Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education, Part III, by Jane-Emily

I’ve already talked about parenting preschoolers for a classical education and more academic activities to prepare your preschooler for a classical education.   Part III is about running a home preschool group!

When my children were preschool age–3 to 5–I didn’t send them to a regular preschool.  I was considering homeschooling, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start them off in a preschool.  I worried that a preschool might try to push academics too young, and the local programs were usually full anyway.  I did try a co-op preschool for six months, and the people were lovely, but the demands were huge (and, I felt, unnecessary and unreasonable).  I ended up organizing small home-based preschool groups with friends.  Every year was a little different, but here is the basic pattern:

Find 3 or 4 little friends.  Many of your friends will be looking for inexpensive and simple preschool activities, and some of them will have more friends to talk with.  A group of 4 or 5 little children is just right and small enough for one parent to manage.  Because so much development is going on in these years, we found it easier to keep groups to about the same age level.  That’s not necessary but I think it does make many activities easier; a young 3 year-old will be frustrated by many things that a 4 year-old finds fun.

Plan to meet once or twice a week, depending on everyone’s needs.  Three times per week gets to be a little much, but for children 4 and up may be a great choice.  Figure out how you will rotate responsibilities; you may each want to host for a whole month at a time for continuity, or prefer to rotate every two weeks, or even every week.  Will the host be responsible for snacks, or should another person provide them?

There will be some costs.  This will cost far less than tuition at a preschool, but you still need to get supplies, snacks, and books.  Everyone should contribute to the pot for supplies, but you may prefer to just purchase snacks as your turn to provide them comes up.

Figure out a shape to the day.  You will want to meet for about three morning hours (maybe only two for the younger ages).  In this time, you’ll want to feature:

  • A gathering activity that keeps them cheerful and focused while everyone arrives.  If you let them run around, it will be hard for them to change gears and focus, so have a fairly quiet activity ready at a table.  I often used special blocks or manipulatives that they didn’t see at other times and liked playing with.
  • Circle time — usually features a welcome song, talk about the day, weather, upcoming lesson, and so on.  A fun calendar is OK for older children; it won’t make much sense to them but they can put the number up and get used to the format.
  • A lesson — whatever you choose. You may wish to buy a structured curriculum or just make them up yourself!
  • An activity or two — something fun to DO during the lesson.  Preschoolers are wiggly and don’t do well with a classroom setup!  There are many books of art, science, and other activity ideas (see my last article on how I did it).  As an example, we once had a lesson on the seasons.  We made a sign for each season, put them on sticks, and had a parade around and about.  The kids had to stay in order and each took a turn in front to help them remember that seasons go in an eternal round.
  • Storytime — read aloud from books, do some fingerplays and songs.  You can choose old favorites, seasonally appropriate selections, or anything you like.  If you get really ambitious you might look into making a flannelboard and figures for favorite songs or plays.
  • Snacktime — healthy snacks of course.
  • Free play — consider providing sensory activities as well as just letting them run around the yard, but this is not lesson time.  It’s “they decide what to play while the exhausted host takes a little break!”

Put the more demanding items at the beginning of your session.  They won’t have much attention span.

Will you want to include seatwork?  That depends very much on the ages of the children, their own temperaments and abilities, and whether you want to do any academics.  I would say that we should be very cautious about demanding seatwork from little people.  If you are teaching children who will be starting kindergarten next year, you may want to have them learn to write their names or do alphabet coloring pages or something, but keep it minimal!  If a seatwork activity is frustrating or leads to tears, it is not age-appropriate.

Keep an eye open for preschooler-friendly field trips.  This is a great time to take them to the fire station, a farm, or other nearby community locations.  Your group will be small enough to be very manageable, but for trips abroad always take an extra adult.  If there is a field trip program at your local theater, be cautious; they might be a little young to go as a group.  We found that the performances might be great, but the noise and crowds involved were overwhelming.

Giant fossils are always a good field trip choice.

One year, we had a very energetic mom who fixed up a Christmas program for the children to do.  The families all gathered and the children sang a song and so on.  It was very short, of course, but it was quite nice for other family members to participate and see what we’d been doing.  It is possible, but not necessary, to have a program during the year and/or a ‘graduation’ party.  If you decide to have an event like that, it need not be fancy or long.  Short, simple, and sweet (with refreshments!) is best.

This is a nice way for parents to get together and share some happy times with children.  The kids usually love playing together, and the small-group environment keeps things from getting too overwhelming most of the time.  Naturally, there will be plenty of disasters and interesting times too–I well remember letting the children go off to play, walking to my bedroom, and finding a little guy jumping on my (unmade) bed in his cowboy boots!  But I found that on the whole, running a home preschool program was not too difficult, fostered lovely friendships and learning, saved me a lot of money, and was a great experience for my children.

Preschool and Kindergarten Field Trips: A Roundup

To finish off our series on the preschool and kindergarten years, we’d like to share some of the field trips we’ve taken with our kids.  If you aren’t a field-tripper, we hope these little chronicles will inspire you to get out there and explore your environs with your little ones! For those who can’t, and most of us have been through such seasons, do remember your Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book.” One way or another, preschoolers and kindergartners need to see the big, wide, beautiful world.

Here are some blog posts to inspire you:

Our own Cheryl blogs at Keeping in Balance, and has  kept a journal of several great trips:

The Wildlife Expo!

The State Fair and a petting zoo

The Oklahoma Science Museum

A field trip at home to the world of a cell!


Sarah R. was able to go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum–what an opportunity!

Then she took her kids to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Emma Anne took her kids to the science museum to meet the dinosaurs (and sea life, and other things).


