Child Led Seems Unruly And Chaotic–How Do You Deal With The Chaos?

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Ask Melinda is a Playvolution HQ column offering thoughtful answers to family child care questions written by Melinda Marshall.

Your questions, comments, and answers are welcome in the comment section at the end of the post.

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This week’s question:

Child Led Seems So Unruly And Chaotic. How Do You Deal With The Chaos?


That’s a great question and one I get asked often!

While I am by nature relaxed about noise and mess, child led in NO WAY means unruly and chaotic. As a matter of fact, when children are deeply engaged it is often quite opposite.

Children need to yell and throw and stomp and smash paint and roll around in mud. It’s what they do. Remember, a moving child is a learning child.

Children also need the freedom and trust to choose the activities THEY are interested in and want to learn about.

Child led does NOT mean broken furniture, holes in walls, or paint thrown on the ceiling.

(Ok, maybe there IS paint on my ceiling, but it was completely accidental. LOL)

 “True learning – learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning — can arise only out of the experience, interest, and concerns of the learner.”

John Holt

Children are highly curious and have a large amount of unique ideas. Child led learning allows children to oversee what interests THEM. This allows for more deep and complex learning. When unpressured, it fosters a deeper love of learning, and happens much quicker, easier, and more naturally.

Here are a few things I often consider when it comes to allowing child led play in my home. 


The learning environment plays a key role in child led learning. Children thrive in environments that are suited to their interests and developmental stages. Although family childcares are in our homes and often directly in our personal living spaces, giving children’s needs an afterthought leads to some of the issues providers often mention.

Children need a place that is welcoming, authentic and aesthetically pleasing, culturally representative of their community, embraces nature and is filled with purposeful materials. Their space needs to promote relationships, communication, collaboration, and exploration through play. Materials should thoughtfully be added to the environment to promote creativity, thinking and problem-solving skills, questions, experimentation and open-ended play.

Yes, these are still our homes, but if we are going to welcome children into our spaces, we need to be welcoming to their needs as well.

You might not have a separate space in your home or room enough for EVERYTHING you see in typical childcare program, and that’s ok! There are ways to control the environment to meet your family’s needs and still meet the needs of the children as well. Maybe you can rearrange furniture and add a nook area for messy play. Cover furniture with old bed sheets during the day. Lay a shower curtain or drop cloth under children’s tables to protect flooring. There are a lot of ways to protect your home and still allow for child led learning. This leads me to the next example.

Flexibility And Letting Go Of Perfection

Yes, I know. They’re our homes. I get it. But when working with children we must keep flexibility and our ADULT need for perfection in mind. Our homes are going to get messy. Things will get accidentally spilled and accidentally broken. Things won’t go as planned and plans will change in an instant.

We often take hikes though the woods to get to the other side of our property where we keep our livestock and a lot of our fruit trees/bushes. One would think that our plan would be to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible so we can pick berries or tend to our animals. However, often it takes quite a bit of time just to get there. Children are naturally inquisitive and curious. They stop to climb on a fallen tree or pick up bugs and collect leaves. What should be a 5-minute walk sometimes takes much, much longer.

This doesn’t just happen on walks, but at the art easel, in the block area, and even at mealtimes.

With child led learning, its about the journey, not the destination.

Routine And Structure

Even with giving children control of their learning, space to do so, and keeping flexibility in mind, child led does NOT mean chaotic and unruly. We still have a simply routine which helps give children a sense of what happens throughout the day. Structure and boundaries are still important as well.

Let’s take throwing for example. We know through our understanding of child development that children NEED to throw. We NEED to give children time and space to do so.

You can control this activity by controlling the environment. Give them a space to throw. Give them soft objects to throw. Remove fragile home décor.

Give them boundaries but include the children in creating them! Children are much more likely to adhere to “rules” when they are included and given responsibility. Its ok to not allow heavy blocks to be thrown at each other, furniture, or the TV. Sometimes simple reminders are all children need.

Get Outside!

When all else fails GET OUTSIDE.

Outside areas are often much larger and can better accommodate large movement and messy play. If you don’t have the space (or maybe willingness) to allow this sort of play indoors, than you MUST be willing to find a better alternative and being outside is a good solution.

Children need to move in order to learn. While there are MANY proven benefits to being outdoors and in nature, the reason we spend much of our day outside is because of space restraints indoors. Outside, children are free to move and run and jump as much as they need to.

So, At The End Of The Day…

Child led does not have to mean chaotic and unruly. It simply means children are free to choose what topics and activities interest them. When children can lead their own learning it often times leads to deeper, more meaningful and even CALMER learning environments.

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Owner at Mountaintop Family Child Care

Melinda lives in Upstate New York and is owner of her home based program, Mountaintop Family Childcare.

She has been a family child care provider for over 18 years and worked with children for over 27 years. Her program offers relationship based care that includes many aspects of farm life and nature/forest school with PLAY at the center of all they do. She firmly believes in slowing down childhood and allowing children to develop at their own pace.

Melinda believes family childcare programs offer unique settings that have much to offer to the early learning world. She strongly supports family providers in keeping a home like atmosphere in their programs. Backed by research, she continuously advocates for children's right to play.

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