• Sophie Smith

What does child-led learning look like?

Let me suggest for a moment, that the way children is taught at most schools is not the most beneficial way for them to learn. Desks, worksheets, lines to colour in, rules to follow - they work well when one teacher is trying to teach a large group - but if you have your kids at home with you, there are other wonderful ways for them to learn, and the most beneficial of these is play, free play if possible. You see, children’s brains are literally hard wired to absorb information and learn all day long as they play.

As a mum, especially a mum during lockdown, I look at all the intricate crafts and activities that people set up for their children and I'm filled with admiration but also sometimes I wonder why? It could be that working through these activities gives parents a sense of achievement and structure in these uncertain times, or that they feel like their child will be missing out and not learning if they don't do them. If you need the structure and you love to Pinterest crafts - keep doing you. If it stresses you out, and you are doing it because you feel like you have to, let me suggest some alternatives, and if they don’t work for you and your kids, that’s also fine:


As much as I wish my kids would entertain themselves for hours, child-led play doesn’t mean just leaving kids to their own devices. It requires being present and engaged, and observing what interests your child and organically following that interest to guide your activities. Some examples from the last few days are below;

  • Animals: The kids were digging in the garden and Lexi was enjoying digging a big hole in the garden. I told her it looked like a rabbit hole and she immediately transformed into a rabbit for the next 15 minutes - digging, hopping and snuffling. You could even add some carrot stick to the mix for an on theme snack.

  • Cooking in the mud kitchen - there is so much room for imaginative play here with just a few suggestions like:

  • Can you decorate that cake? (grass, leaves, flowers, seeds)

  • If you add more dirt the mud will get thick, you could make ‘date balls’

  • Could you make me some soup?

  • Here’s some cornflour for your soup, can you measure a cup/half cup/teaspoon for me?

  • By being present to take pretend sips, and ooh and aah, you are involved, but don’t have to get muddy or dirty, in fact you could even read a book if you are feeling brave.

  • A Teddy Bear’s Picnic

  • Ali Bodill posted a beautiful video the other day of how she and her girls spent the day creating crowns and invitations and snacks and invited all their bears to a picnic. You can go all out and spend the day creating it, or just have snacks in the garden with your bears, because, in the words of Enid Blyton, "Don't you think food always tastes better when eaten outdoors?"

  • Firefighters

  • The other day Lexi built her Knock-a-block toy into a firefighter’s ladder (motor & cognitive skills).

  • She ran and got her firefighter book to see what else firemen use and started looking for props so I decided to help her. (We practised some vocabulary - ladder, hose pipe, helmet, fire truck, and that we call them firefighters, not firemen, because women can fight fires too)

  • We found a big sheet of paper that had been painted a few days before and added some red flames. The nice thing about painting fire is you can’t really get it wrong, a key part of child-led play.

  • We cut out cardboard wheels for our fire truck and the kids painted them red and stuck them onto our Thornewood rocker. (Lexi watched me tracing a bowl to make cardboard wheels and I saw her trying it later that day).

  • We found a hose pipe in the garage, we dug in our cupboard for all our red clothes and our helmet.

  • We pegged the fire to our teepee.

  • We role played an emergency phone call and then the fire fighters rushed off to put out the fire in their firetruck. The fire was out in a few seconds and Finn was more interested in pulling the prestick off the wheels but that’s ok, because the build up was so fun, and then the game evolved.

  • Lexi then ran and got her doctor’s set to check on me from the fire, and that led to almost 30 minutes of doctor’s check ups. I filled their pill bottles with raisins and they were thrilled.

  • They learnt so much from this, but my favourite lesson was how to take what we have and make something fun out of it.


I have found that my kids love helping me with chores if I can relax and make them accessible for them, and this is fantastic learning. They also get such a sense of achievement and pride from helping me. Here are some ideas:

  • Mowing the lawn - they love to rake up the grass and load it into their trailer

  • Hanging out washing, if you have a mobile drying rack that is lower for them, you can put it up by your washing line and let them help you hang

  • They both love pulling the dry washing off the line - Lex on a chair and Finn on my shoulders

  • Folding washing - Lexi loves folding and sorting laundry. Finn just likes to throw it at me.

  • Washing dishes - this always gets messy but kids love washing dishes - it’s basically water play.

  • Sweeping and mopping - they are no good at it, but love trying.