Where have you taken your children? Go on a field trip and see the world!

Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education: Part II, by Jane-Emily

In the last post, I covered the basics of preschool parenting, but many parents of little ones want to know what academic materials they should use with their children.  What program will best prepare children for academic success? After years of teaching my own children and observing many other little ones (as a librarian, as well as a mother and teacher), this is what I have learned about the very best way to prepare children for a lifetime of exploring and learning. These principles are not expensive and they require almost no curriculum; what they mostly require is your time and attention. Anyone can do them, and they really are the best preparation I know for success in academics and in life.

Talk with your child. The main way your child learns about anything that he isn’t actually putting in his mouth and experiencing first-hand is by hearing it from you. Family talk is how a child learns to speak, and then a large part of how he learns about the world. He wants you to talk a lot! You know that thing small children do, where they ask, “Why?” all the time, and eventually you find yourself trying to explain the structure of the atom? It’s not that he has a real understanding of cause and effect and how atoms work; it’s that he’s figured out that asking “why” is a really easy way to keep you talking. So all you really have to do is keep talking and explaining the world — you don’t actually have to try to explain “why” until you get to the Big Bang.

As you go through your day, keep up a running commentary on what you are doing and why you are doing it. (Of course, this doesn’t mean you should never be quiet! Moderation in all things.) It sounds like this: “Let’s get in the car and go to the grocery store! We need some food…let’s get some oranges, I like oranges, don’t you? Should we get some apples too? What nice green apples these are. I need to get more oatmeal…” It certainly doesn’t have to be talk that your child can always understand; she will be happy if you aim a bit higher a good part of the time.

All this talk deposits a tremendous amount of vocabulary and sentence structure and meaning in your child’s mind, not to mention that it fosters closeness between you. We are now finding out that one of the main things that prepares a child for school is this parental talk; a child whose parents aren’t in the habit of talking like this comes to school at a disadvantage that no amount of preschool or programming can make up for.

Reading together

Nursery rhymes are an integral part of this language development. They are wonderful little nuggets of language suited to the youngest children. They are games, songs, snuggle time, and language lessons all rolled into fun little packages. Learn nursery rhymes and use them often.

There are many wonderful collections out there. Here are my two favorites, good for anyone:

  • My Very First Mother Goose, by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells (lovely for a first book of nursery rhymes, great pictures and not overwhelming).
  • The Real Mother Goose, by Blanche Fisher Wright (old-fashioned, with lots of material).

Make up your own rhymes, too! When my oldest daughter was an infant, we visited friends who had a baby about a year older. I remember how impressed I was with the mother’s ability to make up suitable little rhymes for whatever her daughter was doing. She didn’t do it all the time or anything, but every so often, a new little rhyme would come out of her mouth! Pretty soon I was doing it too, because it really turned out to be pretty easy.

Reading aloud. Like the talking and nursery rhyming, reading aloud deposits a lot of vocabulary, sentence structure, and meaning into your child’s mind, and fosters a close, loving relationship. Reading aloud, however, is a step up in complexity. Once you are past the board books with one word per picture, books offer more complex words and sentences than ordinary conversation usually involves. They often feature rhymes, rhythm, and other language structures that both appeal to your child and build pathways for learning. She learns to associate books and reading with happiness and love. She learns that books and sentences go in a particular direction, and what sentences are supposed to look like. Reading aloud teaches a child about imaginative play, offering fuel for the stories she makes up herself. Books teach about the wider world; animals, machines, space, and whatever else you find. And for a final bonus, reading aloud gives you a habitual special time to be together with your child. The value of all of this language and structure and snuggling is almost impossible to exaggerate; the child’s mind soaks up stories and general information, making connections and learning about the world, in a process that cannot be replaced by any preschool or institutional program, and certainly not by any video programming.

Librarians and child development experts recommend that parents read to children for at least 20 minutes a day, which is an easy goal to reach most days (even if half of it is bedtime stories!). You may have seen in the recent news that doctors are now officially recommending that parents read to their children from infancy.  Rosemary Wells even wrote a little pamphlet a few years ago called Read To Your Bunny to remind us of the benefits of reading aloud. And your local library almost certainly has a storytime program that incorporates these principles. Children love storytime at the library, so give yours a try!

It actually turns out that reading aloud to your child is beneficial for more years than most of us expect. We now know that most children comprehend more through listening than they do through reading — right up through 8th grade! So don’t stop reading aloud once your child can read on his own; you can enjoy it for a long time.

There are so many wonderful books to read aloud to your bunny that it’s hard for me to give you a good list. Here are a few classic titles, and my best advice is to ask your friendly neighborhood public librarian for recommendations; that is truly your best resource!

  • The Nutshell Library, by Maurice Sendak — Four tiny books with wonderful rhymes about numbers, letters, the months of the year, and the perils of not caring.
  • Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág — A man and woman want a cat to keep them company, but the man can’t choose just one. What to do with the millions of cats he brings home?
  • A Color of His Own, by Leo Leonni — Leonni has written many great picture books, but this has always been my favorite. A chameleon gets tired of changing all the time and wants to stay just one color.
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter — All the Potter tales are wonderful. (And I am particularly fond of the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.)Make sure you get the real thing, not the abridgments or new versions or celebrity sequels or whatever. She doesn’t need changing. While it may be tempting to save money by getting a one-volume collection, that really does ruin the child’s experience of having a little book that is just the right size, so I’d advise that you get a couple and supplement with the library if your budget doesn’t run to buying many books.
  • Curious George, by H. A. Rey — Here again we run into the problem of so many new versions, sequels, and so on that the original Rey stories are almost crowded out. Be sure to get the few original books and beware of the ones based on the TV show. They are nowhere near the quality of the originals.
  • Strega Nona, by Tomie de Paola — De Paola has written many wonderful books (I love The Knight and the Dragon!) but this twist on a famous folk tale is the best known.

