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Child Led Learning: myths and reality

by Contributor
Two children one with spade other with hose creating a mud patch by a trampoline in a garden

By Denita Dinger (Listen to the Children)


It comes as no surprise that the Fun and Games.org site is focused on play and activities which encourage play, discovery or exploration. After over 40 years of working with children of all ages it’s become obvious to me that play and learning are very much integral with each other. Unfortunately at the time of writing all too often play is not seen as being educational or even useful in any respect. This has come to the point that break times and opportunities for play are being eroded.

After working in and running youth clubs, looking after children and young people, I have found that all children of all ages love being given the opportunity to explore and not only does this not need to be adult-directed, they benefit from being able to discover things through their own exploration. The idea that children can learn, discover and develop various skills through play and moreover through play that is self-led seems to be an anathema to many adults. Possibly because of the way they were taught so they do not see any other way as possible or even as being better.

One advantage of social media is that it can bring like minds together and it was refreshing to come across the various posts made by Denita Dinger about child-led learning. One of these posts on the myths and reality of child-led learning and repeated below with permission, is important as it helps clarify many of the aspects of what is involved and defines much about what a successful child-led learning environment looks like in reality.

Kit (Owner and founder of Fun and Games.org)

Child Led Learning: myths and reality

Child-led learning gets a bad rap all because of misinformation, or simply people who think they know, and don’t care to learn for sure. Those are typically the adults in the world of early childhood education who cling to the control they have over children and can’t fathom letting go.

Let’s take a look at what those myths are:

  • MYTH: There are no boundaries in a child-led program.
  • MYTH: The adult doesn’t coach and guide behaviors
  • MYTH: there is no structure in a child-led program
  • MYTH: The environment of a child-led environment is not comfortable for all children.

A few months ago, this comment was written by a follower on a Teacher Tom post I had shared. It exemplifies three of the most common misconceptions of what it means to be CHILD-LED:

“Children need guidance in learning appropriate behavior, their brains are not capable of making good choices because they haven’t had the experiences to learn from. If you let every child in a classroom choose to do whatever they want when they want you are asking for chaos and a very loud and uncomfortable environment. Children need structure and guidance. I have worked with children for over 35 years and if you take the time to connect with them and show them the right behavior by example it really helps them to see how their behavior effects others and their environment for the better or worse.”

That comment is saying that a child-led program means the children are allowed to do whatever they want.

  • It is saying there are no boundaries and therefore the environment is uncomfortable.
  • It is saying there is no guidance from an adult and no opportunities for children to learn how their behaviour affects other children.
  • It is saying there is no structure in a child-led program.


The above myths could not possibly be further away from what a TRULY child-led program looks like.

At the core of a child-led program is RELATIONSHIPS. Through RELATIONSHIPS, the adult gathers all of the information they need in order to meet each child’s unique needs.

It is through RELATIONSHIPS that the adult is able to meet each child where they are based on that one child’s unique LIFE EXPERIENCES, not simply age alone.

It is through RELATIONSHIPS that the adult learns how each unique child invites the adult into their play.

It is the RELATIONSHIPS at the core of a child-led program that BUSTS all four myths above.

At the forefront of preparing an environment for a CHILD-LED program are the unique needs each child has. Sensory needs and play schema needs are needs EVERY SINGLE CHILD HAS, and are at the forefront of the environment. A child-led environment has to ABSOLUTELY be comfortable for every single child. Children cannot be their best selves when their needs are not met, which is WHY relationships and meeting needs are first and foremost.

“Structure Myth” BUSTED:

There IS structure in a child-led program. THERE HAS TO BE STRUCTURE:

The problem is, structure gets mistaken for “controlling children”

HARD TRUTH: The STRUCTURE of an early childhood program SHOULD NOT BE “what to do, how to do it, who to do it with and how long to do it” that is called CONTROLLING CHILDREN, but it is, sadly, what many educators believe is “structure”.

The structure is the things a child can count on or TRUST will always happen. They can count on arriving, they can count on this being a time for THEIR ideas, they can count on being respected , they can count on the fact that I will keep them safe. They TRUST I am there for them. They trust their needs will be met. They TRUST they will eat if they are hungry. They TRUST they will go home. THAT is structure. A child-led program absolutely MUST have structure so children are able to be their best self.

Structure is all the things a child does not need to worry about, so they can focus on controlling their play, their ideas, and being their best self.

Now that I’ve cleared that up. When children are empowered in a truly STRUCTURED environment, they CAN be in control of what to do, how to do, how long to do it, who to do it with. This is the part that is very hard for people who have never fostered a TRULY child-led program to wrap their brains around.

Once those three things are established (relationships, needs met and structured environment) children WILL begin to be EMPOWERED with “I CAN!!!” confidence.

I find that when I have successfully established the above (relationships, needs met and empower children) the behaviours the MYTHS nay-sayers are concerned with simply do NOT happen.

Children are far more capable than most adults realize, ESPECIALLY when trusting relationships are fostered, needs are met AND children are empowered with “I CAN” confidence.

Capable children in a structured environment dont need to act out in order to gain control because they ARE in control of themselves.

Children whose needs are met do not need to request their needs be met through their behavior. MOST challenging behaviors are the result of needs not met.

As for “children cant make good decisions”….they certainly CAN make good decisions, and the more they are allowed to make decisions, especially those concerning THEIR AUTONOMY, the more good decisions they can make.

It is when an adult makes all the decisions for a child that the child becomes delayed in their own autonomy.

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