When I first heard about approaching children’s learning in ways that incorporate their individual interests, I was intrigued by the concept. I was even more interested in the idea of learning happening through play. It seemed drastically different to the learning opportunities I had encountered as a child. I had grown up surrounded by rigid curriculums and standardized everything, from the tests we took to the activities we completed as homework. Having only ever experienced these forms of learning, I did not know the power that comes from following the interests of a child, until I did so myself. After all, children feel seen and cared for when their interests are realized and intentionally incorporated into their play.
While collecting lab hours as a child development and early education major, I spent time creating learning opportunities for preschoolers. One morning, this included setting up a simple art provocation. Varying colors of pipe cleaners were placed out on a table, along with construction paper and scissors. I had planned this play experience after observing children crafting jewelry out of paper during their free choice times. Day after day, the children would use paper, markers, tape, and a variety of other craft materials to create pieces that they would wear on their heads or wrists. I was curious what they might do if I added in a new option that could be used in similar ways.
Two little girls joined me at the table, immediately diving into the new material. As we sat—bending and twisting pipe cleaners—I noticed one of the girls looking at my hair. She grabbed a new pipe cleaner and approached me. Grasping some of my hair between her fingers, she asked if she could put something in it. At first, I was hesitant. The pragmatic side of me thought about how tangled my hair might become. Thankfully, the open-to-learn side of me realized this was an opportunity to follow this little girl’s interests in the moment. When I agreed, her face lit up, and she got to work tying pipe cleaners into my hair. She spent around a half hour twisting and tying until she smiled, stepped back, and said, “all done!”
In that moment, as I looked at my hair, I saw so much about this child. I saw the dedication she had shown in taking time to add these creations to my hair, and the approaches she had taken to get there. I saw the way she beamed as she looked at her work; the way she hurried to share it with others. I realized all that could have been missed if I had listened to the side of me that was worried about a minor inconvenience such as tangles in my hair. This was my own learning in action.
It is easy to forget to look through a child’s lens. However, children are unique and individual beings, with experiences and interests that are entirely their own. These interests are one of the many ways we can connect with and learn from children as educators. When children’s interests are incorporated into their play—and subsequently their learning—they are more likely to get the most out of an experience. This opens the door for opportunities that might otherwise be missed, with some of the best learning coming from places we as adults may not anticipate or plan for.