Music. Sing to your child.  Sing a lot! Sing those little songs that have been passed down and polished smooth through the years; those folksongs are ideal for teaching your child about the joy of music, of rhythm, of words and melody. (Bonus: later on, they will turn out to be history lessons, too!) Simple rhythms, melodies, and harmonies sung in real life are ideal for small children; more complex recorded music is lovely, too, but folksongs teach the building blocks that go into the more complex material.

Your child does not care that you do not have a beautiful singing voice or even that you cannot sing your way out of a paper bag. He just wants to hear you sing, because singing does not only communicate language and music; singing communicates love and joy. When you sing, your child feels happy, loved, and secure. Singing as you work around the house fosters a cheerful, loving atmosphere (and embarrassment when the kids get older — another bonus feature).

If you don’t know any songs that you didn’t learn from the radio, learn some. (Pop songs are nice; sing them by all means, but they are not always the wonderful vehicles for language and melody that folksongs are.) You can buy collections of folksongs to learn:

Science and art. Preschoolers love to do activities and projects. They love to make art, and they love to find things out. There are lots of books of art and science projects for young children, but I didn’t want to buy a whole lot of them sight unseen and then find out that they weren’t very good, or that all the projects overlapped. I checked all the books out of the library instead (I requested some titles through InterLibrary Loan). I picked out all the projects that looked good to me, and assembled them into two binders: one for art, divided into categories by media, and one for science, divided into subjects like the body, colors, nature, and so on. I used those binders for years!  Whenever I needed to plan a little activity, I would get out those binders and pick something to do.

Some of the books I used include:

  • Mudpies to Magnets
  • Janice VanCleave’s great “Play and Find Out” series, such as Play and Find Out About Nature
  • The art books I used are out of print now, but all you have to do is browse the 745 section of the children’s room at your local library. There are plenty of good books.

Playgroups or co-ops. I did not have a lot of success sending my kids to a preschool program (we did participate in a large co-op for a while, but it got too demanding), but I did participate in small co-operative preschool/play groups. These were organized with friends, usually involved 4-5 children, and met twice a week in our homes.  We enjoyed those groups very much, so next time I’ll talk about how to organize a small preschool group.

Pouring the Footing: Memory Work With Little Children, by Lisa Appelo

My Facebook feed has been saturated with uploads of kids lip syncing the Frozen soundtrack. It’s the most recent confirmation of what we all know – kids have an amazing capacity to memorize, and they enjoy it! Learning by heart is almost a game for little ones. And while it looks like fun to your littles, memory work has enormous academic benefits.

Memorizing teaches the rhythm and patterns of language. It helps to increase vocabulary and flexes the neural passages for more complicated memorization later (hello, Periodic Table!). Memory work provides a respite from seat work for the wiggly preschooler and is our kids’ first introduction to public speaking as they recite to family. Finally – and my favorite – memorizing allows even the young child to own the verses and information. I love when my littlest leans over and excitedly whispers, “That’s our verse!” after hearing something we memorized.

So given the benefits of memorization, the next question is what to memorize. In preschool and kindergarten, my kids have learned primarily scripture (Psalms and whole chapters), poems, math facts, months and days, address and phone information and hymns. Psalm 23 is an excellent place to start. We’ve also enjoyed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Both are iconic cultural pieces and filled with metaphor and allusion. My kids have also worked through Level One of Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization by the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Level One moves from shorter to longer poems, helping the child to build his memory. The selections are excellent for preschoolers and kindergartners and include zany poems by Ogden Nash (“Ooey Gooey was a worm . . . “) and timeless childhood favorites from Robert Louis Stevenson (“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me. . . “). Another venerable resource is The Harp and Laurel Wreath by Laura Berquist. This book is laid out by age and can be used with even young children.

Now that you have an idea of what to memorize, how do you go about it? First, do what works for your family. We don’t have one set memory period in ours. In the morning, we memorize scripture as a family during our Bible study time. Later, after some independent seat work, I meet with my younger two for Level One of Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization. Other memory work is done as needed. Math facts are part of the daily math lesson, and hymns are memorized with a CD as we run errands in the car.

Adding sign language, music, or chanting the natural rhythm of the piece can help to memorize. When memorizing long portions of scripture or poetry, we use American Sign Language or make our own hand motions. This is an excellent site to find ASL signs. Using hand motions is a great mnemonic and adds some fun. Music is also helpful. We have friends who have set whole chapters of scripture to their own melody and can successfully recall it years later. Chanting the selection or overemphasizing the poem’s natural rhythm also helps us memorize it.

Adding memory work to a day filled with math and babies and writing and laundry may seem difficult. It’s tempting to do it tomorrow or set it aside altogether. But memory work is really fairly easy and can be done as you feed the baby or fold laundry. Starting memory work for even 10 – 15 minutes a day will help your preschooler or kindergartener lay the footing for deeper and more complex learning in later years. It’s been one of our family’s favorite shared experiences, and it’s also been one of the best academic pursuits we’ve done while our kids were little.

Lisa Appelo is in the 16th year of homeschooling her seven children. The oldest three were homeschooled through high school and went on to their first choice colleges. Lisa continues to teach the others in grades 2nd through high school at home, most recently as a suddenly widowed single mom. Each day is an adventure in life and grace.


