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Finding Learning Fun with Child-Led Play

Have you ever tried to lead your child in an activity only to find this structured play felt less like play and more like work, leaving everyone frustrated in the end?

If so, you’re not alone. Recently, some parents have found their children flourish with child-led learning. Where some classes and get-togethers turned virtual, “child-led” play encourages child-led play gives children the opportunity to choose their own learning activities, observing how children approach an activity and adapt a task to their own direction.

For Rochester area mom Kristin Burke and her daughters, Maggie (6) and Hazel (2), child-led play was something that came about organically. After looking into the Montessori method of education for their eldest, Burke and her husband, Peter, shifted their focus due to Covid. Balancing working from home with homeschooling, Burke found herself looking to keep her daughters both entertained and learning.

The mom of two launched her Instagram, @Wildflowers_and_Mama, in the fall of 2020, never anticipating it would gain popularity. Filling her feed with activities for her daughters, Burke has taken the world of child-led play by storm. “My idea behind child-led play was to make up for all of the fun activities Maggie was missing out on in kindergarten,” Burke said. “Like a lot of kids, she wasn’t meant for virtual school. She’s a very curious kid and a hands-on learner.”

Burke’s activities have quickly grown into weekend events. The Burkes create “bucket lists” of activities for their girls. “We ask our daughters what they want to learn about each week, and we let the girls run the show—as much as kids can.” Many activities stem from ideas posed by Maggie; others are from Mom, though the girls don’t hesitate to weigh in.

As warmer weather returns, Burke looks forward to getting outdoors more. “My kids learn by going outside and doing things, so we go explore and take a lot of hikes. With summer coming up, we’re looking forward to checking out the bird sanctuary and fairy trail at Mendon Ponds Park,” she said. “There are so many different things to do around Rochester; at least once a month we try to get out together as a family.”

One recent activity was centered around butterflies, which included learning anatomy, resin components, painting, and even live caterpillar kits for Maggie and Hazel to experience the real deal. While the caterpillars formed cocoons, the girls got to paint paper butterfly wings mom cut out to hang and dry. “I’m always amazed by what Maggie retains—and Hazel, too,” Burke said. “We covered butterflies last year too, and this year while I was organizing, I asked Maggie to put our butterfly anatomy box upstairs. I later went up to look for her and found she had not only opened it up, but she’d put everything in the correct spot and had each piece correctly labeled.”

At home, most weeknights and weekends are spent doing various activities with the girls. Neither are homeschooled, so Burke says this is just added enrichment to ensure they aren’t stuck in the house or watching TV. In the playroom, Burke has set up a “tinker tray” and “sensory bin” for both the girls, both of which come into play often. The former, Burke says, is meant to host a “bunch of stuff they get to play with that all has a purpose. Each tinker tray lets them create without a ton of guidance.” A “sensory bin,” on the other hand, sounds just like it does on the tin. What Burke says is a creative outlet for mom too, is a “container of stuff” meant to incorporate at least one (often two: sight and sound) of the senses.

In the past, Burke purchased dinosaur fossils made out of resin to bury in a sensory bin full of brown sugar (next time she’s using kinetic sand!) for her daughters to dig out while she read a book about dinosaurs to them. “Sometimes it’s just as much for mom as it is the girls,” Burke, who found her stride in child-led play, said. Pretend-play is something her husband often takes over, though both allow them to spend a lot of quality time and bond together.

“If I’ve learned anything, one of the most important parts of child-led play is to make sure I’m in the right headspace for a given activity myself,” Burke said. “If I’m not, Maggie and Hazel likely won’t be either.” On the flip side, the girls also have to be in the right headspace themselves, and over the course of testing out new play activities, Burke has found that it’s also crucial to take cues from the kids in regards to what they’re interested in. “If I ask what they want to do and let them take charge some, they end up more engaged.” She observes the route to learning is not always a straight line.

“Sometimes we’ll come back to activities and sometimes we don’t, and that’s okay,” Burke said. “Some things do fail, so there are times I go in with few expectations. The kids take the lead. If I give them an activity like color sorting, it depends on what they want to do. If they want to color sort, they’ll color sort. If they want to take apart blocks and build, they will. At the end of the day, my kids having fun is what it’s all about.”

Not all outings will go as planned, either. Burke and her husband once had a day planned at Genesee Country Village Museum only to find their youngest wasn’t having any of it. “We went back home and set up a station for her baby dolls in the backyard instead. She gave her dolls baths and had a blast,” Burke said. “Sometimes things don’t go as mom wants, and that’s okay too!”

Kristin Burke’s Child-Led Play Tips

• Go with your gut. You know your kids better than anyone.

• A sensory bin is also a strong place to start. It can be as simple as “a shallow plastic bin, some rice, and a ladle” to see what the kids do. She also recommends checking out Instagram for a few ideas, though it might be easy to fall down that rabbit hole. Her biggest piece of advice is to stick to what works for you and your kids. “You don’t need the most expensive toys, and it’s important not to compare your play to other kids’. Let them learn at their own pace by their own means.”

• See what piques your child’s interests. Take them outside for a day to explore one of the local parks or trails, or even venture out to unexplored territory in the backyard. A few common household items too can also unleash a whole new world of play and learning.

• Play is still play. The most important thing to remember with child-led activities is that “play is still play, no matter what the end goal was. Kids are kids, and they just want to play with you.”


Kids Activity: Gardening

“I asked the girls the other day what they wanted to learn about. I got this long list of things like plants, weather, and animals. Today we crossed learning about plants and gardening off that list and planted our own indoor herb garden.

For this activity we used: Organic Soil, Terracotta Pots, Herb Seeds

For a little extra fun, we painted our pots first. Then I let the girls fill their pots with soil, plant their seeds, and water them a little to get them going. We planted Dill, Basil, Chives, and Rosemary.

The girls are already expecting plants tomorrow, so we will see how this one goes. I, on the other hand, am very excited to finally start a herb garden.

PS - muffin tins fit nicely inside the flisat.”


Kids Activity: feed the hungry caterpillar

“We don’t always do a ton of gross motor play, but it was such a beautiful day there was no way I was planning an activity inside.

For this play we used: A plastic bin with a caterpillar-like face attached and all of the play food we could fit in the bucket that wouldn’t break if it was thrown.

That’s it. Throw the food into the bucket to feed the caterpillar!”

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