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Before my oldest son was born, I took to the internet to figure out what age I might need to start formally home educating. I assumed it would be around the age of three, for preschool. There were, and still are, lots of home educating bloggers sharing their home preschool curricula and schedules online, specifically for children ages 3-5. Most of these schedules looked a lot like what I remember from the traditional preschools that I and my siblings attended: primarily centered on activities, projects, themes, plans and crafts to build literacy and numeracy skills.
I can see the logic, as well as the appeal. Sticking with the ‘done thing’ implies that we are doing what’s best for our kids, since that’s what it’s what’s done by professionals. Working through a curriculum and ticking off the lessons learned, letters, numbers and colors recognized gives a sense of confidence that our kids won’t be behind their peers, or maybe even ahead of them. There is also comfort in doing what we know and going with what feels familiar.
Since I’ve been reading around the topic of early childhood education, I’ve been growing increasingly uneasy with a lot of the schedules and curricula that I see online, in general because they don’t really seem to be based on a solid understanding of early childhood education, the role of play, and the role of the adult. I’ve taken a closer look to try and uncover what’s been bothering me more specifically, and I’ve come up with some commonalities.
- Activities are scheduled for brief time slots. In one example I found, there were eight activities scheduled over two hours. Some people might argue that young children have short attention spans. I say that a child will never develop a long attention span if they are required to change activities every fifteen minutes.
- Literacy, numeracy and fine motor skills are scheduled, and gross motor, imaginative and cooperative skills are omitted. This tells the child that specific skills are important and valued, and the others are trivialized. We need to be thinking about a child’s development holistically, not focusing exclusively on ‘academic skills’.
- Home preschool generally takes place indoors, and outdoors is either not considered in the schedule or it is used for open-ended free play. This has the same issues as above. Additionally, I wonder if parents who set up their home preschool like this make a point of engaging with their children outdoors and supporting their learning and play outside, as much as they do inside. It’s a missed opportunity if not. Like Helen Bilton says, the outdoors lends itself to different types of activity. It should be capitalized upon.
- Many, and in some cases all, activities are parent-directed rather than child led. ‘It’s time to do the letter lacing card…coloring…letter recognition…counting’. How much more effective would it be to consider first where the child is and where his current interests lie, and ever so gently support your child as he makes new connections and incorporates new knowledge into what he already knows. Literacy and numeracy don’t, and I would argue shouldn’t, be stand-alone topics at the preschool age, but should extend naturally from a child’s play.
- Further to this point, the emphasis of the schedule is usually the parent teaching. There is no formal time for (and therefore no importance given to) observing children and engaging thoughtfully in their play. How can we help our children learn and develop if we aren’t paying close attention to their play and their interests?
Every homeschooling parent wants to give his child the best possible education, but I think that schedules and curricula like the ones I see online are at once time-intensive and complicated for the parent, and at the same time don’t really help young kids reach all of their potential.
A home preschool plan with the child at heart
I completely understand the need to plan, wanting to make sure that your child is keeping up with his peers, if not surpassing them, and on track to be academically successful – particularly when so much of their future seems to depend upon it. It helps to remember studies like this one, that show that by the age of eleven children who learn to read at the age of seven have completely caught up with their peers who learned to read at the age of five, with the added benefit of liking reading more. Learning All the Time by John Holt delivers example after example of how children become literate and numerate through their play, with subtle, minimal interaction from adults (affiliate link).
This isn’t to say that we should completely remove ourselves from the equation of our child’s learning and development. Jenny Kable at Let the Children Play says, ‘Advocating for play does not mean advocating against intentional teaching. Advocating for play does not mean leaving children to their own devices and placing teachers in the role of supervisors.’ (emphasis hers). A balance needs to be struck, so that we are deliberate about our kids’ learning, without authoritatively asserting a curriculum with no reference to the children.
I am early in my journey of understanding how to achieve this balance, but there are several common threads that are already emerging, and I’d like to suggest rough guide or rule of thumb, rather than a curriculum or a schedule, as a starting point for any home preschool.
70% of your effort should go into setting up your child’s play spaces: indoor and, crucially, outdoor. Are there plenty of ‘loose parts’? Objects that can be built with, manipulated, turned into something else? Are these located indoors and outdoors? Does your child have free access to move between the inside and outside? If not, can you arrange it so he can? Are there places to climb and places to hide, places to run around fast? Are there things to draw with, write on, squish and splash? Could you incorporate more natural materials? Is there anything around that means you have to supervise play constantly? Do you find yourself often saying, ‘No, don’t do that,’? If so, change your environment so that it is a ‘Yes’ space.
15% of your effort should go into observing your child. We absolutely will not know how to support our kids’ learning if we don’t know what connections they are making, what they are interested in, what they already know. Without observation, we’re more likely to interrupt deep, focused play and serious learning. We won’t know when to get involved or make a suggestion, or will do so insensitively, prioritizing our own agenda. Within observation, I would also include occasionally asking children questions about what they are doing and why, in order to understand their play from their point of view, and to gain a valuable insight into their learning.
5% of your effort should go towards parent-initiated activity, and this should really be done for one of two reasons. First, if after careful observation, you see an opportunity to build on something your child is learning. For example, toddler N. recently found a creepy crawly on a tree. After it made it’s way out of sight, Carl helped N. turn over a rock to see the critter’s house. The second situation where you might initiate an activity is if your child’s natural inclinations mean they aren’t progressing in a specific area, including fine and gross motor skills, imaginative play, building and construction, and cooperative play. I would also consider emerging literacy, numeracy and writing skills, bearing in mind that we must have age appropriate expectations. To give an example of when it might be a good idea to initiate an activity would be if you observe that your child tends to be sedentary when left to his own devices, then it would be worth thinking of gentle ways to incorporate gross motor activity into his play, and supporting him in this process. This isn’t about manipulating the child, but understanding that he needs support in order to leave his comfort zone and ultimately reach his potential, because all children need to develop gross motor skills, and need to ‘huff and puff’ a certain amount to be healthy.
Your remaining 10% of effort, in education jargon, should be ‘reflecting on your practice’: thinking back to your environment, how it is working and not working, what could be added or removed to further your child’s learning and build on his current interests; what have you learned from your observations about your child and her development; are you concerned that your child isn’t developing in an area where he should, and if so, have you observed him both indoors and outdoors and at different times before you jump to conclusions; when you did engage in your child’s play, did it go well, or did it distract your child from her play; what can you do differently next time? Reflective practice is as simple as considering how your time went, and planning for changes in order to improve.
People chose to home educate for so many reasons, and a big one for me is a ferocious desire to protect my children from tedious, inappropriate academic learning and to place them in an environment where their pace of learning is followed and their play is given all the respect it deserves. I’m sure many parents feel this way. Let’s invest our time in something simpler, more effective, child-centered, and founded on what we know to be best practice for early years education.