Preschool Nature Study: A Beginning in Wonder, by Briana Elizabeth

My very first memory is of sitting on my nana’s lawn in a sea of white and purple violets. I was mesmerized by how all of the purple splotches on the white faces were different on each and every violet. I would pick bouquets of them by the fistful, carefully layering the leaves around the outside. I still love violets and when I see them in my lawn, I dig them up and replant them, tucking them into places where they are a bright and happy face in dappled shade.

Sometimes I would find Red Efts crawling around the leaves where the woods joined her lawn, and I’d crawl after them on all fours, amazed that their tiny little fingers could carry them so far.

I turned over every rock in her flower garden looking for Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, and if I was particularly lucky, I would find a fat, shiny Yellow-Spotted Salamander. 

Nana had bird feeders all around the house, placed so we could watch the birds eat as we sat, and she knew the names of all of them and their songs. She knew who were mates and who was building a nest. I often would find bright blue robin’s eggs cracked on the ground, telling me another brood had been hatched.

I spent my days playing outside while she read or cooked, and she would answer my questions or name things for me when I brought them to her, from nuts to leaves.


Today I’m an avid organic gardener who loves her flower gardens, hatching mantis sacs, and watching the butterflies. We sat on my mother’s deck the other day and listened while the hummingbirds that frequent her yard had wars, dashing, darting, and chirping at each other through it all. My children sat too, amazed that those small little birds were so willing to be that close to us.

The wonder that I still carry with me, that I am cultivating in my children, is the gift of nature study.

Nature study doesn’t need a curriculum that must be accomplished by the end of the year. It needs time to wonder. It needs the space to look at a thing in awe.

I had the privilege as a child to play outside, but if that is not your housing arrangement, a houseplant can provide just as much wonder — think venus flytrap or Christmas cactus or spider plant. A leisurely walk in a park would, as well. My nana was able to teach me the names of all of the trees, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to go on a walk to collect some leaves and bring them home to identify them from a field guide or on the internet. Doing a leaf rubbing and finding out why some leaves turn colors would round out the lesson (do you know why?). I had one friend who did a nature study on a cantaloupe seed that had sprouted in her sink disposal when her children found the plant growing up out of the drain!

Take them out on walks and tell them about the bees, how they make honey for your oatmeal and toast by gathering pollen from all of the flowers, and how the dandelions of spring are some of their first foods. Teach them to be gentle with the little bees, and wonder together at which flower he might choose next and why.


If you want, there are some amazing books you can add in for your nature studies. Field guides for mom or dad go without saying, but then there are books like The View from the Oak which is a great book to help us learn to wonder about nature. If your child has a fascination with owls, for instance, use your local library to read about them and perhaps visit a zoo for an end-of-the-year treat. Watch the moon and look for the stars with Glow in the Dark Constellations or bring Frogs, Toads, and Turtles to a lake with you.

But the most important thing of all is that you make time to do it and be present while you  do.


Brianbrianaa Elizabeth has been at this homeschool gig since her 23 year old son was in 7th grade, and his psychiatrist told her that he had to be homeschooled. Her son never went back to public school that year, and the following year, she pulled her 4th grade daughter out of public school. Her five other children have all been homeschooled entirely. It was baptism by fire, but she wouldn’t trade it for the world. Through the years, she has in the end, not only educated her children, but herself, and homeschooling has brought about a whole paradigm change of living for her family. The education that had seemed only possible for the elite was possible through classically homeschooling.

The Early Years at Our House, by Cheryl


Children’s brains are amazing things. You may not always see it, but they are absorbing everything around them. An environment rich in educational activities will take a preschooler or kindergartener far.

Everyone dotes on their firstborn. When you have one, you have so much time! For two and a half years it was just Aidan, Mom, and Dad. Then for a year we had a mostly non-mobile baby who just wanted to be held. We worked with Aidan on his letters, numbers, colors, and shapes daily. He loved it! He wanted to do worksheets, so I bought workbooks from Target. He wanted to read, so we took Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and played around with it. He started to read and was old enough for kindergarten, so I picked up What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know and we went through the science, history, geography, and literature,  adding to it with books from the library. We did math with a book from Walmart. When the time came for first grade, he tested into second grade math and grammar and sixth grade for reading. We only worked 30 minutes a day, three or four days a week.

Lilly started asking to do school at age three. She wanted to do what “bubby” was doing. I printed out Brightly Beaming’s Letter of the Week curriculum and we played around with it. When she turned four, I bought Rod and Staff’s ABC books. We worked in the books when she was interested. Finally, this year we started more structured work. We struggled with reading for a while, but as of our last official day of kindergarten she can do the following:

1. Read on a K/1st grade level — based on where we are in the Bob Books and McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, and her ability to read Hop on Pop. She can write all of her letters and spell her name. She writes legible 1-2 word captions for her artwork.

2. She can do everything on the kindergarten list from Math Mammoth. She knows her math facts within five and can find the answers up to ten with manipulatives.

3. She has a fantastic imagination. She becomes different creatures and tells me stories. She creates amazing artwork.

4. She knows a lot about animals and plants through books we have read and from helping in our garden.

She is on “level” with very little structured work.

When I say level, I am not comparing her to what the public schools require of kindergartners; I am looking at research from curriculum developers and what is suggested for 5-6 year olds by the Core Knowledge Group, Charlotte Mason, and Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise in The Well-Trained Mind.

I am not looking for college and career readiness in kindergarten; I am looking for steady growth. I require little writing from my preschool and kindergartners. I have only started requiring writing outside of penmanship practice for my oldest this year in third grade.

