Activities to Encourage Independent Learning: Unlocking Children’s Incredible Potential

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Every child comes into the world with a unique blend of talents, interests, and innate skills.

As parents, our mission is to help them discover and nurture these gifts.

Independent learning is a cornerstone of this lifelong journey of discovery.

Not only does independent learning build problem-solving skills, but it also boosts confidence and instills a love for learning in general. Of course, this is going to improve their academic performance at school.

And the good news is, you don’t need to be a teacher or an expert to facilitate this. Simple, everyday activities can serve as powerful learning experiences.

a little girl reading in the evening in her bedroom

Independent Learning in Children: Why You Should Read On

If you’re looking for real-world tips to ignite your child’s love for learning, you’re in the right place.

This article is your hands-on guide to developing active learners.

Away from textbooks and classrooms, we explore a range of imaginative activities. These are designed to spark your child’s curiosity.

Think backyard treasure hunts and mini science projects. I’ll walk you through independent activities that can make free time an exciting learning journey.

These aren’t just fun pastimes. They’re key building blocks for your child’s intellectual and emotional development.

The Adventure of Independent Learning

Independent Learning as Treasure Hunting

Picture your child collecting independent learning skills like clues in a treasure hunt. Each challenge they face is a clue, and every win is a treasure found.

What they gain isn’t just a gold star or a high score. It’s skills and wisdom that they’ll keep forever.

Whether it’s tackling a maths problem or studying nature in the garden, the true treasures are knowledge and understanding. And these are gifts that last.

3 characteristics that fuel independent learning

Characteristics that Fuel Independent Learning

What drives a child to take ownership of their learning, and even develop their own learning goals?

It isn’t just about IQ or natural talent.

I’ve found that these three qualities are the most important.

  • Curiosity
  • Self-esteem, and
  • Resilience.

Curiosity fuels the questions, self-esteem provides the courage to seek answers, and resilience offers the grit to persevere when the going gets tough.

To encourage curiosity, ask your child open-ended questions that do not have a particular correct answer. Teach them that it’s not about getting a right answer but everything that they discover throughout the thinking, researching and discussion process.

Give your child positive feedback when they show curiosity for themselves. If they incorporate curiosity into their learning style at school, they will be rewarded with success from young kids right through to young adults in higher education.

These three qualities combine to shape a child in the best way for future independent learning, ensuring that they become emotionally intelligent.

Growth Mindset and Independent Learning

The three characteristics above encapsulate a growth mindset.

As you may know, a growth mindset is a positive state of mind where a child feels confident that they can progress and develop in a particular area.

This is the opposite of a fixed mindset; the idea that a child is “no good” at reading, for example.

It goes without saying that your child will struggle to be an independent learner without a growth mindset.

happy dad and son researching together on a laptop

The Risks of Neglecting Independent Learning Traits

So what happens if we don’t nurture these traits in our children?

The absence of curiosity can lead to disengagement from the learning process.

Lack of self-esteem may result in fear of trying new things.

A deficit in resilience could make your child quick to give up when faced with challenges.

I’ve seen first hand in my clinic that difficulties with any of these traits can lead to a disengaged and directionless child.

When young children don’t build these traits (sometimes with extra adult support needed), they miss out on both the joy and the benefits of independent learning. This can result in a lack of motivation for educational and will affect their overall wellbeing.

Younger Children and Independent Play

In younger children I suggest encouraging independent play early on.

If your child struggles with this make it gradual in the early years.

For example, play with them for 5 minutes, then tell them you need to complete a task but you will return to play with them in another 5 minutes.

The time alone could just spark their imagination and take them in a new direction they wouldn’t have discovered if they were always guided by you!

close up of a ten year old boy's face

Building Young Entrepeneurs

The entrepreneurial spirit is not just for adults on ‘Dragons’ Den’ (Shark Tank if you’re American!). Many kids have a natural knack for business too, especially when it involves fun and creativity.

Encouraging a bit of entrepreneurship can do wonders for their independent learning.

Let’s dive into some engaging activities your child can try.

1. Market Day at Home

Who needs a trip to the local market when you can host one right in your living room?

Get the whole family involved and let your child take the lead. They can ‘sell’ or exchange their crafts, second-hand toys, or even their own baked goods.

Setting prices, making signs, and handling the ‘money’ can make maths fun and meaningful.

Not only does this great activity teach them about value, but it also lets them practice their social skills in a safe setting. So go ahead: It’s market day!

child running a yard sale on a sunny day

2. Lemonade Stand or Driveway Sale

A lemonade stand, driveway sale or charity stall can be a great adventure.

As a child when I was around age nine until around age twelve, my friends and I raised money for a charity called the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) through driveway sales, selling cakes and second hand items.

We learned so many new skills!

Your child can learn about planning, budgeting, and customer service, all while having a jolly good time.

From squeezing lemons or brewing tea to counting change, each step is a lesson in independence.

Don’t forget to discuss profits and maybe even the concept of giving back. Could some of the day’s earnings go to a charity they care about?

