Why Hands-Off Learning Is a Huge Opportunity for Kids

My kids are used to roaming the nearby streets. They are used to finding friends and wildly running through the common spaces of our neighborhood. Each of my kids is an independent thinker and learner, but right now their half-built forts and favorite climbing trees sit empty as they wait for the days when they’re allowed to play with others again.

Still, it isn’t all bad. In many ways, their month away from school has been an opportunity to gain more independence—it just comes in different forms now. 

If you consider yourself a free-range parent like I do, then you know the focus has shifted. It’s not about letting kids walk to the corner store or the playground. It’s now about the parent walking away at times, leaving children to learn and create on their own. Whether you are homeschooling or your kids are following a new online curriculum, this is an opportunity. Instead of trying to be more hands on, maybe we should be more hands off. 

Learn a lesson about supporting an independent thinker from the teachers in your life.

Like millions of parents across the US, when I heard that schools would be closed for the foreseeable future, I panicked. How could I teach both my kids at home while also working from home? Could I actually keep up with the district’s expectations without constantly breathing down my kids’ necks? How could I be both their teacher and their mom?

Of course, my panic was somewhat ironic because I used to be a teacher. Yet, like most families around the world, I felt completely overwhelmed.

Then I got an email from my son’s first grade teacher that changed my perspective. Her advice read, “Take it slow, figure out what works for your family, and establish your routines and expectations.” 

It was what teachers sometimes call an aha moment. As in, aha—I wasn’t being asked to sit beside my child for three hours per day! Aha—I wasn’t being asked to teach reading and math lessons or plan an integrated science unit! I was just being asked to set up the structures he needed to work independently.

If you’ve taken on the role of teacher 24/7 and you are able to, that’s great. But for so many others who can’t give that time, most of the teachers in our lives can help us. They are used to many kids in a classroom, so it’s essential they set up tasks students can do independently. They have to create a curriculum that encourages an independent thinker.

But what does this look like in practice?

We can help ourselves, our kids, and their teachers by setting up clear routines and expectations.

Most parents who are now suddenly responsible for their children’s distance learning don’t need to tackle everything their child’s teacher did. They just need to focus on creating a loving and secure environment at home. In my home, part of feeling secure is knowing the expectations and creating routines that work for my kids.

They know that I am working during certain hours, so my minimum expectation is for the kids to give their best effort on their own work and me the chance to do mine. 

This means I don’t hover over their shoulders while they read or nudge them every time they spell a word incorrectly. I don’t rush them to finish their math or fact-check their science notes. This is because I am not their teacher. I just provide what I know they need. 

This will look different in every family, just like free time or dinner time or homework time looks different. In our house, my kids need a clear visual of what the expectations are, so I help them to write a checklist before bed. 

It includes the assignments that their teachers send and chores that I want them to do. I make sure that they understand what they’re being asked to do, and I make sure that they have the right links or log-ins for online activities.

For instance, I know a family who writes tasks on index cards and lets the kids arrange them. I know other families who do colorful daily schedules on a whiteboard. Do whatever works best for your kids.

We’re setting up the foundation, and it’s incredibly important. 

While these routines might seem restrictive or even the opposite of independence, if they give your kids the scaffolding to work independently during the day, you’re doing something right. Not only are you encouraging independence, but you’re actually letting them put it into practice. Plus routines are a regular part of our kids’ lives. Odds are, they actually thrive in structure.  

The other key to success in our home is making sure my kids have the materials to do their work and keep it organized. I can’t have them wandering into my office, asking for glue sticks and math books every 15 minutes. 

So, borrowing an idea from my days as a teacher, we now have labeled bins in the kitchen. There is one bin for school supplies, another for works in progress, and a third for completed work. The kids know where to find what they need, and they know where to put it when they’re done.

Creating this organization system for younger kids, or helping older kids to create their own, means that they don’t need our help hunting down materials or finding completed work. It’s small, but it does support the goal of encouraging independent thinkers. 

I’m sure the work my boys turn in isn’t as perfect as many of their classmates’. Sometimes it is incomplete, sometimes it is illegible, and sometimes it doesn’t get turned in at all. But it is always their own work (not mine). Plus let’s all remember, we’re in a global pandemic. 

As parents, we shouldn’t feel the pressure to replicate school at home. We are all just trying to do what we can with the time and resources available. This is all we can ask of our kids, too. 

So what do we do with all of that free time? 

Of course, my workday lasts much longer than theirs. Most days the boys finish by lunch. 

For lots of kids, even free-range kids like mine, having five hours of free time is unfamiliar. At first it was boring and even uncomfortable for them. They know how to play by themselves, but they certainly don’t know how to play by themselves for hours upon hours, day after day, without any friends. How could I help them in a way that didn’t require me to be physically available?

A friend of mine, who is a full-time work-from-home genius, repurposed the spinner from a board game into an activity spinner. Whenever her kids, ages 7 and 3, are bored, they spin the wheel. 

I’ve seen different versions of this. Some are jars with activities on Popsicle sticks. In our house, we have “boredom busters” hanging in the TV room. These tools might seem overly involved, but don’t think of them as a crutch—think of them as scaffolding. 

Remember when we first brought our kids outside to play when they were babies or toddlers? We likely guided them in choosing a walking stick or climbing a tree. This is no different. If we want to raise an independent thinker, we have to equip them with the foundation. We are providing the scaffolding for them to learn new skills. 

The more familiar our kids become with entertaining themselves, the less they’ll need to use these tools. And the more independent they’ll become. Eventually, they will be the ones suggesting activities, and they won’t need our structure at all. As parents, we may be panicking—fretting over our own work, our kids’ schooling, and the horrible things we see on the nightly news—but for many kids, this is a new form of independence, and we can guide them through it with a few simple tools.