Spoiler alert: it should be a lot less involved than you probably think.
I can appreciate the fact that some people want to jump into homeschooling as early as possible. I was the same way – my daughter was only nine months old when I started researching curriculum!
But in her wisdom, a close family friend who had homeschooled her own children gently told me that I was jumping the gun. “You don’t need to think about this right now. You have so much time! Start thinking about curriculum when she’s five. Start using it the following year.”
Waiting until she was six to start homeschooling seemed like a waste of precious time. But fast-forward to now and my advice to parents wanting to jump that same gun is the same as hers. Wait.
“My children are 3 and 4. What preschool program can I do with both of them?”
“My child can’t seem to count past 10. She’s 4. What do I do?”
“One day he can identify every letter, but the next day it’s like he’s never seen them before! And don’t get me started on his inability to remember the sounds. I’m so frustrated! What’s wrong with him?”
The longer I work as a homeschooling coach, the stronger a proponent of the “better late than early” approach I am when it comes to formal academics. Here’s why:
1. Children are designed to learn through play.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
This nugget of wisdom comes from Fred Rogers, the creator of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He knew exactly how children are wired, and for decades his show fed children’s imaginations – and taught them a great deal in the process.
Consider how babies learn about the world. It’s all a giant experiment and exercise in exploration for them. “What is this thing and can I fit it in my mouth?” “What happens if I drop this off my high chair tray?” “What happens if I drop it again?” “What happens if I touch this thing Mama keeps saying not to touch?”
They are adorable (and often reckless) little scientists, constantly testing hypotheses in order to form their own understanding of their environment. From there it develops to mimicking what they’ve seen adults or other children do – pretending to nurse their baby doll, pushing a toy like Daddy pushes the lawnmower. The older they get, the more complex their play becomes. But all the while, that play is deepening their understanding of the world, helping them form problem solving skills, and sharpening their physical and social skills.
Unfortunately, the push for earlier academics in an attempt to improve our national education ranking is not only stripping children of precious time for their serious work of play, but is also creating life-long issues.
Instead of pulling out workbooks, put up a play kitchen. (Or better yet, let them work with you in the real kitchen.)
Instead of flipping through flashcards, go fly a kite. Or go to the zoo. Or the park.
Provide a small number of imagination-boosting toys (blocks, baby dolls, play food, costumes, etc. – nothing with screens or batteries!) and lots of books for them to look through and for you to read. (Reading aloud to children has great benefits! I highly recommend the reading lists found at Simply Charlotte Mason and Ambleside Online. I also agree with the comments on both those sites regarding what education should look like in those early years from birth to age six.)
Give them lots of opportunity for sensory exploration. Let them get their hands in the dirt, in shaving cream, in finger paints, in bowls of rice or beans or salt or sand. Play music in the house – classical and jazz and Celtic and gospel and rock and blues and whatever else you can think of. Get their bodies moving through dance and tumbling and jumping and climbing.
This is the kind of preschool instruction that kids soak up and enjoy. This is the kind of education that dovetails perfectly with their play-based design. Workbooks, pencils, videos – not only are they not necessary, and potentially even developmentally harmful, they’re not nearly as fun as learning through life.
2. Delaying academics has proven benefits.
It seems logical that starting academics earlier would lead to greater academic success.
After all, if you’ve been learning for ten years and your peers have only been learning for eight, wouldn’t you be significantly ahead of them and be able to learn more overall by the time you all start college? (Heck, wouldn’t you be able to start college earlier as well?)
But the evidence strongly suggests that this is not at all the case. Significantly lower scores, a more negative view of education, and an increase in stress have all been linked to the early introduction of formal academics.
But it’s not just a case of, “Delay academics so they don’t have these issues.” It’s also, “Delay academics so they have these benefits.” Benefits such as the ability to better self-regulate behavior, attention, and hyperactivity, which are linked to higher assessment scores.
So while it’s possible (though not guaranteed) that a child who starts reading at five will be reading at a higher level than her peers by age eight, is it worth the sacrifice of her ability to sit still and pay attention long enough to actually finish the book?
