The idea that learning should be instigated by the student instead of the teacher isn’t a new one, but it has struggled to find acceptance in many mainline classrooms.

When our grandparents went to school, it consisted largely of memorisation and rote learning. Copying letters and numbers when they were young and memorising poems and times tables when they got older. There was very little scope for the child to think creatively or work outside the box.

Even now many schools are struggling with vast amounts of testing, forcing both teachers and students to learn the facts and equations that will help them pass these standardised tests instead of benefiting from a more well-rounded education.

As high up as the college level, debate continues as studies show that students learn better with discussion and experimentation and yet many courses are still offered in a traditional lecture style, in which the student is simply a passive recipient of the teacher’s knowledge.

While we often can’t control the experience that our children have once they reach the age of compulsory education, we can influence their learning experience when they are in preschool. These formative years are critical because they set the stage for how our children will feel about school in general and how they will be inclined to view their learning experience.

What is Self Directed Learning?

For adults, self-directed learning occurs when an individual takes the initiative for their own studies with or without the help of their peers. In 1975 Malcolm Knowles the director of adult education at the Boston YMCA wrote a book called Self-Directed Learning that described the process necessary to be a self-directed learner.

First, you must figure out what you need to learn, then formulate learning goals, implement strategies to reach those goals and finally evaluate whether you were successful or not. In this process, there are no tests and little outside judgment, positive or negative. In childhood, the process of being a self-directed learner is less formal but relies on many of the same ideas.

Many of the specialised early childhood learning philosophies rely on variations of this concept. Montessori schools encourage children to pick their own activities within the scope of the specific Montessori tools provided in the classroom. They can work on whatever they like for as long as they like. Steiner schools believe that children learn best by observing and experiencing, rather than by teachers explaining things to them.

Reggio Emilia schools allow children’s interests to guide the class. If a child expressed interest in flowers the teacher would then help facilitate learning more about the topic while involving the children by doing an activity like planting seeds.

The Benefits of Child Directed Learning

1. Self Confidence

Because of the kind of schooling most of us have had, we can all recall a time where we raised our hand to answer a question, the teacher called on us and pronounced our answer to be wrong. This type of environment makes children tentative to express themselves.

It also holds them back from being creative with a problem, as they don’t want to face the embarrassment of being labeled as wrong. Imagine how many times this can happen to a preschool age child.

The teacher might correct them when they identify “d” as “b”, or force them to change their grip on their spoon to hold it properly or chastise them for not being toilet trained as quickly as their peers. Imagine then a classroom where the child is allowed to explore their environment with freedom. Teachers are available to answer questions but don’t force children to do things in a particular way.

Children’s imaginations and curiosity are encouraged and rewarded. These positive experiences help children have confidence in their own abilities and believe that they are capable of accomplishing all kinds of things.

2. Better Social Skills

In a more traditional learning environment children sit and listen to the teacher but they don’t have the opportunity to interact much with their peers. In a child directed classroom, children work with and learn from each other. Because of this exposure, they are more likely to learn to share, take turns, and in general be better social citizens. In addition, many self-directed philosophies advocate a multi-aged class room.

3. Self-Directed

When children are given the chance to be self-directed at an early age they develop this as a habit that sticks with them throughout their lives. These kids learn that it is up to them to entertain and educate themselves. Recently media attention has focused on the trend of helicopter parenting.

Children who are treated in this way never get the opportunity to be self-directed. Their parents control their choices and consequently, when these students get to college they are unable to make decisions or take responsibility for their actions.

They struggle to make the transition to adulthood because they have no idea how to think for themselves. By starting children in a self-directed environment you can give them a huge boost towards later success.

4. Responsible

Students who are responsible for their own learning quickly realise that they are responsible for other aspects of their life too. Also, several of the child centred learning philosophies emphasise daily life tools as well. Several of the core Montessori activities include life skills such as pouring liquid from a jug into appropriately child sized cups, or opening locks with keys.

Children who know they can master such activities can also enjoy the responsibility of making their own bed or helping put the dishes away. It has been shown that children do better and feel more engaged and respected when they have responsibilities both within their families and at their school.

5. Self Sufficient

Children have an amazing capacity to learn, especially when they feel like nobody is pressuring them to do it. For example, it can take a long time to teach children how to work various kinds of fasteners. Buckles, buttons, zippers, and shoelaces all present dexterity challenges that kids struggle with.

If they feel like mom or teacher is forcing them to try to button their shirt themselves, when they want to be done getting dressed and go play, the learning process will be long and painful indeed.

Conversely, if the child is engaged in a self-directed learning at an activity centre that consists of many different buttons and fasteners that they can play with and try to “solve” like a puzzle or game they are much more likely to learn the task in question and then be able to apply it to their daily life.

6. Enjoyment of School

Most importantly, children tend to be happier in a school that allows for child directed activities because they have the power over their learning process. They can pick to engage in topics and activities that they like and are interested in, instead of just listening to a teacher drone on and on.

When a child’s first experience of school is positive they will always have that as a touchstone. They will enter primary school believing that school is something fun and enjoyable, that they look forward to.


If you find that your child is really flourishing in a preschool with a child directed approach and you have concerns about what will happen in primary school you do have some options. If you have the financial resources you can continue to send you child to a private school that continues these types of education throughout its entire curriculum. If you don’t have the funds for that you can explore the idea of Unschooling.

Unschooling is done at home, but unlike traditional homeschooling that follows a set curriculum, much like a classroom, unschooling allows the child to continue to be the driving force in their own learning. Children study what interests them instead of simply learning a bunch of facts in order to pass a test.


While continuing with Unschooling may be a bit too much for most people, it is easy to give your child the benefits of child directed learning in the critical first few years of their life. Child care centres and preschools abound that offer different types of programs. This opportunity will undoubtedly impact their ongoing development and help give them a solid foundation to build the rest of their education upon.