When my twins were three years old, we started homeschooling. This is what that looked like until they were about five:
They were surrounded with educational and open-ended imaginative toys (things like cardboard boxes, art supplies, and costumes). The items that got the most attention were a kitchen set, costumes, and books.
Their kitchen was stocked with wooden and plastic foods, tiny potholders, little toy knives, baking sheets, and pans.
Costumes ranged from tutus and wigs to astronauts, firefighters, and doctors. We had A LOT of costumes- train conductor, race car driver, fairy, veterinarian, princess, king, tiger, scientist, clown, etc.
We did art projects almost daily. Paint and play doh were common. We also had weekly game nights as a family. We played things like Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and Memory.
We did a “letter of the week” every week too. Activities for letter of the week were things like glue cotton balls to a letter C, draw a C in a dish of salt, form the letter with clay, use a paint dauber to mark all the C’s on the paper-one activity each day.
We also did letter and number puzzles daily. We sang songs like “Days of the Week” and “The Clean-up Song.” We memorized Nursery Rhymes and read books all the time. We had story time two or three times a day. We had a felt board, lots of kid-sized instruments, a sandbox, a big yard with play equipment, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and a water sprinkler. We went to the library at least once a week.
We laced big beads on string into different simple patterns. We counted everything and sang the alphabet song a million times.
Does this sound like everyday life for a 3-5 year old? Yep. Does that count as school? Absolutely! That’s what school is for a preschooler. That’s not just my opinion. That is what researchers, child psychologists, and educators agree on too.
Fred Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it was a relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning, play is really the work of childhood.”
It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play.
If we want our kids to have happy, productive lives, we must allow more time for play, not less.
Peter Grey Ph.D (research professor who’s research and writing focuses mainly on children’s natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play.)
So, if you have a preschool aged child, be intentional about play. Give them lots of free time to be bored. Then, have items available that encourage them to use their imaginations. My kids played with cardboard boxes ALL THE TIME. We glued lids and caps inside one for buttons and it became a spaceship. We stuck an old vacuum cleaner hose in the side of another and it was a firetruck. We glued plastic gems to an old wet wipes container and it became a treasure chest. Then, we’d go to the library and check out books about space, firefighters, and pirates. They’d play about all these new ideas.
We had tea parties, parades through the living room, and talent shows. We nursed stuffed animals back to health when they were “sick.” We searched the yard for frogs, grasshoppers, and worms. Then, we headed back to the library to pick out books about germs, amphibians, and marching bands.
Play. Read. Repeat. Audio books, picture books, chapter books- we had them all. Pop-ups, choose your own adventure, books above their level, books below their level- we loved them all. Foam letters in the bathtub, magnetic letters on the fridge, books in car, books in the restaurant. Puppets to act out the story, felt boards to retell the story, costumes to dress as the characters. We read some books so many times I could recite them from memory.
This is a messy way to parent. My kids frequently had glue or paint on their clothes. I would clean the bathtub some nights after bathing my kids because they were so filthy from playing outside, that the tub would have a ring of dirt around it when I drained the water. Clothes came from yard sales and thrift shops because they were usually stained or had holes in them before my kids grew out of them. It’s a whole lot easier to tolerate mud pies if a picked up their jeans for 50 cents instead of fifty dollars. They had a couple nice dress outfits. But, the rest were for play.
Another thing that I did with my kids was a bit more controversial. I gave them independence and responsibility. My kids started with putting their own laundry away at three. They each had a bed with three drawers under it- one for tops, one for bottoms, one for jammies and underclothes. In exchange for this responsibility, they earned a little independence. They were allowed to choose their own clothes. They dressed as you would expect a three-year-old who’s picking out their own outfits to dress. Most days, their clothes didn’t match. Sometimes they wore stripes with plaid. One particularly weird day involved leopard print and neon. My rules were pretty simple. You have to be weather appropriate and if it’s a special occasion- like a wedding or something; mom helps. Otherwise, I dealt with the looks and comments. My family members rolled their eyes and shook their heads. But, they got over it. I once told my children that we were going to the grocery store. I said that it was chilly outside and they would need to wear a jacket. They went to their bedrooms and my son came out with a firefighter costume jacket and my daughter made her debut in a tiny lab coat. I took a deep breath and headed for the car. They had followed directions. So, I went with it. We slowly added more responsibilities and more independence.
They learned to use a paring knife at 5. Pocket knives at 8. Of course, I didn’t just hand them a knife. We practiced with a plastic knife and a banana. We practiced with a butter knife and bread. We practiced, practiced, practiced. I stood right next to them and guided them each step of the way. But, I let them try. They rose to the occasion. If they expressed that they weren’t ready for something, I respected it. But, usually they were excited to try something new.
At 4, Jackson could ride a bike. Who knew a 4 year old could ride a bike? I certainly didn’t. But, he wanted to take the training wheels off. So, we let him. Turns out, he was capable.
He started getting interested in tools around this time. So, his uncle and a family friend bought him his own toolbox and some hand tools to go in it. I let him tighten the screws on the dining room chairs when they were loose. When the weed eater broke, he legitimately helped his dad fix it. He had scraps of wood, nails and screws and he would piddle with little projects on the patio in the back yard. He tried making swords to fight off imaginary bad guys and would tear into an oak tree if it was the bad guy for the day.