Your child will learn how fantastic it feels to give to others, and it will give them an opportunity to think about their core values.

Secret Missions for Young Detectives

Kids are naturally curious, and what better way to feed that curiosity than to turn them into sleuths for a day?

Here are a couple of ‘whodunnit’ activities that will not only thrill your little detectives but also teach them valuable skills in observation and critical thinking.

1. Scavenger Hunts

How about turning an ordinary walk around the neighbourhood or a day in the garden into a grand adventure?

Create a list of things to find. A red leaf, a smooth stone, or maybe even a cheeky squirrel. Turn it into a full-blown scavenger hunt, and you have an exciting quest.

Your child will need to use their problem-solving and observational skills. It’s a workout for their brains, and a brilliant way to make a boring afternoon more exciting. Plus, they’ll get some fresh air as a bonus!

three children running in a field

2. The Mystery of the Missing Cookie

Here’s one for rainy days when you’re all cooped up at home.

Someone has stolen a cookie from the cookie jar!

But who could it be?

Turn your living room into a mini crime scene and let the young detectives get to work.

Plant clues around the house—a crumb trail, a hidden note, or even a ‘suspect list.’ They’ll need to use their best deduction skills to solve the mystery.

This game isn’t just fun. It teaches them to look for details and draw conclusions based on evidence.

The World Through a Lens

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes.

But what about the stories behind those pictures?

Whether your kids are using a fancy camera or a smartphone, photography is a fantastic way for them to express themselves and learn about the world.

1. Nature Photography Hunts

Grab a camera and head out to the local park or even your own back garden.

Turn a simple nature walk into a nature photography hunt.

The mission?

To capture the best shots of birds, leaves, or bugs. Anything that catches their eye.

Not only does this get them outside and moving, but it also teaches them to look closely at the world around them. Plus, the photos serve as a lasting memory of their adventures, giving them something to be proud of.

It can also help them develop respect and curiosity for other species.

2. Family Documentary Making

Why not get the whole family involved in something a bit special.

A family documentary!

Your young filmmaker can be the director, interviewing family members, and capturing memorable moments.

They can even dig into old family photos for a ‘throwback’ section.

My children have created “movies” about family holidays or adventures, and it’s so wonderful to look back on these.

Creating a family documentary helps your child develop planning and storytelling skills. It’s not just about hitting ‘record’; they have to think about what to ask and plan how to piece it all together.

It’s a fantastic way to spend quality time as a family, creating something you’ll treasure for years to come.

Tech-Based Independent Learning

Help your child learn that technology can be used creatively! It’s not just for scrolling through social media or watching endless YouTube videos.

Your child’s tablet or computer can be a gateway to learning experiences that we couldn’t even imagine back in our own school days.

Ready to find out how? Let’s jump in.

1. Coding Their Own Video Game

Most kids love video games, so why not encourage them to make their own?

It might sound like a big task, but there are plenty of beginner-friendly platforms like Scratch or that make it super accessible.

They’ll learn the basics of coding, logic, and problem-solving, all while having a blast. It’s the sort of project that might start off as a game but could turn into a lifelong passion.

And let’s be honest, it’s miles better than them just playing someone else’s game all day!

2. Building Virtual Worlds

If your child is a fan of games like Minecraft, Roblox, Animal Jam or Animal Crossing: New Horizons, then they’re already on their way to becoming independent learners and independent thinkers.

In these games children can build their own virtual worlds. They can create anything from a small village to a sprawling metropolis.

Through this activity, they’ll gain a deeper understanding of spatial awareness, planning, and resource management.

It’s not just solitary work; they can collaborate with friends or siblings, making it a social learning experience as well.

The Science of Everyday Life

Science isn’t just something that happens in a lab or a far-off galaxy. It’s happening right here, in our kitchens and gardens.

So why not use your everyday surroundings to ignite your child’s scientific curiosity?

Here are a couple of simple yet engaging activities to get started.

1. Kitchen Chemistry

Next time you’re baking or cooking, invite your child to join you.

Turn it into a mini chemistry lesson by talking about how ingredients interact.

What makes the cake rise? Why does vinegar and baking soda fizz up?

If you don’t know the answer, why not find a YouTube video to watch together as you work!

This hands-on activity is a tasty way to introduce concepts like chemical reactions. Plus, you end up with something delicious at the end, so it’s a win-win!

a mother and daughter baking bread together

2. Backyard Botany

You don’t need to go to a rainforest to study plants. Your own back garden will do just fine.

Encourage your child to observe the different types of plants, leaves, and maybe even insects that inhabit your garden.

Collect leaves, examine them in different ways, and perhaps press them in books.

Make a scrapbook of the changing flora and fauna in your garden or local park across the seasons.

It’s a lovely way to learn about local plants and understand a bit about ecology. It also encourages observation skills and respect for nature, right on your doorstep.

Independent Learning Through Art

Art has a magical way of bringing out the best in us.

