The discussion about learning and what constitutes “good learning” is almost always couched in the context of a classroom. Today’s students have more access to information and resources beyond the classroom than any prior generation. They can jump online and watch a video tutorial to learn how to do something that interests them. They can explore the globe with Google Earth, go on a virtual tour of the Louvre or the MoMA, or tinker, build, and create in the comfort of their homes. Is this learning less valuable than the learning that happens in a classroom? I would argue this self-directed learning is in many ways more powerful for kids because they decide how they will learn, what they will learn, and when they will learn.

I had an experience with my daughter that hit home the importance of encouraging kids to pursue their own learning outside of school. I’m not talking about homework. I’m talking about spending time investigating and learning about things that matter to THEM. 

My 10-year-old is curious, creative, and does well in school. So, I was alarmed when she came home one day and announced, “I don’t like science.” Surprised, I asked, “What makes you think you do not like science?” She mumbled something about not being very good at it and thinking it was kind of boring. It was clear that she didn’t enjoy the work she was doing in school that was labeled “science.” As an educator who is hyper-aware that we need more females in STEM fields, I immediately sought out fun and engaging science stuff online. I did not want my child to write off science because she didn’t have a positive experience with it in school.

I found Tinker Crate, a science project in a box. It’s delivered each month and presents kids, ages 6 and up, with hands-on tinker challenges. I opted for a monthly subscription ($19.95/month) to try it out.

When the first box arrived with Cheyenne’s name on it, she was excited. She laid out the parts and the directions and got to work. She loved building the flying contraption and was fascinated to read about how it worked. The kit also came with a Tinker Zine booklet with additional science experiments and activities. 

When I asked her if she would enjoy more science experiments from Tinker Crate, she informed me that what she had done “was not science.” A long conversation ensued about what is and what is not science. When she, at last, believed that the Tinker Crate experiment fell under the umbrella of “science,” she said, “Well, maybe I do like science.”

Between Tinker Crate boxes, she searched YouTube for fun science experiments she could do at home. One of the first videos she found was titled “10 Science Projects for Elementary School Students,” which introduce 10 simple experiments and follows each with an explanation of what is happening. She was excited to show me how raisins dance and how socks can be used to make snake bubbles! My kitchen has become her laboratory. I guess, we all have to make sacrifices in the name of science!

I’m happy to report that my daughter is now a fan of science. Even though I ordered that first Tinker Crate, which piqued her interest and curiosity, she decided to continue learning. She sought out YouTube videos. She decided to sprout beans and lentils. She documented the insects in our backyard and did Google searches to learn more about them. In almost all of these instances, she was her own teacher. Technology connected her with the information she needed to answer her own questions and make sense of what she was learning. 

As I watch my children grow and develop, I am convinced we can learn a lot from them about what learning looks like. Educators often wrestle with the most effective ways to engage students, but how often do we ask them how they would prefer to learn? Are we taking cues from our students to better understand how they learn both online and offline beyond the classroom? Are the assignments we send home with kids teaching them how to learn beyond the classroom or robbing them of the time they need to explore and learn on their own?

7 Responses

  1. My own daughter was very interested in science as well. I supported her “habit” by getting her experiments and equipment from Steve Spangler Science ( I am happy to say that it was worth all the mess! She will be a chemistry major next year in college. 🙂

    • Hi Trish! I love Steve Spangler Science! I had the pleasure of meeting him at a YouTube Summit years ago. He is super engaging. Thank you for sharing this link.

      I love that your daughter is pursuing a chemistry major. Like I said in my post, we need more women in the sciences!


  2. Catlin –

    I love that she thought she was not doing science! This is what I keep telling my families. Science can be fun and is fun when engaged in a fun way. “How often do we ask them how they would prefer to learn?” This is true. As the adults, we always think we know what’s better for them. I went to a conference this weekend when a teacher told me that she stop worrying about the “process” and care more about the content! What makes a child happy, smile, curious? She told me how she is not letting adults dictate her teaching but her kids. How are you letting your students dictate your teaching in the classroom and even outside the classroom?

    • Hi Susie,

      I’m a BIG fan of “free range teaching” where students get to design the learning. In fact, by the end of the year, my students are designing the units from the ground up! The more autonomy and choice students have in the classroom, the more relevant the learning becomes.


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