Authentic Learning
Creating Authentic Learning Experiences at Home
Katie Martin
Many parents have now become their kids’ teachers whether they wanted to be or not. There is fear that our kids will miss out if we don’t recreate school at home. We all have an opportunity to create or simply make space for learning experiences that are authentic, personal, and impactful for each child at home. It’s not about recreating school, it’s about fostering a love of learning and joy, and slowing down to just be, explore, wonder, and create.
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There are a lot of unknowns with the current quarantine and school closures. Many parents have now become their kids’ teachers whether they wanted to be or not. I understand the challenge of managing work, kids, and relationships in new structures and know that we will have to be patient with ourselves and others as we navigate this together and set new priorities and boundaries. 

There is fear that our kids will miss out if we don’t recreate school at home. In light of obligations and parenting styles, there are many who have abandoned all structure and those who have turned to hyper-structured environments to stay sane. Each family and child is different and I suspect that our routines and approaches will continue to evolve. But we all have an opportunity to create or simply make space for learning experiences that are authentic, personal, and impactful for each child at home. For me, it’s not about recreating school, it’s about fostering a love of learning and joy, and slowing down to just be, explore, wonder, and create. 

Take a moment to think about a time when you learned something that made an impact. This doesn’t have to be in school. Whether it was riding a bike, learning to cook, driving a car, or performing in a play, think not only about what you learned, but how you learned. What was the context? How did you feel? 

This exercise might have conjured up fond memories of powerful learning. Regardless of the vast experiences I hear people share, the themes of authentic learning experiences remain pretty consistent:

  • personal connections
  • opportunities to exert agency
  • clear goals and accountability
  • an inquiry-based approach
  • collaboration
  • authenticity
  • productive struggle
  • use of models
  • time for critique, revision, and reflection

Currently, we have an opportunity to connect with kids, lead them to explore new parts of the world, and even help them slow down. Instead of trying to recreate the school day with subjects and worksheets, we can use this time to engage in authentic learning experiences that mimic the same powerful learning experiences that you just conjured. While it’s important that kids continue to develop basic skills and maybe finish that math worksheet, it’s more important that we foster connection, love, curiosity, and hope in these unprecedented times.

Here is the rub: If you ask kids what they care about, many don’t know—especially in the context of school. Passion projects and authentic learning can only go so far without a little structure or spark to get started. If we want children to engage in authentic learning, it is foundational to spark curiosity to help them develop the new skills, knowledge, and mindsets that are so critical for their development. Author and executive coach Josh Miller connects curiosity and learning: “Curiosity is the engine of intellectual achievement. Studies show that those who are more curious about a topic tend to learn faster. For example, this study shows that curiosity essentially primes the brain for learning.”

Here are some ideas and opportunities to spark curiosity and engage in authentic learning at home.

Go on a Virtual Field Trip

Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Several zoos around the country are letting you explore the grounds and see the animals while they are closed. Now you can go on a safari at the Cincinnati Zoo and hang out with giraffes or check out sea life at the aquarium, all from the safe quarantine of your home. Check out the zoos and aquariums that are offering virtual field trips here. You can also visit these incredible museums and galleries.

Put on a Performance and Share 

Jennifer Garner, a pretty amazing and empathetic mamma, started the hashtag #heyjenlookatme to create a place for kids to share the performances that they have been working so hard on all year. Your kids can perform something they have been practicing at school or practice something new and share their art on social media with Jen or Laura Banati who is doing something similar. If you aren’t ready for the public, share videos or go live with grandma and grandpa, close friends, or just put on a performance inside your home for your family.

Build a Fort or a Treehouse

My kids are obsessed with our tree outside and it now has a zipline and two hanging chairs. Since they are home indefinitely, they have decided their next project is to build a treehouse. Building forts and treehouses is not only fun, it also requires them to be resourceful with what we have, work together, and use skills to make a functioning structure. In my experience, it continues to be a learning experience once it’s done. They play in it for hours and become inspired to renovate and make improvements.

Draw with Mo Willems 

Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Famous author and artist Mo Willems is inviting us to join him every day for a virtual doodling session. Join him every weekday at 1 p.m. EST or, if you can’t make his live event, watch the archived videos later. If you prefer to go it alone, take a page from his book and simply make time to draw and create with your kids throughout the day.


Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams have teamed up to create #SaveWithStories, where children can watch celebrities read their favorite books. Whether it’s a celebrity, grandparent, or yourself reading to them, make sure kids have plenty of opportunities to read stories, nonfiction, newspapers, blogs, or anything that piques their interest. Spending time each day reading independently is important and it’s also important for them to see you read. Here are some great strategies to use when reading with kids of all ages.

Go on a Nature/City/Farm Walk and Explore Your Community

I love this project from elementary teacher Annick Rauch. She took her students on a walk in their community to notice, explore, and learn what makes a good community. You can recreate this with your kids by going on a walk (and of course keeping the appropriate distance from others).

Bake Something

My daughter loves to bake and it continues to be a great learning experience for her. She watches videos online from her favorite bakers and then—through some trial and error—learns to find a recipe, thinks through a plan, makes sure she has the right ingredients, and creates a variety of (mostly) yummy dishes. Here are a few recipes to try.

Learn About COVID-19 and the History of Other Pandemics

Courtesy of Newsela

There are great videos and resources that are being created to help kids learn about COVID-19. Katie Novak has created daily learning schedules and compiled coronavirus resources and activities. Check it out for more ideas. 

Here are two sample learning exercises from Novak:

  • Go to the Coronavirus text set on Newsela (free login). Allow kids to choose two articles they are interested in about Coronavirus. They can read alone or work with a sibling. You can also read it to them. You can lower reading level so kids can comprehend articles they choose (it’s in the Lexile box on top right). 
  • Alternatively, play this podcast for kids from “But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids”- it’s about coronavirus and the science of soap! (Thanks, @TimOLeary_VT)

Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius

These experiences and more can spark curiosity that can ignite passion and unleash the genius in your kids. I shared these questions in this blog about how families could make the most of this time at home:

  • What problems are you interested in working on?
  • What do you want to learn more about?
  • What do you know and what do you still need to learn?
  • What resources (i.e. books, articles, videos) might help you learn more?
  • How does this connect to what you already know?
  • What are some creative ways to solve this problem?
  • Who are the experts you can learn from?
  • How will you share what you are learning?

This framework and guiding questions from Design39Campus are great to think about how you might structure an inquiry-based project. When kids are curious and engaged in authentic learning, there are many opportunities to write, read, create, and share throughout the process.

I would love to hear @katiemartinedu what you’re doing to spark curiosity and involve learners during this time.