Not going the traditional preschool route? That’s okay. You can provide your toddler with what he or she needs and still enjoy being home.
Preschoolers and toddlers are loads of fun! Granted, there is spilled water, torn books, potty training and a few more messes than with older children. But, there’s also an innocence and a joie de vivre that is infectious. Our littles can be so fun!
They are amazing learners, too. Young children observe and mimic and learn about their world through imitation. Just this weekend, FishBaby-Almost-not-a-Baby-Anymore helped FishPapa make coffee. It was remarkable to watch her grab a sponge, wipe up the spilled grounds, and hold her hand at the edge of the counter to catch what fell over the edge!
Genius, for sure!
Lots of Learning
As we begin our homeschool year, I find that in addition to students in 8th, 5th, 3rd, and 1st grades, I also have two young preschoolers in my charge. Exciting times, for sure!
My mother has spent her life training preschool teachers and she is an amazing mentor, if I do say so myself. At first it was a little odd to her that we weren’t following the traditional route to Early Childhood Education. But, after 13 years of watching little ones learning in our home, Nanna’s on board with our homeschooling journey. My mom has been a huge support to me and a great source of information for teaching my younger children at home.
Easy Does It
When my eldest was a toddler, I had the time, energy and enthusiasm to teach him trigonometry, physics, and Latin. It didn’t take long to realize that all the advanced things I wanted him to learn were excessive, unneccessary, and unrealistic.
I was eager, to be sure. I bought books like Slow and Steady, Get Them Ready and all the other early learning resources recommended in The Well Trained Mind, hoping to find “the right way” to teach him at home. What I found after much trial and error — and some wise counsel from my mom — is that I didn’t need a book so much as I needed a philosophy and an atmosphere rich in literature and other learning opportunities.
We decided that we wanted the preschool years to be full of educational play. We wanted to foster a love of learning and an excitement to explore. Now, with a teenager, I think I can say our experiment is working. While FishBoy13 doesn’t love to have a to-do list of things to study every day, he loves to learn new things and soaks up experiences and remembers them.
Creating a Rich Learning Atmosphere at Home
Here are some of the things that are a part of our preschoolers’ education at home:
Playdough is the ultimate entertainment for little kids. I well remember my sisters and I spending hours and hours at the kitchen table making pretend cookies and cakes.
I also recall my first round of clay play when my oldest child was a toddler. I hadn’t played playdough in years, but it was so fun and so therapeutic. Kids — of all ages — can use their imaginations and create all sorts of things with playclay.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to purchase the fancy toys or even the clay itself from the store. Chop a 1-inch wood dowel into little hand-sized rolling pins and add some plastic knives and cookie cutters into the kit. Make your own playdough. Or if you want to win Mother of the Year, make yourself one of these playdough kits like my sister did.
Dress up and Pretend Play
We have a huge box of costumes that we have collected over the years. Post-Halloween sales are great for this. Granted, with four boys, we’re a little short on girly stuff. But, we’ve got lots of pirates, cowboys, Roman soldiers, and Jedi stuff for the FishChicks to pretend in. All our children have loved to spend time pretending about far off places and reenacting the stories that we read in books.
We’ve also made it a point to have a play kitchen — even for boys — and building tools — even for girls. Small plastic dishes and pretend food as well as plastic goggles and pretend drills are not only great fun for young children, but also fuel the imagination.
Real Kitchen Play/Work
All my children have loved to help out in the kitchen. They are often found on a chair, making Papa’s coffee, helping to stir the pancake batter, or assisting in loading or unloading the dishwasher. Including children in kitchen tasks is not only fun, but it is also teaching them valuable life skills and helping them grow in independence.
Looking for kitchen inspiration? Check out FishMama’s Guide to Cooking with Children for recipes and kitchen tips to last you all year long.
Coloring and Crafts
While my kids love coloring books, I try to follow my mom’s advice in making sure they have plenty of blank paper and crayons to create their own shapes and doodles.We have a stack of recycle paper to draw from as well as a large bin of crayons, including these muffin tin crayons.
When I have an ample supply of patience, we also practice cutting, pasting, and crafting. Williamson books are some of the best for easy crafts for small people. I particularly love Little Hands Paper Plate Crafts and The Little Hands Art Book.
I’ve found that a child’s skills and stage of development in coloring and drawing really do vary from child to child. Don’t be impatient if your two year old draws “better” than your four year old. Chances are your four year old is advanced in some other areas.
Truly, young children don’t need toys with lots of bells and whistles. My favorites include good, sturdy wood toys that are hard to break but encourage creativity and hand-eye coordination. A simple set of wood blocks are great. My mom said once they were the only toy you need.
We also enjoy our train set, often combining the blocks to build whole cities. Little people, Legos, and Playmobil are other toys that kids can play and learn with for hours on end.
Stories and Extension Activities
This is probably my favorite part since I love to read. It has been a huge joy to me to explore good books with my kids. From my tot to teen, we enjoy cuddling and reading together.
Adding an extension activity to your reading helps you solidify the story and concepts you’ve just read. In the same way that my little people enjoyed eating Magic Monkey Bananas after a reading of the story of the same name, so can you create crafts, snacks, or other activities to further explore the books you’re reading with your little one.
Mom clued me into a number of books that are bibliographies of great books for children, organized according to topics and age, some even including extension activities. If you’re stumped for what to read to your kids, check out Toddle on Over, A to Zoo, and Story Stretchers. For more ideas, browse the different themes of Camp Wannalaffalotta.
Nature Walks and Other Hands On Activities
While nature-loving does not come naturally to me, it’s growing on me. It is something that we can all enjoy as a family. Hiking the nearby hills, exploring the tide pools, or walking along the beach are full of learning opportunities for our children. Even a walk around the block is thrilling to little people. Just be sure to stop and smell the roses.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we can ride trikes, play in a sandbox, use sidewalk chalk, or splash in a homemade water table.
Library Storytime and Field Trips
Depending on what your library offers, you and your little one can have a rocking time at the local library. Not to be ignored are children’s museums, science centers, zoos, and other attractions in your city that would interest young children.
Get a Routine Going
If you’re creating a preschool experience at home, you’re obviously not going to be able to do each of these things everyday. Instead, get a routine going.
- Print – Print out this simple weekly activity grid or try this preschool planning sheet with a little more detail. (Make sure to turn off your pop-up blocker.)
- Plan – Fill in two or three blocks per day. Pencil it in and be flexible. Remember to vary the activities from day to day to keep things fresh and exciting. Playdough will get old five days in a row.
- Look at the week – Consider a weekly routine. Perhaps Mondays are library and errands day. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday feature activities at home. Friday is for a field trip.
- Consider the day – Determine a rhythm for your day. You could have breakfast, do chores, and do one activity before snack. Do another activity before lunch and then call it a day. Or you could add another activity after lunch before nap. Do what works for you, your preschooler, and your family.
- Be steady, but flexible – Try to be consistent, but don’t beat yourself up if the best laid plans, don’t go according to plan. If you both just want to read stories one day, then go for it. Cuddle up and make some memories. If the weather is beautiful, but it’s an “at-home” day, ditch the schedule and enjoy the sunshine.
These are some of the ways we have built a preschool experience at home. I find that often my big kids want to be a part of what the little kids do. They remember these fun times from their own toddler years. Love that!
What do YOUR preschoolers love to do?
This post was originally published on August 16, 2010.