I did minimal structured work with either child. They learned at their own pace, and we found their strengths and weaknesses. I was also able to find how they learn. I had time to adjust my teaching methods and curriculum choices to each child’s needs instead of feeling stuck by the expensive curriculum I purchased and felt the need to complete.

Some of my favorite preschool and kindergarten resources include:

Brightly Beaming – We enjoyed the Letter of the Week Curriculum plans. This free resource has coloring pages, activities, and lesson plans for preschool and kindergarten.

Rod and Staff ABC series – The books help develop fine motor skills as well as color, shape, number, and letter recognition. The Bible Story Book gives a good introduction to the Bible if you want that for your family. The books can be purchased individually if you do not want the Bible lessons.

What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know – This series is a great way to be sure your child is “on level.” I love the literature selections for kindergarten. It also provides a good framework for history, science, and geography studies. I used our library to broaden our study on each topic.

Explode the Code – This series of books helps students develop strong phonics skills.

The Bob Books – The books are leveled readers, the repetition helps emerging and early readers cement phonics in their minds and  memorize sight words.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers – The series builds in difficulty in a scientific manner. The lessons include spelling and reading instruction.

School Zone’s Big Math 1-2 – If you can find it with the DVD, the games help kids learn basic math up through 3 and 4 digit addition/subtraction with regrouping. The book has plenty of pages of practice problems for early addition and subtraction practice. If you make it through the whole book, it introduces multiplication.

Target’s $1 Aisle – I check this regularly in the months of July-September. You can find clock manipulatives, flash cards, workbooks of all levels, and other great educational items. All for $1 each!

Other things to keep in the house: Play dough, crayons, coloring books, blank paper, construction paper, paints, building blocks and Legos, math manipulatives (Cuisinaire rods, Math-U-See blocks, Mortensen Math blocks, beans, marbles, anything countable), lots of books, and your imagination.

Our littlest students will learn. Provide the environment and they will thrive! Don’t push, work at your child’s pace and not only will they learn what they need to learn, they will grow to love learning!


Chcheryleryl–Cheryl is a singing, dancing, baking, homeschooling mom of three. She has danced her whole life and taught ballet and theatre for most of her adult life. Her favorite pastime has always been cooking and baking, and as a Pampered Chef Independent Consultant she gets to share that love with others. Home educating her three children has been and continues to be one of her greatest learning experiences! It is an adventure she is ready to continue.

Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education: Part I, by Jane Emily


Lately there is a lot in the news about young children and a “college prep education.”   Many of us have read the news story about the school that canceled the kindergarten class show in favor of “college and career” skills.  We’ve heard about the incredible competition for places at expensive private preschools in New York City.  Some of us might start to wonder–are the rest of us missing out on the magic ingredient that will make our kids successful?  Or is it just that the world has gone insane?  Even when we sensibly decide that yes, the world has indeed gone insane, there is a part of us that wonders if our kids are going to make it in that insane world.  Universities are more competitive (and more expensive) every year.  Everyone is worried about jobs.  How can we possibly prepare our kids to do well?  Maybe those fancy private preschools are on to something?

It is my belief that classical education is a good answer to those questions.  Here on Sandbox to Socrates, we’ve already talked about why we chose classical.  Now I’d like to talk a bit about a question so many parents of little ones have: how to prepare our preschoolers for that classical education.  What special things should we be doing?  In this article, I’m going to assume that you have almost no prior knowledge, even of basic parenting.  Please don’t take this as condescending; yes, you will see plenty of things you already know about, but that way we will cover all our bases–if there can be such a thing.

First priorities.  Young children need a stable, loving environment that is fairly predictable.  Have routines for mornings, meals, and bedtimes.  Give these things enough time that you aren’t always rushing, and allow for free time. Try to work with their abilities, and not against them; run errands when they are cheerful, relaxed, and fed, not when they are already hungry or tired.  Give them clear and age-appropriate expectations before you go into a situation, so that instructions will be at the front of their minds.  Remember that they are going to make messes, and things are going to be hard sometimes, and react to the inevitable accidents and disasters with cheerful firmness as much as you can.  Take care of yourself so that you can react with cheerful firmness!

Time outside.  This is another obvious one.  Kids love to play outside, run on the grass, look at growing things, and just enjoy the world.   All that time outside is not somehow wasted when it comes to things like learning and problem-solving and “21st-century skills.”  It’s helping her grow.  She is observing and learning, experimenting and testing herself.  She is practicing large motor and fine motor skills.  There are few better places for her to be.


Simple toys.  You don’t need a zillion toys, and they definitely don’t have to light up or go beep.  But every child should have blocks to stack, a soft toy to snuggle, a puzzle or so, a car to go vroom with, and a few items to play dress-up in.   The basics will let them play imaginatively and give their bodies interesting things to do; more is not necessary.  That doesn’t mean you need to limit your child to 5 toys.  Just don’t feel like you need to buy lots of expensive items; they are not needed.


Limited electronics and screen time.  It can be so hard to limit the TV, the computer, and the iPad.   Kids love them, they are easy, and we are constantly being told that “educational” electronic toys, videos, and games will help our kids learn more and prepare for their futures.  Then, TV can be a lifesaver when you’re trying to make dinner or bathe the baby–I’m not here to tell you that any TV at all will poison your child.  (I am, after all, a survivor of years of intensive Scooby-Doo exposure, and I’m still here.)  But it is so important to use these things wisely!

