Order from Chaos: How Children Really Learn

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It all began innocently enough one Thursday winter morning. My son, quite spontaneously, asked me if I wanted to play outside with him. I had some work I was planning to do on the computer that morning, but I decided to put it off until the afternoon.

There was something in Lou’s request that seemed out of the ordinary, special even, beyond the fact that he doesn’t usually run to play outside in the mornings. Intuitively, I felt like it was important that I go outside to play with him. So we suited up in snow pants, boots, and scarves and headed out.

His plan was to go sledding. We live on a hill, so winter transforms our slope into some of the greatest sledding around! Lou grabbed his blue sled, and we started to walk up to the top of the hill. However, as soon as we were halfway up, he dropped the sled and said: “Papa, I think I see Tao’s (our cat) tracks in the snow. Can we follow them?”

When you embark on self-directed learning, you give your child control over how they use their time, and what they want to do (within reasonable limits, of course). Sometimes those decisions will seem strange and sometimes incomprehensible. 

Self-directed learning forces us as parents to trust our children’s intuition, to trust that they know what they need at any given time. It obliges us to have confidence that their inherent desire to learn, grow, and master their environments will guide them to do exactly the right thing at any given moment.

Back to our scenario on the hill. If I was in a different mood, I might have tried to control the situation and said to Lou, “why don’t we follow the tracks after sledding?” or “why don’t we do it later in the day?” (otherwise known as putting it off). However, I decided to follow his impulse and join him on his adventure.

Well, following cat prints around the house led us into the neighbouring forest where the tracks turned into “lynx” tracks, and suddenly we were on a tracking adventure through the woods! Almost two hours later, we returned home after breathing forest air, connecting with a myriad of tree species, eating snow, and drinking from winter streams. A priceless educational experience, but also an invaluable journey in personal growth, self-confidence, and emotional connection.

The main point is this: children don’t learn by turning a switch or having adults “lecture” to them. They learn through play. They learn through the chaos and disorder of their day-to-day experience with life and the things around them.

Andre Stern, perhaps the most famous homeschooled kid ever, learned how to play and build guitars, design engines, and master auto mechanics by the age of 12. He did so because he was given the time and the freedom to pursue whatever interested him in the moment. Of course, Andre Stern had guides and mentors along the way, but the impulse and the drive came from himself, with no one directing him as to what he should be doing.

When we are truly passionate about something and are given the time and freedom to pursue it unabatedly, we learn it fast, and we learn it well.

As Boston College psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray puts it:

“Play is how the mind sets and how the soul soars.”

Learning isn’t linear. It’s circular, like the route Lou and I traced in the forest today. For me, giving him the power to make his own learning choices, at his own pace, is the greatest gift I can give him.

Written by Lawrence Lefcort and Anne Mergault 

(photos: Anne Mergault)

Lawrence Lefcort and Anne Mergault are co-directors of Champ Libre, a self-directed learning centre in the picturesque town of Dunham in the Eastern Townships. Lawrence is a freelance writer and Tao Shiatsu therapist and teacher. He believes that by changing the way we raise and educate our children, we can change the world.