There's a stack of unfinished worksheets on the end of the counter. I prepare myself for the battle that may ensue when I pull my kids from what they are happily doing to impose temporary house-arrest until the homework is done and submitted to their teacher.
I know when I skip the battle because I am too tired, too frustrated, too anything, I feel like I am not doing my job and wonder why I can't seem to get it done. But something inside of me is not so convinced that my kids will get more from sitting still and filling in the blanks than running around free, doing what they want.
Turns out, something amazing happens when you give kids space and time to just do—they learn. Learning is a natural process, happening organically every day so don't put too much stress on checking off boxes during homeschooling. Something as simple as looking for bugs or finding dandelions in the backyard is an opportunity for knowledge.
Psychologists have a term for this: experiential learning—learning from experience or by doing. "Doing" helps us learn from the world and gain a better understanding by exploring and doing something to see what happens. By experimenting with trial and error and learning from mistakes, we develop thinking, language and spatial reasoning skills and learn how to collaborate to improve social skills.
So even though it may look like your kids are just playing during unstructured time, "Any emergent experience can present a learning opportunity—it can emerge spontaneously, right there in front of us, or it can be planned in a proactive way to richly engage us with the many dimensions of the experience." explains Dr. Colin Beard in his book, The Experiential Learning Toolkit.
Not only can experiential learning occur outside of the classroom, it can also happen without a teacher.
According to developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences, and being able to make meaning out of those experiences. Dr. Knud Illeris, a professor of lifelong learning at the Danish University of Education in Copenhagen, outlines three major core dimensions to learning—thinking, feeling and doing—all of which can be experienced beyond the classroom or the kitchen table.
- Did you notice (…)?
- Why did that happen?
- Does that happen in life?
- Why does that happen?
- How can you use that?
By asking these questions, as a co-explorer of knowledge, you can guide them in thinking about their experience before, during and after to help open up new ways of learning. When we think in this way, we gain valuable skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity—that are essential for life.
Bottom line: When you are deciding if homework takes the place of exploring outside, and your kids aren't interested in the worksheets, it could be best to let your kids do, mama.
A version of this story was originally published on April 17, 2020. It has been updated.