Observe your child and see how she does with and without screen time.  Many children (many adults!) are unable to tear their eyes away from a screen; the lights and motion grab our attention and don’t let go.  Many children can only tolerate a certain amount of TV without losing their cool.  When my own kids were tiny, I found out the hard way that I had to limit TV to 20 minutes a day.  More than that, and I had a cranky, whiny mess of a kid on my hands–every time.  You may find that if you turn off all the screens in your house, your day goes better.  TV in the morning may make for a difficult day, so it might be better to save it until the afternoon.

Remember that while some screen time isn’t bad, it also may not be very good.  The more time a child spends looking at a two-dimensional image, the less time he is spending in the real world, which is infinitely more complex, demanding, and developmentally appropriate.  Almost any “educational” video or game is not actually as educational as a real life full of people, dirt, sticks, and blocks.  Remember those Baby Einstein videos that were so popular a few years ago?  It turned out that they weren’t educational at all, and watched in large amounts, they were damaging.  This is because small children are built to learn from real life and personal interaction.  They can’t learn their first language from a screen, and they can’t learn well from flat images they can’t touch.

You may have to train yourself to turn off the TV and not to get out your iPad when your child can see you (I know how much they love to play those games!), but keep him away from it as much as you can.  We are now seeing some kids who have spent so much time playing on tablets that they don’t know how to do real-life activities.

Don’t worry that your child won’t be as good at using a computer when she’s an adult.  It’s not that hard to learn to use a word processor, and playing games on a tablet doesn’t have much to do with serious computer work.  She has plenty of time.

Don’t worry unnecessarily.  You play an enormous part in setting the atmosphere of the home.  When you burden yourself with stress about whether you are doing enough for your children’s education, whether you are doing things “right,” and all that, you make yourself unhappy and your children can feel that.  They won’t know that you are feeling understandable fears out of love for them; they will just sense that you’re unhappy.  Sensitive children will decide they’ve done something wrong.

I’m not talking here about severe life problems like depression, unemployment, or family issues.  I just mean that if you’re doing your best, it’s better to remember that and keep a cheerful attitude than it is to stress yourself out over the fact that you are not a perfect mother.  Remind yourself that you’ve done your homework and you are choosing the best you can for your child, and then relax and enjoy the ride.  These are days to treasure.


Next time, I’ll talk about preparing a child for classical academics.

Janejane-emily-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.

Observe Your Child, by Genevieve


I love preschoolers. I love teaching preschoolers. I love teaching my own, and I love teaching others’. I love teaching preschool in the classroom, and I love teaching preschool at home.

Sometimes Aidan is so useful

I was asked in an interview once why someone as clearly intelligent as I am would ever choose to teach children who are so young. “What could be more challenging,” I replied, “than teaching complex concepts to students who cannot take in any information from reading and very little from listening?”

There are some disagreements about whether young children learn better in traditional classrooms or at home, and whether all learning should be play-based, or if seat work should be included, as well.

My answer is simple. “Observe you child.”

I once took a call from a prospective parent during nap time. She wanted to start trying for a second child. She thought enrolling her preschooler in our program might help with the transition. It seemed like a good idea. I sounded like a capable and caring teacher; still she was torn. They were very closely bonded, having hardly been away from each other. How could she be certain that she was doing the right thing?

“It is simple,” I told her. “Observe your child.”

Come and visit our school and let her try it out; then really notice how she reacts. Her actions will tell you if she is learning and happy and loved here. Is she excited about coming to school each day? Is she eager to walk through the door, or is the light slowly going out of her eyes as you put her in the car.

Observe your child. She will tell you what you need to know.

This particular child ended up thriving in our play-based program with a student-teacher ratio of 5:1, although I did occasionally make her cry by insisting that she learn to take turns. Thankfully she forgave me.

Olivia and Carly

Years later, I taught her little sister several days a week in our homeschool. We still read and played and made art projects.

Olivia painting

We cooked snacks.

Henry's tea party

But these preschoolers had older siblings doing school. They wanted to “do school,” too.

Against all of my training and my own personal philosophy, I started letting them do a phonics worksheet and a math page each day in addition to our more developmentally-appropriate preschool activities.

How did I know that it wouldn’t ruin them? I observed them. They were awfully happy children, so I think it was probably okay.

Happy Flan

I’m down to my last preschooler now, at least until I have grandchildren to teach.

Vivi wearing sunglasses

She does some book work when the older kids are doing school.

Vivi doing school work

She has a little desk set up in the den where she draws and makes books every chance she gets.

Vivi the master author

She helps with the animals…

Vivi feeding Honey Bee

and with washing the dishes. She builds with blocks and makes doll clothes out of coffee filters.

How do I know if it is not enough? How do I know if it is too much?

I look at this face and it tells me everything I need to know.


GeGenevievenevieve–is a former public and private school teacher who has five children and has been homeschooling for the past thirteen years. In her free time she provides slave labor to Dancing Dog Dairy, making goat milk soap and handspun yarn, which can be seen on
Our Facebook Page and at Dancing Dog Dairy .

A Kindergarten Dropout, by Nancy

Reposted with permission from Nancy at Life Without School.

My son is five years old.

He’s never been to a preschool, and he dropped out of homeschool kindergarten. So he hasn’t had much by way of formal schooling yet. The kindergarten curriculum I attempted with him earlier this school year was a very non-academic, gentle, Waldorfy-type of curriculum. It consisted of things like music and movement, listening to a fairy tale, coloring a picture, doing a craft or two, engaging in a nature activity, and learning a letter of the alphabet in a hands-on way, like drawing it in the dirt with a stick. And those activities were spread out over the course of a week, not a day, so it wasn’t time-consuming. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? But it only lasted a few weeks because he started saying things like, “I don’t want to do my school.” He showed a lack of interest in and focus on the stories and crafts. I tried, at first, to cajole him into giving it more of a chance, but then he started saying, “I don’t like school.” So I dropped it. Entirely. I figured I could always give it another shot in a year, and the last thing I wanted to do was set my child up to not like school at age five by pushing the issue.

