put it together myself.
  3. Use trial and error.
  4. Unpick things and start again when I made a mistake.
  5. Google any terms in the pattern I didn’t understand.
  6. Watch videos on youtube if I needed to see someone doing it, fast-forwarding through parts I didn’t need.
  7. Experiment and come up with the way I liked doing things best.
  8. Found new patterns that used techniques I wanted to try (sewing with stretch material, adding zips, pleats, gathering, darts, etc).
  9. Posted questions online if I was stuck with something.
  10. Sewed for hours or days at a time when I felt inspired, and then sewed nothing for months, and then jumped back in again.
  11. Judged my progress myself.
  12. Set my own goals.

Basically, did whatever I felt like doing, when I felt like doing it. Learned in whichever way worked best. Pursued the things that interested me. Made mistakes, problem-solved, searched for more information when I needed it. What we call interest-led learning.

If I had approached learning in the first way, I wouldn’t have made it past a pillowcase. I don’t want a pillowcase. I wanted to create special clothes for my children! That would have bored me to tears and I would have not found the motivation to keep going. No wonder schools must force children to learn. That’s what happens when you take away inspiration.

So often learning for children is broken down so much into tiny bite-sized pieces that it is ruined. How many people are actually quite interested in something but will end up never making it past the pillowcase, whatever that may be. Everything is standardized, everything in a stepwise progression, everything broken down, no moving on to what interests you before you learn the basics.

“After all, the reason that we call “the basics” by that phrase is that they are basic, and to worry that a kid will learn just about anything without learning and using the basics is like being worried that he might decide to build a house starting with the roof.”

-John Holt

Do I know the basics of sewing now? Yes, of course. Did I when I started? Nope! Did it stop me from making what I wanted? Not at all, I just had to learn along the way. When I discovered something I didn’t know, I had to stop and work it out in order to progress further. I judged what I was capable of. I didn’t start out making a wedding dress without a clue how to sew anything. But I knew I could probably manage a basic little dress and learn anything I needed along the way.

As an adult I was also free to learn without judgement, without anyone checking if what I was doing covered curriculum outcomes, fitting my learning into subject areas, or comparing me to others. Because of my age, I have the basic right to learn for the pleasure of it.

This is exactly how my children learn. They are interested in something and they set out to pursue it. They rarely ever start with the most boring, bland, basic parts of a topic. They dive right into the parts they are interested in. When it becomes apparent that they need some prior understanding for something, they pause and learn that, then continue on. They learn the ‘basics’ through LIFE. Where they are useful, and when they are needed. How could they miss them?

I am completely confident that they will learn everything they need to know by following their interests. And what’s more, they deserve to be able to do that. To learn joyfully, without fear of judgment.

You cannot pursue your passions and miss the basics of education. It’s just not possible. But, you can insist on the basics and end up missing your passion. I know which option I’m sticking with.


February 27, 2023 at 5:12 pm

I love this, it is so true ! Its exactly how we learn here at home, with on the spot learning ,following passions and curiosity. Great read

March 1, 2023 at 12:46 am

This might be my favorite post of yours and I’ve read pretty much all of them, binge reading is a thing! 😉 I’ve known this and questioned things for so long but once my daughter got a big older (4.5yo now) I started seeing, it’s not just me that enjoys learning new things, it’s that I get the freedom to do it now, the way that works for me! Why would I not do this for my child?!

April 14, 2023 at 12:28 pm

This was such an eye opener for me. Thank you!

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