5 ways to encourage self-directed learning in young children by Jenni Mahnaz

by Jenni Mahnaz

by Jenni Mahnaz

Self direction is one of the most powerful skills anyone can develop. Learning to identify what intrigues us, digging deep, and coming out on the other end with more knowledge than we had going in is essential to a meaningful human experience. In today’s world of high stakes testing and educational pressure, how can we encourage a development of self-direction in learning? Is it even possible to be a self-directed learner, free of interference in today’s world? It’s not always easy but there are some simple steps any adult can take. 


1. Stop interrupting them.  It’s easy to feel like we need to “do something” to make sure our kids are learning. We ask them questions about the color, shape, and feel of toys they play with. We ask them how many letter ‘A’s’ they see as they flip through a board book. When we do this, we are micromanaging their play and we are distracting them from their own goals and work. You may be asking about the letter ‘A’ but your child may be making connections between images on opposing pages. He may parrot back colors to you but what he’s really trying to figure out is why his blue ball bounces higher than his yellow ball. Deep exploration and meaningful connections do not happen in adult-scheduled 15 minute “free time” sessions and they don’t happen if a child is constantly interrupted. Play is the work of children. Let them work without interruption as a means of communicating that you value their choices and interests.  

2. Trust them. Children are capable beings. Their obsession with the color red, fire trucks, or sticks may be a mask for a much deeper question they are grappling with. Give them space and trust them to know what they need to be focused on and when. By doing this, you are telling them that the things they are drawn to are meaningful and that taking time to explore interests is ok. 

3. Engage them in meaningful conversation. Ask them questions and listen to their answers. When they ask you questions, answer them honestly or work along side them to find an answer you don’t have readily available. Ask them their feelings on big stuff and never pretend that what they bring you is little stuff. Kids enjoy it when experienced human beings engage them in meaningful ways. This engagement teaches them new vocabulary, introduces new ideas, and make them feel like important members of a larger community. It also gives them permission to ask questions and seek answers, key components of self-directed learning. 

4. Stop telling them to be careful. There was a time when falling of our bikes and out of trees was expected. Today, any bump or bruise seems to be seen as a failure of the parent to watch their kids. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Kids need to run, jump, leap, throw, fly, and fall in order to learn how their bodies work, how far they can push themselves, and what happens when you challenge gravity. Self directed learners need to experience life fully in order to know what avenues they are interested in exploring and what avenues aren’t their cup of tea. Not only that but someone creaming “be careful!” while your concentrating on a tricky task is distracting and frustrating. Instead of “be careful”, try saying, “does your body feel safe up there?” or “be aware that there is gap near your foot”, then let them be. While you’re at it, step away from the playground equipment. If Kris isn’t able to work the monkey bars by himself, he isn’t ready for monkey bars. Likewise, if Sara can climb to the top of the jungle gym after an hour of trying, let her. Kids learn their limits and learn to push themselves when they have the freedom to explore their capabilities without interference. Knowledge of self and the willingness to take risks are big benefits to self-directed learners. 

5. Stop critiquing them. This one is hard but it’s essential. If you are constantly saying, “good job!”, “excellent work!”, or “that isn’t your best work, is it?”, stop now. You may have good intentions but this can backfire. Self-directed learners rely on internal motivation, not external praise to drive their interests. Constantly praising or critiquing their work does not facilitate the development of that internal drive. Instead of critiquing your child’s work, try making observations or engaging in conversation about what they’ve done. “You used so much orange in your art today. Can you tell me about that?” or simply “what did you create here?” can go a long way in keeping the focus on the child’s personal efforts and interests.


The suggestions above are truly beneficial for any child. However, the self-directed learner is especially affected by these suggestions as they learn to trust their instinct, value their own interests, and pursue those thing that captivate them. Giving children freedom and trust as they explore their world and their individual interests is the best way to encourage self-direction in education. 

Manisha Snoyerjennim