Fostering Independent Learning and Intrinsic Motivation in Your Child

Why Learning Cannot and Should Not Look the Same During a Pandemic

McGraw Hill
May 8, 2020 · 9 min read

By Kerrie LaRosa, Clinical Social Worker and Parent Coach

During this time of COVID-19 and uncertainty, there is fear that children will fall behind if they don’t follow a rigid and rigorous academic schedule — one that is almost impossible to fulfill outside of the school walls. This also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on teachers and educators who are juggling staying home with their families, as well as parents who likely are unable to attend to their child’s school-based academia effectively while juggling other job and household responsibilities.

These are unique times and trying to fit the previous educational model into our current environment is not realistic. According to Hilary Hughes and Stephanie Jones, University of Georgia Professors in the Education of Theory and Practice and co-directors of the Red Clay Writing Project, “There is no transforming face-to-face teaching and learning into COVID-19 teaching and learning overnight. And even if it was possible, doing so might not make sense in this time of national and global emergency.”

Instead of fitting an old curriculum into an online format, let’s shift our mindset about how children learn and reframe this as an opportunity to encourage independent and student-driven learning.

Children are Always Learning

It is a myth that children only learn at school. Children learn outside of school through everyday interactions and activities. Children learn math and measurement while baking cupcakes, science while planting a garden, and reading while playing cards.

In order to be a successful adult (however you define the word success), reading, writing, and math are only a part of the recipe for children. Children need to learn essential skills such as empathy, persistence, and problem-solving.

When children engage in everyday activities they not only learn traditional school skills, but also social-emotional skills that are crucial for life-long learning and success.

How Do We Fit Learning Into This New, Challenging Environment?

Let’s be real, this is not business as usual. We are not choosing to transition to distance learning. This is learning during a pandemic and a crisis. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we must first meet our physiological needs (food, shelter), then our safety needs (staying healthy), then our connection needs (love and belonging).

Only after those needs are met are we open to learning. Right now meeting those first three needs is a daily challenge and a higher priority than traditional school is. The positive side is that if we let go and give ourselves permission to meet those needs and those needs of our children, learning will happen more naturally and with less stress and micromanaging.

Let’s be creative, let’s notice what children are already capable of learning with little to no intervention from adults.

Does it seem hard to believe that children are learning if they don’t fill out worksheets, write a paper, or complete 20 math problems? As a society, we have tried to make education quantifiable, measurable, and tangible, but this does not necessarily equal quality learning. And more work does not necessarily equal more learning. If learning is meaningful, relevant, and taps into passions and intrinsic motivation, then children are able to attain more knowledge, more efficiently.

If you need more convincing, I have put together a list of everyday activities that promote learning.

STEAM Skills

You don’t need a science lab or a fancy coding program to learn STEAM skills; children naturally are learning STEAM skills every day.

  • Science: Children learn science while tracing shadows, growing a garden, looking for worms, digging in the dirt, walking outside, or baking cookies.
  • Technology: When children code, play online games, make face masks, look through a magnifying glass or a telescope, or help their grandparent get on their first Zoom call, they are learning about technology.
  • Engineering: Building forts, stacking blocks, and putting Legos and train tracks together teach engineering skills.
  • Art: Drawing, painting, taking photos, chalk drawings, egg dying, and cookie decorating all teach art.
  • Math: Counting steps, using fractions while cooking, counting how many spaces to move while playing chutes and ladders, and adding up their changing in their piggy bank teach math skills. Math can also be incorporating into everyday conversations. How old is your cousin if he is three years older than you? If the cereal cost $3, how much would we have to pay for three boxes? These skills also overlap in these activities.

So one simple activity of building something with cardboard boxes can teach all these STEAM skills in addition to problem-solving and cooperation.


Reading in the traditional sense is obvious, but children also learn reading skills through music, following directions while baking, reading street signs, finding the letters in their name in magazines or books. If you have a reluctant reader, make it fun, read to them, let them choose their own book, and don’t worry if it is not the “level” you think they should be reading at. Have your child create a reading nook or set aside family reading time even if it is just 10 minutes a day.

For more ideas on how to encourage reading at home, see the below resources.