My daughter showed interest in sewing. So, she got a sewing box, complete with her own fabric, shears, needles, and straight pins. She excelled. She made pillows, stuffed animals, and a new wardrobe for her Barbie dolls. Were these items expertly made with straight stitches and attention to detail? Of course not. She was four and a half. Her cuts were jagged and uneven. Her stitches were spaced too far apart. Sometimes, she had to tell me what was a dress and what was a hat. But, the act of trying did wonders for her self-esteem. She was trusted with grownup tools and made something with her own tiny hands. It was awesome. I remember her coming to me with a ripped teddy bear. I told her that I could fix it for her but, I thought she was capable of doing it herself. She hadn’t considered that. She got really excited about the idea and ending up mending her teddy with her little zig zag wobbly stitches. She was so satisfied. The stuffing didn’t come out anymore. So, it was a wonderful success.
Slowly, more responsibility and independence were added. At about 8, they could make simple meals using anything they wanted in the kitchen as long as they told me first that they were cooking and what they wanted to use. Depending on what they were preparing, I’d sit with them in the kitchen or sometimes they could work without supervision after they had proved proficiency. Now, I trust my 13-year-olds with lawn equipment, power tools, saws, hatchets, and the oven unsupervised.
A homeschooling lifestyle lends itself to teaching life skills daily. Start Young! Were the meals they were cooking at eight complex or gourmet? No, of course not. They were eight. They sometimes burnt boxed mac and cheese. Big deal. Mistakes are just part of learning.
Let me repeat that. Mistakes are an important part of learning. They are necessary to the learning process. Normalize making mistakes.
If my kids attend a week-long camp, they are able to pack their bags and be responsible for making sure that they have all the items on the list without me doing it for them. But, these skills came from starting small and slowly adding responsibilities and independence to their lives. At about 7, they started by packing an overnight bag for grandma’s house. She lived about 10-15 minutes away at the time. So, if they forgot something, it usually wasn’t a big deal. Once, my daughter forgot to pack her nightgown. So, she slept in one of her pap’s t-shirts. It was an easy fix. But, it was memorable for her. Next time, she packed pajamas in the overnight bag before anything else.
When learning to brush teeth. We started with Mommy brushing their teeth. Then, we graduated to: the child takes a turn brushing their teeth and then it’s Mommy’s turn. Next, they brush their own teeth and I check them and point out places they have missed. Eventually, they are trusted on their own. Is this the easiest way? Definitely not. In fact, it’s easier to just do things for your kids. It’s easier to make the bed than it is to take weeks to teach them how to do it properly. But, I want them to be self-sufficient eventually. We all know adults who don’t know the first thing about how to be an adult. “Adulting” is hard. But, it’s much harder when it comes all at once. Take the time to slowly teach your kids life skills. Don’t expect them to just figure it out eventually.
It’s ok for kids to experience natural consequences. These lessons generally stick with them more than any lecture we can give. It’s hard to let our babies learn the hard way. It’s natural to want to rescue them. But, the more parents practice this skill, the easier it gets for us to do it. I remember once, my son didn’t want to wear his mittens in the snow. He said it made it too hard to make a snowman. I tried to explain that he really needed them and that he should wear them. Then, I thought, “this is a teaching moment.” I said, “You know what, if you don’t want to wear them, that’s fine. But, I’m going to put them here by the door in case you change your mind.” Then, I poured myself a cup of coffee and waited. It took about ten minutes before he came back for the mittens. Lesson learned. His little hands were red. But, no real harm was done. He learned that he really did need mittens when playing in the snow and rarely tried going without them again. Of course, I’m not suggesting you let your child do anything truly dangerous or harmful. But, sometimes a little discomfort is a great teacher.
Another important part of this age group is learning about community. They are just beginning to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them. There are other people that we need to be considerate of. We can use manners, share, and learn to socialize with others. So, we tried to help them understand this by making friends and nurturing their relationships. They learned that they shouldn’t rough house with great-gram. It was polite to say hello to the mail lady. They learned to answer the phone. They learned what behavior was acceptable in church or in a restaurant. We went to story time at the library. We tried a play group a few times. They attended Sunday School. They learned that there were expectations at each of these places. They learned to call adults by Mr. or Ms. They learned to say please and thank you. A common question of homeschoolers is, “What about socialization?” Well, we don’t live in a bubble. Homeschool kids can be sociable too. Before three years old, they were in a daycare environment. When my kids were almost five, they started going to a homeschool group with other kids once a week. Later, they took a kid’s yoga class. They took swim lessons during the day with other homeschoolers. They tried t-ball for two or three years. They had play dates and spent time with cousins. You just have to be proactive to connect with others and build a community for your kids to be a part of. It’s an important part of development.
So, what does a typical day for a preschooler look like? It was a lot of play time, a lot of reading, and life skills every day. Each day we took tiny steps toward independence by introducing small responsibilities. We also prioritized community and helped them find their place in it.