When our kids seem 'distracted' by a newfound passion, it's easy to fall into the trap of more traditional educational thinking – that 'real' learning has to fit into the neat categories of math, science, history or language arts. Kara Anderson explores the underestimated value of interest-led learning.
My daughter has been going through an art phase recently. For her birthday, she asked for artist markers, and I couldn’t help it – I threw in some watercolour paints and paper and fun pens.
She has just been so passionate and excited – so I’ve wanted to do all I can to support her. And I guess I’ve been excited too, because I’ve been snapping photos here and there of her drawing and painting. Recently, I uploaded one to Instagram.
“I’m so proud of this artist girl,” I wrote. “She spends hours each day with her pens, markers and paints listening to podcasts and audiobooks. #thisishomeschooling”
People said all kinds of nice things in response to the photo – but then a woman commented saying something along the lines of “It’s so nice when their interests are something we actually want them to be doing – and something that is valued.” She went on to express worry and doubt about her own children’s current hobbies.
I immediately understood just what she was saying, because we have had some “unique” obsessions around here too.
Quirky obsessions in our house
I’ve noticed this with a lot of the families we know – when kids aren’t in an environment constantly telling them to conform, they will come up with some fascinating interests. Here are just a few of my favourites from our house and from friends near and far:
- Rocks, gems and fossils
- Cake decorating
- Various collections in just about anything you could imagine
- Pokemon (of course)
- Rubix cube
- Candle making
- Extreme dot-to-dot
- Outdoor cooking and survival skills
- Taking apart electronics to see how they work
- Sewing and clothing design
- Roller coaster design
- Theatrical make-up
- Stop-motion animation
Now here’s the thing: On the surface, these might not seem like grand educational pursuits. Can you get a college degree in carpentry? Can you have a lifelong career in roller coaster design?
Yes and yes, but wondering if your child is going to truly succeed in the world of a unique and limited career path is enough to make a worried parent wake in the middle of the night with the Elephant of Doubt sitting on her chest.
We worry when our kids seem “distracted” by any passion, but it’s also easy to fall into the trap of public school thinking – that the only things we can count on transcripts and in homeschool portfolios have to fall into the neat categories of math, science, history or language arts.
We don’t mean to, but we forget that if we believe that kids are learning all the time, they are actually getting value out of whatever quirky thing they are loving at the moment.
Redefining what study looks like
The benefits of what they are studying (and yes, we can look at it as studying – studying is just acquiring knowledge about a subject – no one says that subject has to be quantum physics) may lay dormant for years, or, they may quickly lead down another path toward something slightly more “scholarly.”
But even if they don’t, I still believe our kids get a lot out of having the time and permission to pursue their passions.
They’re building skills and traits like:
- Learning how to learn about something. An excited kid will willingly and enthusiastically do deep research into something they want to learn more about. And learning this process will continue to pay dividends when kids want or need to learn about other topics.
- Mastery. Becoming an “expert” in a topic helps kids to grow confidence. Knowing that they can really grasp the details of something helps kids to feel good about themselves and their ability to acquire, retain and communicate information.
- Responsibility. When a child is permitted to pursue something of intense interest, they learn what self-education feels like. And as Charlotte Mason said: “Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child's nature.”
- Individuality. Speaking of a child’s nature – a kid who is allowed to spend time doing something he or she loves, is a child who knows he or she is supported and appreciated as a unique individual – can you imagine how great that must feel?
- The appreciation of learning. Whether a passion can be easily quantified, or whether we can use it to check a box matters far less than having a child who knows what loving learning really feels like.
So the next time your child comes to you with a new interest, know that it’s a wonderful opportunity for you both. A new phase may last a few days, or a few years but the learning that is happening actually goes beyond what we’ve been told for so long that kids “need” to learn.
Our passionate children aren’t missing out when they go all in on something they love – they are simply learning differently, in a way that many of us could never have imagined when we were children ourselves.
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Kara is a homeschool mom, writer, tea drinker, yoga-doer and girl with overdue books. She's also co-host of The Homeschool Sisters Podcast.