A Preschool Education at Home

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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.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

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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!

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

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.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

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 Me Ready” target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow noopener”>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.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

Creating a Rich Learning Atmosphere at Home

Here are some of the things that are a part of our preschoolers’ education at home:

Regular Library Day

Choose a day and time of the week that works into your family’s schedule and go weekly if you can. If your local library has reduced hours, check around. You probably won’t have to go far to find a location that fits your time frame. Once there, head straight to the children’s section. In my experience, the children’s librarians are always available to help you find things. Our favorite branch has a subject index binder for finding picture books according to topics. Learn how to use the computerized catalog as well so that you can find stories based on your children’s interests. While you should choose several to read together, perhaps according to a certain theme, allow your little ones to choose books off the shelf that look interesting to them. Scan them before checking them out; you will be surprised at the wide range of acceptability among children’s books. You don’t want to take home a book
that would frighten your children or fall outside the moral guidelines of your home.


As you familiarize yourself with the library, determine when their weekly toddler storytime happens. This is a great way to meet other families, expose your child to good literature, and watch him develop in a social setting.


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.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

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 In the Kitchen with Kids for recipes and kitchen tips to last you all year long.


There is a variety of choices out there. The simplest is to provide your child with large paper, chubby brushes and washable poster paint. An easel is great if you have access to one. Cover all surfaces carefully with newspaper or plastic trash bags. While this activity does take a great amount of patience on the part of the parent, it provides an amazing amount of satisfaction to the kid. Allow your child to simply explore the medium of paint. You will be amazed at the modern art he creates.


Our four year old spends hours with pencils, crayons and plain computer paper. Don’t feel like you need to provide “instruction”. Merely sit down with your own supplies and create simple drawings. If you just don’t feel equipped for the task, check out Drawing With Children by Mona Brookes for some great ideas.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

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.

Cutting and Pasting

Most kids don’t need (or want) a lot of structure and direction when it comes to creating collages. Provide your little ones with old magazines, duplicate photos, construction paper, child safe scissors, and a glue stick or washable glue. They will spend hours cutting and gluing. Offer supervision and instruction over glue and where to place it. On the paper is better than on the kitchen window or your heirloom dining table.

Park Playdays

When weather permits, get outside! Try a different park each week. Make a note of your favorites. Invite friends to meet you or make new ones based on the other people sharing the park with you that day. Take drinks and snacks so that you can establish yourselves there for a few hours and not rush off. If you live close enough, walk or ride bikes. Enjoy the fresh air, the exercise and being outdoors together.

Lite Brite

Yes, there are five million little choke-able parts to this toy. But the kids absolutely love it! So, provide careful supervision, not just for the choking hazard, but also for fire safety. There is a small light bulb inside the Lite Brite. This activity is a great way for little ones to learn their colors and practice small motor control. Doing it together also provides an opportunity for conversation.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

Building Toys

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.

A Preschool Education at Home - 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.

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.

Field Trips

There is an abundance of fun and interesting sites to see in your own neighborhood or city. Review a local city guide or inquire from friends where they like to explore. Some ideas to consider are zoos, animal parks, historical sites, science museums, and children’s museums.

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

More Homeschooling Ideas

This post was originally published on August 16, 2010.

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  1. I’m going to be sort of homeschooling my niece for the next couple months(she’s only 4, but my sister is fed up with her preschool being no more than a day care and not preparing her for school) then acting as a home-camp/summer school for her and my nephew. This post is such a HUGE help with planning what to do with her throughout the day, so I just wanted to say thanks for posting this 🙂

  2. Hi there! I just wanna say that I find wonderful all the experience you share and most of all… the “visible” beauty that I could feel when reading your words. So simple and so pretty. Your kids must have very proud of their mommy! in their one and magical way =) I’m a portuguese preschool teacher. I was making some research about the viability of working as an yearly childhood teacher at house of the family. In a more cosy environment. Then I found your post and feel the need to say thank’s for the share. That your decision, preschooling your kids at home, with this enthusiasm and with such a beautiful dedication is something amazing! “Tudo de bom!” As we say here in Portugal, a wish of good luck on everything.

  3. Thanks so much for this. My 2nd child is 4 yrs old and all his friends have gone off to preK this year. I’ve been wanting to give him a good experience this year since he will start kindergarten next year. It’s nice to read your wisdom and insights. We’ve been doing a lot of the things you listed, but I would like to be more intentional and have somethings planned (like activities from books). We just signed up for the story time at the library every week so I think that’s a great start. Thank you! This is very inspirational!