Writing can also come in many forms. Some children love journal writing, others love to write lists (their to-do list or birthday wish list), or letters to their relatives. Children also write text messages, signs for a friend’s birthday, or writing chalk messages on the sidewalk. Children may like to write stories, create content in a PowerPoint, or play Mad Libs.

Social Studies

Children are learning social studies through their daily life of quarantine. Whatever level of understanding your child has about COVID-19, it is impacting their daily life and they are learning about life in a pandemic and how a world can change so suddenly. They don’t even have to engage in a specific activity to learn about social studies. They are living in a historical moment.

If they are interested in what is happening around them, you can build on this by inviting them to create a time capsule, write a story, or record a video about their experience during the quarantine. Children also learn social studies by learning about the history of their town, following the election, studying a map to see where their grandparent lives, or visiting a national park virtually.

When children can follow their interests and we can let go of learning in the traditional sense, we promote learning in its purest and most effective form. Learning becomes natural, does not require micromanaging and conditions children to be intrinsically motivated, independent learners.

How Do I Encourage Independent Learning?

1) Take a step back.

There is a sense of urgency to control our children’s learning. The truth is children learn best when they can take ownership of their learning. This will be an adjustment since we are used to controlling their schedules and they are used to feeling micromanaged. Give your child space to get bored, curious, and rediscover their interests.

In her book, Mindsets and Moves, Gravity Goldberg, Author and Literacy Consultant, talks about “stepping back so students can step forward” (Goldberg, 2016, p.2) “until students have the sense of autonomy they cannot be fully engaged” (Goldberg, 2016, p. 16). Children cannot develop independence if we continue to hover and control their learning. If we can step back and allow them to drive their learning, they are more likely to find their passion and tap into their intrinsic motivation to learn.

2) Start with your child’s interests.

What do they love? Is it baseball, music, history, cooking, animals, art, or astronomy? The more passionate they are about the subject the more intrinsically motivated they are to learn about it.

3) Match that passion with a medium.

Encourage your child to find books, articles, podcasts, or videos on the subject and dive into the learning.

4) Then have them choose an activity.

They can write about it through story-writing, journaling, comic book writing, or a letter to a relative. They can draw or do an art project on the subject. If they enjoy technology they can record a video or create a slide show presentation.

The key to making this successful is giving your child the space, freedom, and flexibility to find their intrinsic motivation and allowing their natural curiosity to drive their learning.

Establishing a Routine

This is a new learning environment for everyone. Children are adjusting to the idea of being educated outside of school as much as we are. Help them by creating a routine that is realistic, flexible, and fits into your family’s current needs. Set clear expectations for your children and be consistent with them. Allow your children freedom and flexibility within that routine. Some examples of structure that are currently working for families are:

1) Establish School Time

Let your children know when “school time is and when to turn off noneducational screens. For example, school may go from 9–1. Within that time explain your expectations that they engage in activities that fuel their independent learning (playing, projects, reading, infotainment).

2) Create a must-do and a may do list.

I borrowed this from my son’s teacher. With your child’s input, come up with a list of things she “must-do” (a chore, reading) and follow it with a “may do” list (online math games, listening to podcasts, writing a letter to a friend).

3) Some structure might be necessary.

For children that need more structure and guidance, work with them to create a list of activities that they can work on independently, check in with them a little more frequently, and be as consistent as possible with your routine.

4) Create a Summer Schedule.

If it fits best for your children and family, treat this time as spring or summer break. Have a loose schedule, play, spend time connecting with each other, and follow your child’s lead about where the day goes.

Putting It All Together

When choosing the new home learning environment, consider your children’s learning preferences and what will fuel their independence. This is new for parents and children alike so give yourself and them time to adjust to their new independence and choices. You may have to guide them more in the beginning before they become more independent.

There is no easy way through life during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are easier ways. Instead of forcing pre-COVID-19 ways to fit into the current environment, let’s reframe this as an opportunity to encourage independent learning and to get back to the way children learn best, by following their passions and tapping into their intrinsic motivation. So if you want to make your life a little easier during quarantine, help them take ownership of their own learning, point them in the direction of their passions and interests, and let them decide where to go with them.

Kerrie LaRosa is a parent coach, clinical social worker, and mother helping parents connect with their children, enhance their relationships, and improve their parenting skills. You can connect with Kerrie at and

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators.

McGraw Hill

Written by

We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

McGraw Hill

Written by

We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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