Art helps us express who we are and how we see the world. This, in turn, helps us get clearer on our identity and what’s important to us.

So let’s uncap those markers and unroll that paper. Here are some artful activities to boost your child’s independence.

1. Curating a Home Art Show

How about turning your living room into an art gallery for a day?

Let your child curate their very own art show, showcasing their drawings, paintings, or any other creative projects.

Why not have a theme, such as “nature” or “friendship”?

This activity encourages planning, organization, and pride in their work.

Plus, it’s a brilliant way to celebrate your child’s creativity and maybe even invite other family members to attend the show.

ten year old boy arranging his art work on a table

2. Becoming a Storyteller

Art isn’t just about visuals; it’s about storytelling too.

Encourage your child to create a short comic strip or illustrate a story they have made up.

You can even get them to ‘publish’ it by stapling pages together.

If they are feeling especially adventurous they could turn it into an animation using an electronic device.

Not only does this tap into their imagination, but it also integrates creative writing into the mix. They get to think about plot, characters, and dialogue, all while bringing their own ideas to life through drawings.

How to Be Your Child’s Sidekick

As much as we want our kids to become independent learners, it’s natural to worry about their well-being.

Striking the right balance between giving them freedom and ensuring their safety can be a fine art.

Here are some ideas about how you can master it.

The Balance of Freedom and Safety

While it’s tempting to hover like a helicopter, try to give them room to explore and make mistakes through independent learning.

Set boundaries, but within those boundaries let them roam free. That’s how they learn best.

Let your child know you’re there as a safety net, but resist the urge to step in at the first sign of struggle. They might surprise you with their resourcefulness, and it gives them the chance to develop problem-solving skills.

Independent Learning: Being a Resource, Not a Roadblock

As parents, our instinct is to protect and guide.

But sometimes, that can inadvertently turn us into roadblocks rather than resources. Try to let your child take the lead in terms of their activity and learning choices.

Being a ‘sidekick’ means providing the tools they need and then stepping back.

Let them come to you with questions or for help. That way, they learn to seek out resources independently, which is a valuable life skill in itself.

When Things Don’t Go as Planned

Life is of course not always a smooth ride, and the same goes for independent learning.

Mistakes will happen and many of their projects will flop, but that’s okay.

They tried to put together a play with their friends but the others wouldn’t co-operate? Never mind. They probably learned a lot about leadership.

Your child tried to be an entrepreneur making and selling friendship bracelets but nobody bought? Although they may be upset, on reflection your child has probably learned invaluable skills in business and planning.

The important thing is how we react as parents and how we guide our children through these challenges and “failures”.

Independent Study: Why Some Children Struggle More Than Others

When it comes to independent study you need to meet your child where they are at.

You can build their confidence over time through the activities I have suggested above, but learning the skills for independent study is more difficult for some children.

Children with neurodevelopmental differences such as autism and ADHD, for example, may have greater challenges with independent study. Autistic brains can find it difficult to start a task or move from one task to another quickly, sometimes getting hyperfocused on the current task. This can cause issues with time management.

Some autistic children also experience black and white thinking, which may impact the way they show curiosity about the world.

For example, their curiosity may be limited to a particular special interest. This can be hard if they are required to study independently in an area they are not interested in.

As a parent you play an important role in gradually building up your child’s independent study skills.

For example, you may need to help your child prioritize the most urgent tasks, or break down larger pieces of homework into smaller chunks. Very often, your child will be able to complete each smaller task once you have helped them get started.

mother comforting sad little boy

Independent Learning Activities: Learning from “Failures”

Nobody likes to fail, but let’s face it, everyone does at some point.

Instead of treating it as a setback, see it as a learning curve. Encourage your child to analyse what didn’t go to plan and how they can do things differently next time.

This type of independent learning does wonders for resilience and problem-solving. It shows children that failure isn’t the end of the world but rather a stepping stone on the path to success.

Plus, it’s a valuable lesson in humility and perseverance.

How to Step in Without Taking Over

There might be moments where you feel you need to step in.

But how can you help without taking the reins completely?

Offer guidance and suggestions, but let them make the final decision.

For example, if their homemade volcano didn’t erupt as planned, ask them what they think went wrong and how they might fix it.

Let them come to their own conclusions, but be there as a sounding board and a guide.

Encouraging Independent Learning Activities in Children: Summary

As we’ve explored, independent learning isn’t just a one-off project or a weekend activity. It’s an ongoing process, full of twists, turns, ups, and downs.

I hope these ideas have provided some inspiration to get you started!

The Never-Ending Journey of Independent Learning

Independent learning is a lifelong pursuit. Today’s baking session turns into tomorrow’s interest in chemistry. A simple home art show could spark a career in design or curation.

The lessons learned from ‘failures’ become the wisdom of future successes.

Even when the teenage years come knocking and they think they know it all, the foundational skills you’ve helped instill will stay with them for life.

So, the journey of independent learning is never really complete. Lifelong learning simply evolves as your child does.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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