So now, instead, we’re having another very informal, very relaxed year of “preschool.” I didn’t say a word to contradict him when he informed his sister, “I quit my school.” I didn’t bat an eyelash when he told me, “I’m never doing school.” (He has since changed his mind and has acknowledged that he will “do school” in the future). We have no schedule, no curriculum, no coercion. What he still manages to learn, frequently all on his own, is amazing.

For example, any “math instruction” he’s ever had has consisted of things like:

Counting together. Sometimes orally; sometimes with manipulatives.

Watching educational shows for preschoolers that sometimes focus on numbers.

Playing board games that require some knowledge of numbers, even if that just means recognizing numbers that come up on a spinner or knowing how many spaces to move.

Playing card games like “War.”

Having conversations while waiting for food to arrive that consist of taking his packet of five restaurant-issued crayons and saying, “Hey, if you have three crayons, and I give you two more, how many do you have? If you have four crayons and I take one away, how many do you have? If I have two crayons and you have two crayons, how many do we have?”

Having conversations about how much things cost while shopping at the grocery store – by which I mean how much the candy costs while we’re waiting at the check out line. But, still.

Answering him if he asks me what a number is. Which most often comes up in our routine travels when he wants to know what the temperature is (we can see it on a display in the car), how fast Daddy is driving (“You’re going 70 fast, Daddy,” he’ll now say), how many miles we have left until our gas tank is empty, what exit number we have to go to.

Telling him, when asked, how much money he has and which one is the nickel.

Providing him with things like geoboards and pattern blocks and Perfection.

Seriously, that’s about it. These are basically just things any parent of any toddler or preschooler or kindergartener would do. And in my case, they are done pretty informally, sporadically and gradually. That’s important to note.

Yet, recently my son has initiated a series of conversations that absolutely boggle my mind.

The most recent one took place with his father while we were all on a long car ride together, and it went like this:

Ben: 50 plus 50 is 100.
Daddy: You’re right!
Ben: Six 50′s is 300.
Daddy: Yes! How do you know that?!
Ben: I just know.
Daddy: What’s four 50′s?
Ben: 200?
Daddy: Yes! Can you tell me what eight 50′s is?
Ben, after thinking for a couple of minutes: 400.
Daddy: How do you know this??
Ben: I learned it from playing Plants vs. Zombies on Mommy’s computer.

Okay, don’t get hung up on the fact that I let my five-year-old son play a game called Plants vs. Zombies. That’s beside the point (and for the record, he refuses to play “baby games”). The point is, HE COUNTED BY 50s. IN HIS HEAD. BY HIMSELF. HAVING HAD NO FORMAL MATH INSTRUCTION, EVER! I haven’t taught him multiplication. I haven’t taught him to count by 50′s. I haven’t told him that 50 plus 50 is basically the same as 5 plus 5 with a zero at the end. He picked up on this because the video and computer games he loves to play require him to know how much money game items will cost him and how much he already has or how many points he can accrue by taking a particular course of action or what his score is, etc.

There have been other instances, too, where he’s surprised me with some bit of knowledge. Where he’s counted by fives or tens (I didn’t formally teach him to do that either, by the way!) and randomly came to me to announce his findings: “Mommy, five plus five plus five is fifteen.” (“Yes, Ben, it is! Good job!”). Or where he’s come to me and asked, “Five plus three is eight, right?” And when I say, “Yes!” and start posing other simple problems, he does them in his head (okay, maybe partially on his fingers, too)… and gets it right. He can even do more than one step, like “What’s three plus three minus one?”

A couple of weeks ago at a restaurant he started looking at his children’s menu and commented: “That says one dollar and twenty five cents. This one says two dollars and ninety-five cents. One dollar and seventy-five cents. Three dollars and fifty cents.”

He’s learned to count backwards by counting down days to events he is looking forward to. (“Five days til we go to Chuck E. Cheese,” I might tell him, to which he will respond, “Then four, then three, then two, then one, then Chuck E. Cheese day!”).

Sometimes, he’ll call out to me from bed while he’s supposed to be going to sleep: “Mommy, can I tell you a math problem? 3 plus 3 plus 3 plus 1 is probably 10, right?”

He’s only just started doing some Funnix Beginning Reading Lessons – we do this sporadically, as he wants to, and he will sometimes enjoy it because it’s on the computer. He’s really into the computer, as you can probably tell. Sometimes I worry that he spends too much time on it, especially at his age. Other times I’m in awe of how much it teaches him. And how good he is at navigating it. I downloaded Funnix because it was offered for free at one point and figured we may as well give it a try. We haven’t done many lessons yet. We’re not doing them on any strict schedule. He doesn’t even recognize every single letter of the alphabet. Many, but not all. Yet, he recognizes some words because they come up frequently on the computer games he likes to play. He has to know what to click on, for example…what says “quit” and what says “save” and what says “next” and what says “start over” or “yes” or “no” or “back” or “play again.” He’s got his own “folder” of websites he can visit and he’s able to find his name and then navigate to the game he wants to play.

Other than that, I provide lots of books and read to him when he will tolerate it, which is not on a daily basis. If he tells me to point at the words while I’m reading them, I do. If he doesn’t want me to, I don’t.

