A toddler is constantly bumbling around from engaging activity to engaging activity, often choosing activity over food or sleep, sometimes getting herself into trouble. A toddler is frustrated when she is bored. She will demand interaction. She is not in the mood to waste her moments–ever. She soaks up every new stimulating lesson and indulges in learned skills. She is in charge of her learning–doing, watching, and interacting, touching, testing limits. Of course the adults in her life must keep her safe, but within safe parameters, she is in charge of her own engaging lessons in life.
We entrust toddlers, preschoolers, even babies with their own learning. We offer experience. We guide them toward constructive playthings. We encourage and arrange interactive play. We find toys to keep them occupied. They are in a constant state of learning. They seek new experiences innately. They have an obvious inner desire to learn.
A three year old cannot balance his father’s checkbook, but he is engaged in many important thoughts. He is collecting data and memorizing patterns. He is observing and experiencing life through all five senses, sometimes all at once. He is studying behaviors in others, gathering information on all sorts of stimuli and interactions. He is (whether grown-ups are willing to admit it or not) making important decisions and becoming a self-sufficient being.
At what point in a child’s life do we stop trusting self-guided learning?
Unlike toddlers, we’ve all seen plenty of elementary, middle and high school students drag their feet, procrastinate, and waste time in school. They procrastinate at home as well. It has become cliché. Mainstream school-aged children are typically not excited to do homework or boring school assignments. Can you blame them?
The day they enter school, mainstream education stops trusting them to seek knowledge and experience on their own. Educators become fully in charge of their learning. Because every child–every snowflake–must reach mastery by a certain age, adults have decided they know best. Teachers and administrators are in charge of what and how a child learns. Our educational system leaves very little room for self-guided learning, causing students to exhibit lack of engagement and a general lack of excitement for learning. But, a school-aged child behaves no differently than an exuberant toddler if allowed to seek experience and knowledge on his own.
School-aged children who are free to make choices about their learning are fully and intently engaged at all points during the learning process–as long as they’re actually learning–just like the toddler. Whether the activity or lesson is hands-on, lecture based, independently sought or any number of other opportunities for learning, appropriate learning and appropriate skills mastery is innately engaging. Engaged students commonly beg for more practice sheets on topics they have just mastered, such as long division, subject-verb agreement, and multiple-digit multiplication. Appropriately engaged students even enjoy some lecture-based lessons when timing and presentation is applicable. Learning and mastery that are just right and self-chosen are invigorating. When a child has just grasped a new concept, a practice sheet is actually fun. If, on the other hand, a practice sheet or homework is busy work, or not appropriately leveled, a child will suffer from motivational issues. Further, motivational issues can be a clear symptom that the activity, lesson or level is not appropriate.
Toddlers grow. Cognitive capacity grows. Colorful blocks and imaginative play don’t satisfy forever. A competent self-guided learner will seek new knowledge. If the learning environment offers limitless options for learning (just as the real world does), the self-directed learner will never stop reaching for higher heights. Learning does not become boring. Every human child genuinely loves learning. Children despise boredom–they want to be actively engaged all day long and even after bedtime.
Toddlers do not waste time, nor do ten-year-olds or sixteen-year-olds, IF their environment is stimulating. Students are innately engaged in life and learning given an environment that facilitates their natural tendencies for such. They are sponges for experience and knowledge. If allowed to make choices and engage in self-initiated learning, they make great strides forward and display an exuberance for new knowledge. Students will engage and experience authentic interest in almost any subject matter if they are afforded the elements of independence and varied options. These students make appropriate choices about their own learning which makes a truly student-centered environment a tangible goal and a potential reality in our educational system.