  • Grocery shopping - making a list and helping you tick it off in the shops (not during lockdown)

  • Cooking - peeling and chopping veggies, beating eggs, grating cheese, pouring, watching the toaster to see when the toast pops up.

  • Baking - I choose very simple recipes and give them tasks they can do without too much potential for disaster. We try and and stick to low-carb healthy food at home but I have two lovely and simple recipes that always work well: healthy banana bread and date cookies.

  • Tidying up - I find kids tidy up much better when there is some kind of incentive - so if they want to do something exciting, I often ask that we pack away what we were doing first. They excitement about the new activity means that they are way more motivated to clean than if I had waited until the end of the day to ask them.

Of course these chores take longer and you need some patience, but think of it as multi-tasking - you are cleaning, teaching your child very valuable life lessons, and spending time with them. You can thank them for being so helpful and they will glow with pride.


An invitation to play is laying out toys or craft activities in a way that invites your child to play, touch, explore and investigate, without dictating how they should be used. The best part about this is that there is no right or wrong outcome for this. Sometimes kids are not interested at all, and other times they do something totally different to what you expect. Setting up invitations could look different depending on your energy levels and tolerance for mess. There are lots of ideas online, but here are some simple ones:

  • A craft table with scissors, glue, colourful paper, ribbons, and stickers. Add glitter if you are brave or your child is a bit older. Below is a photo of what Lexi made independently while Finn napped and I had a phone call with a friend.

  • Different coloured play dough with muffin cups, candles and some decorations

  • Frozen prompts are fun - you could freeze sea animals in ice, or flowers, or you could freeze water with food colouring and put it out with a piece of paper.

  • Plastic animals or dinosaurs in a themed sensory bin

  • Rainbow rice with scoops, funnels and tubs

  • Gardening tools laid out in an old flower bed

  • A pile of sticks in the garden with some string

  • A spade and a bucket of water in the garden


Reading together is one of the most amazing activities - it is amazing for your child’s brain, it is amazing connection time as you cuddle together, it’s low energy for a tired mum (careful you don’t doze off while reading like I sometimes do), and it’s a great way to learn about all sorts of new things. If there are books that your children particularly love, you can use these stories, characters or themes to guide some imaginative play or some invitations to play.


Go on a little walk around your garden at a really slow pace. Take a basket for treasures, stop and point out small wonders like spider’s webs, bugs, plant roots, the shape of the clouds, the feeling of the wind. The best part about nature play is that you don't have to be an expert, you can be a co-explorer. Point things out but also follow the kids’ lead and interests. Take a bird book, or a bug book with you and learn together. Notice what they are interested in and play on that - you can use it later as a drawing prompt. Either collect some specimens or use your memory - then provide paper and crayons and ask them to draw the things they saw. You can also give it a go.


This is simple and easy - from a bean, to an amazing product from My Eco Sprout like pink popcorn - growing something is a quick and simple exercise but watching growth on a daily basis, and taking responsibility for a plant are amazing and ongoing activities. You can also do this whether you live in an apartment or on a farm.


I don't know may kids who don't love to get messy, but messy play doesn’t have to be stressful for you as a parent. If you have a garden, pop the kids in the garden, naked or in old dirty clothes. And then let them go wild. If you don’t have a garden, a garage, verandah or even the bath is a awesome place for messy play.

This can be mud pies, painting, jelly, a sensory bin or chocolate mud. There are more ideas on this blog post.


This is when you get a book or some work and tell the children that you are busy doing something for yourself and they need to play on their own. They will usually moan and protest and bother you and then eventually go away and find something to do. It usually involves a lot of mess and every toy pulled out the cupboard, but it can be worth if for some time out and teaching your kids that you are not there to entertain them.

The point of child-led play is that your children are initiating their own learning, they are learning to play with what they have, and not always be entertained. They are learning to love learning and to initiate it for themselves , rather than waiting to be spoon-fed information or activities. It also means that as a mum, there is less pressure to prepare amazing activities and less expectation on your kids to do them properly or well. None of these activities have a right or wrong outcome. This is how we play and it works for us.You know what works for your kids - don't blame me if you leave them with scissors and lose your curtains. But seriously, I hope it has helped you feel less pressure, and be more present to have more fun and learn with your kids.

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© 2019 Sophie Smith