  4. Here’s a very delayed comment – but thanks so much for these great suggestions, just the gentle push that I needed to get things going in a more intentional way. However, I do have a question / need advice. My 4 year old boy is just not crazy about those “quiet” activities, such as crafts, coloring, playdough, etc., maybe once or twice a month he’ll be in the mood and get into it, but the rest of the time he much prefers active play (which is great for him too but I feel there needs to be a balance). Any suggestions to encourage him towards these crafty activities? Thanks!!

    1. Is it the quiet or the crafty that he balks at? My boys might not have been interested in crafts, per se, but they spent hours quietly “crafting” Lego creations. I think that probably filled any void in small motor control and quiet pursuits that they might have had otherwise. If it’s a self-control thing, I’d just try to start him at 5 or 10 minutes and work your way up to being able to sit at a project for 15 or 20. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Could be a stage that he’ll just one day outgrow. (But, I’m not an expert.)

      1. I have a just turned 4yo boy who can be very active and prefers activities he is better at – not fine motor skills. He has CP, so they are hard. We have found that doing gross motor and sensory actitivties and transitioning directly to fine motor is key. We also make sure the fine motor tasks are interesting. If he wants to color lawn mowers or motors or vacuums that’s what we do. If he wants to pretend the play dough is the bean stalk from Jack in the Bean Stalk we do. The key is really making it fit his interest. We take breaks and make it really fun! There are so many ways to practice fine motor skills that don’t involve sitting 🙂 the practice will make it so much easier when you do get to the table.

  5. Thank you SO much for this post! My husband and I recently made the decision to homeschool our daughter, who just turned 3. We do many of these things already, but I love the added links and resources you provided. I am looking forward to developing a preschool routine!

  6. These are great suggestions and certainly all very important to a well-rounded preschool experience. However, to parents who plan on sending their children to public/private kindergarten, I feel it is necessary to warn them just how “ready” their children need to be. I don’t like it at all, but in my area there is a 5 day a week public pre-k and a full-day k program. Children are expected to enter kindergarten already having all their pre-literacy skills, knowing most, if not all, of the names and sounds of letters, plus be able to do all those “k” things like sit still, wait their turn, hold a pencil, know their colors and shapes, etc. Kindergarten (unfortunately in my opinion) has changed so much in the last 30 years that I feel it takes a lot of parents by suprise. As a former teacher, my pre-k program for my 4 year old which combines private preschool and at-home instruction, looks an awful lot like the kindergarten program I had 25 years ago.

    1. Yes, my mom was a kindergarten teacher for many years and has lamented the loss of the more traditional philosophies. I think that it must really vary by area and school. But, overall, it seems there is a heavier emphasis on academics and less on exploratory/educational play.

  7. Thanks! This is so timely and helpful! I am just getting ready to do some planning for “preschool” in the next week or two. First time ever and I definitely don’t want to overdo it, but I also don’t want to sit on my butt. 😉

  8. Great post, just in time as my little is turning 3 soon and I wanted to get him into a little more structured learning at home. I say structured, perhaps that’s not the right word… I’ve been reading a lot and I’m pulling a lot of elements from unschooling ideas as well as Montessori (help me to help myself). So perhaps creating more opportunities for his interests is more of an accurate description.

    P.S. my kid would about freak if he saw that AMAZING train set!

  9. What a timely post! This is our second week of homeschooling (my oldest is 5) and I feel like I am up to my ears in preschoolers! 🙂

    My 3yo loves to wash dishes in the kitchen sink. Just a little water, a lot of bubbles and plenty of cups and she’s occupied for at least 20 minutes. And at 3yo, she is by far my #1 helper in general day-to-day tasks. I just love it!

    My 16 month old…now she’s a different story. Busy with a capital ‘B’! I have a really hard time finding activities for this age!

    You’ve listed a plethora of ideas to get my wheels turning! You should seriously write an ebook on this topic!!


  10. I love the picture of the little boy looking at the book! He looks so excited! I’ve been amazed that my own children love books as much as they do. They will want me to read to them for hours it’s great!!