3. Life gives plenty of lessons.
Don’t assume that I’m saying not to teach them anything. Young children are sponges, and of course you want to take advantage of that. And you can teach volumes of information in those first six or seven years just by teaching through life – the same way parents did for thousands of years before widespread public schooling was created.
Your child points out a flower, and you say, “Yes! That’s a beautiful blue flower. It has one, two, three petals! Here’s another flower – this one is red. It has one, two, three, four petals!” Classification, colors, and counting – all taught effectively and organically through one small interaction.
Or how about this? “I spy with my little eye a big red letter S….yes, there it is on that sign! S says sssssss, like ssssssnake. And S is curvy like a snake too! Okay, your turn!” Colors, letter names, phonics, and a mnemonic to connect them, all through a game of I Spy.
Or even this: “This recipe will make 12 cookies, but we want two groups of 12 cookies – that would be 24. So we are going to double the recipe. That means we had to put in twice as much of each of the ingredients. It says we need half a cup of brown sugar. So now we need two halves.” (Measure half a cup and pour it into the one cup measure, then do it again.) “Look – two half cups make one whole cup! One half plus one half equals one whole.” Conversion, multiplication, vocabulary, and a delicious life skill. How could they not learn through this kind of interaction?
You don’t need to script out your day. You don’t need to plan your activities based on how educational they can be. Life is education! And since children love repetition, they won’t care if you’ve taught that letter already, or sung that song already, or talked about that animal already.
The most important aspect here is the fact that there is, in fact, interaction between you and your child. To quote this insightful article from The Atlantic, “Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have.” The tightly scheduled, direct instruction of curriculum kills a child’s curiosity and steals the opportunity for them to learn by thinking out loud through discussion.
So make lunch together. Observe the life under a rock in the garden. Count the stairs in your house, or tiles in the kitchen, or cracks in the sidewalk. Identify all the colors you see at the park. Identify, describe, compare, and contrast the animals at the zoo. Sing hymns, sing Oldies sing silly songs. Read to them. (And then read again. And again. Read so, so, so many books. You can never read them too many, and the influence and benefit from it cannot be overstated.) Go to the fire station open house and the library mommy-and-me hour and the back room tour of the local bakery. Ask them questions instead of telling them information.
Remember that education is a marathon, not a sprint, and you have plenty of time to get to the workbooks and more formal lessons later – if you decide you want to. (Spoiler: you don’t have to. Just research unschooling.)
The Obligatory Caveat
There are exceptions, of course. As with all aspects of homeschooling, you always have to follow your gut.
It might tell you one of your children is desperate for a challenge. If a child wants to learn in a more formal way, then that’s fine! Following your child’s lead is a great way to teach at every age. And if they’re leading you to more formal work, then by all means, provide that! Just watch for waning interest or impatience to move on – and be sure to follow that lead as well.
(And never push to finish a lesson simply because you’ve started it. There’s plenty of time to teach follow-though later, when they’re developmentally ready to learn that skill. Trying to do so now will only sour them on “school” and frustrate you both.)
Your gut might tell you your child is strangely uninterested in engaging with other children or you. There’s a difference between a child who is shy and a child who is unusually withdrawn and avoids interacting with anyone. Trust your instincts and look into the early signs and symptoms of autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
Or your gut might notice your child has difficulty with skills that come easily to other children – or that they master things more quickly than others.
Regardless of what you discover, using this season to observe and engage with your child on their level will lead to rich insights that will shape your future homeschooling.
A child’s early years are best spent exploring, discovering, exercising their natural curiosity and imaginations, and interacting with people and the world around them. Don’t worry about workbooks or flashcards or sit-down lessons. A rich education is waiting around every corner of every day.
What are (or were) some of your preschooler’s favorite activities, books, and experiences? Share them in the comments!
I help new homeschoolers make a smooth transition, and experienced homeschoolers regroup and refine for the road ahead.