  11. What a wonderful post. I think it encompasses the best of what the preschool years should be. I express it as the 4R’s: Relationship (with God and family), routine, readiness, and reading aloud (with a liberal sprinkling of art, music, and play!)
    I blog about homepreschooling/homeschooling at http://www.susanlemons.wordpress.com and hope you’ll visit me there.
    Susan Lemons
    homeschooling mom of 4
    Bachelor’s Degree in Child Development
    Former preschool teacher
    Author, Homepreschool and Beyond

  12. Excellent words of encouragement as I start the homeschool year with a 3, 5, and 9 month old… Really pumped me up to get the year started…thanks!

  13. This is an excellent post. Thanks for sharing. I am going to link back to it in a future Treasure link post on my blog.

  14. Loved this article! You touched on many of the things I like to do with my 3 year old. As much as I’m still drawn to looking at “curriculums”, most of the stuff we do is pretty basic. I also just now learning to love the great outdoors (ants! sunburn! mosquitos!) but my son NEEDS to have an hour of outside time every day. We also do lots of building with blocks, pretend play, art, and when I have the patience..cooking and baking. Sensory activities are also a big hit, as is reading together.

  15. this is a great post. my children are not sit at the table and do a worksheet kinds of kids and have learned a ton of life skills through play and experiences. i’ve never been an overachiever when it comes to teaching my kids at home. our kids will go to public schools unless we feel we reach a point where other alternatives will better suit them. kids learn alot by what they feel and touch and see every day – more than we can know. we just have to create those opportunities when they don’t present themselves naturally. thanks for posting this!

  16. Wow, Jessica, this is an amazing post! What a wonderful compilation of ideas and suggestions for keeping our preschoolers entertained, encouraged, and enriched!! You could easily have divided this into a series and it still would have been aweseome- so comprehensive. I think it’s important to note that these are also excellent suggestions for parents of preschooler who DO go off to a public or private preschool for part of their education too… my public-schooled preschoolers were away at school for no more than a 3-hr stretch three or four days a week. The bulk of their time- and, hence, a huge part of their learning- still needs to happen with, you guessed it, ME! I don’t wash my hands of responsibility by choosing our public school system. I have lots of teaching and, let’s be honest, some un-doing to get done. 😉 Your suggestions are all spot-on and I could hear them coming out of my own mouth (including the bit about not being a natural out in nature). I might add balls, puzzles, and lacing cards to the list. Or did I miss those? Either way, I think this post is fantastic.

    1. @JessieLeigh, thanks for your words. Yes, any family can do these. And yes, you’re right about the balls, puzzles, lacing cards, we could even add beads and memory cards. But, I was running out of space. I guess I could write a book. LOL.

  17. Thank you so much for this post! I have been trying to find my groove for some time teaching my 2 and 3 1/2 yr old. I always start and then life gets in the way and within the week we are no longer consistant. I will use your sheets and hopefully we can get on track! I really love your blog, you keep it real in all you do on here, believe me all the moms like us really appreciate that! I know it is a lot of work so thank you for taking the time!

  18. you are my hero. I have been scratching my head for weeks on how to start “homeschooling” my pre-k daughter. I love all the ideas and links. Thank you Thank you Thank you!

  19. wow, thanks for this! ive decided to work with my 3 year old at home this year and didnt even know where to begin!

  20. Thank you! We are in the midst of making the huge choice of public school or home school for the first years. This is great because I can use this advice and get a feel for what home schooling may entail. I am not a teacher by trade so I am very overwelmed by the idea of teaching at home. But there are soooo many benefits!
    Thank you again for the all the great advice!

  21. Thanks so much for all of the great ideas! I’m planning on doing some “unofficial” preschool homeschooling w/ my two 3 1/2 year olds this year. I’ve just started a color theme and my boys have been excited about it. The preschool planning pg. will be great for helping me to organize our time & stay focused on what I want to accomplish! Thanks!

  22. Thank you so much! I cannot tell you how timely this is…or how encouraging! I am in the midst of planning out our school year, this year I’ll have a kindergardener & 2 preschoolers. I started home educating my oldest last year and *really* over did it. As a result he & I have some things to undo. I have learned so much! Your post is just the right bit of encouragement I need that I am planning in the right direction. Thank you & keep up the good work! 🙂

  23. This is so awesome. I can’t wait to share! We homeschool a 2 year old and 8 year old. So, I’m looking for some new ideas to keep him busy while we do lessons and how to encorporate his lessons with the older one’s lessons. Thank you so much!

  24. Thanks for all of these suggestions. With two pre-schoolers, I’m not always sure what to do with them. Some of these things we already do, and some would be fun to start!