I answer him when he wants to know what something says, whether something rhymes, whether something is an opposite, what something means, how to spell something. I showed him how to write his first name. I put on Leapfrog learning shows for him such as “Letter Factory” or “The Amazing Alphabet Amusement Park.” We occasionally talk about letter sounds.

I am confident that he will eventually learn to read and that it does not have to be when he’s five. Or six. Or at any particular proscribed time. I won’t be surprised if he just gets there on his own before I get to the point of really trying to formally teach him, just like he’s doing when it comes to simple math.

I try to do crafts with him and drawings and paintings and so on, but he’s just not that into those things. He very quickly loses interest in crafts, and my ten-year-old daughter and I end up doing them instead. He rarely wants to color, and when he does, it’s more likely than not just a scribble. What preschooler (with no sensory issues) can resist fingerpainting? Mine can. Water color painting? Ditto. So I stopped trying to “direct” these things. I make them available instead. Sometimes I will cover the kitchen table in something like butcher paper, lay out some stampers and markers and crayons and just let him do his own thing as he eats breakfast.

So what other kinds of things do we do? Well, I let him participate to the extent he’s willing and able in household chores and daily errands. He likes to try to help vacuum. He loves folding dish towels. He sometimes wants to help cook or bake something.

I converse with him, answer his questions, play games with him, get him outside, take him on many, many outings and “field trips.” I enjoy watching his logic skills develop:

“Hey, Ben, can a pineapple tree really grow in your stomach?”


“Why not?”

“I don’t eat the seeds.”


“Ben, you just poked me in the eye! I think you blinded me!”

“If you’re blind, you can get a guide dog.”

“I guess I could.”

Putting his face close to mine: “Can you see me?”


“Then you don’t need a guide dog.”

I make various educational toys, games and manipulatives available to him. I sign him up for activities here and there when I think he’ll have an interest – an indoor soccer league at the Y, a homeschool bowling league, teeball, swimming lessons. We talk about right and left, the day of the week, the month, the season, the weather. We talk about good manners, being healthy, helping others. We watch ants crawl on the ground, we wish on stars. Largely, I follow his lead, and I let him do his own thing.

And the truth is, I can see that he is learning all the time, whether I “try” to make it happen or not.

So, what I’m trying to say is, you don’t need a formal curriculum or schedule for your preschooler. I know a lot of new parents or homeschoolers worry that they do. But you don’t. You don’t need an academic kindergarten either, really. You don’t need to sit down and do desk work or worksheets in order for your young child to learn. Childhood is so fleeting, and kids have so many years ahead of them for formal instruction/formal learning. When your kids are little, just love them. Be with them. Talk to them. Interact with them. Follow their lead. Give them plenty of time to play, imagine, create, pretend, think, ask, explore whatever it is they are interested in. People learn best when they are learning something they have an interest in, something they are truly engaged in, and young children are no exception.

If you’ve found yourself wondering if you “should” start a formal curriculum in preschool, or whether you are pushing too much too soon, or whether you are doing enough, or whether it’s “okay” to be more relaxed, or to delay formal instruction, or to go with a more laid back kindergarten program, etc., ask yourself this:

“Am I more likely to look back years from now and wish I’d pushed more math, handwriting, etc when he was four or five? Wish I’d started school sooner? Or am I more likely to look back and wish I’d waited on that stuff, that we’d just played more, enjoyed each other more, had more fun?”

Think about that, and then…relax. Don’t think so much about “teaching.” Just continue parenting. Believe me, they are learning!

Earlier Rather Than Later: Unique Preschool for a Child with Down Syndrome, by Brit


When our daughter was born with Down syndrome, we never questioned whether we would homeschool her. That was just a given: she would be educated at home with her brothers. What we did question almost from the beginning was how, what, and when. As we were moving toward a much more classical approach with our boys, we wondered if we would also classically educate Kate. Would she be able to handle the rigor and work? Could she handle learning Latin like her brothers? We started to question the curriculum choices we were making with the boys, wondering if she would need something entirely different. And we weren’t sure when to start a more formal approach to her learning. Would we wait until she was “school age” to begin formal learning, beyond what she showed an interest in? Or would we take an “early is better” approach?

It wasn’t very hard to realize that Kate, too, would be classically educated. We knew it might, and probably would, look different than her brothers’ education looked. But it would be classical to the best of her ability. I bought Cheryl Swope’s book Simply Classical. Reading her story, and that of her two children made me realize that it wasn’t just possible to educate Kate classically, it was the best way to educate her as a whole person. Sure, she will need to learn life skills. Sure, we will need to help her gain as much independence as possible. But those skills just address one piece of what makes Kate, well, Kate. She is a body and soul and deserves an education that forms her whole being just as much as her brothers do. Recently, our decision was validated and cemented when I read this quote by Martin Cothran of Memoria Press:

If a child cannot accommodate the amount or depth of knowledge of most children, it is not less, but more important that what they learn be of the highest quality.

Now that we knew roughly what her education was going to look like, we needed to decide how it was going to play out. As I read books and on the internet, and as I spoke with others who have walked this path before me, I began to discuss the idea of early academics with my husband. Knowing that all learning for Kate would be uphill both ways, we decided that an early start to building her academic foundation was vital to her potential success later in life. The first place we began was reading instruction. Not only is the ability to read one of the most fundamental abilities necessary to participate in every day life, but learning to read also helps cognitive development as well as speech development, both of which can be delayed in individuals with Down syndrome.

We have put together a reading program using a variety of resources including The Learning Program materials, See and Learn, and the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome. Mostly, we use flash cards that have a word on one side with a corresponding picture on the reverse. The flashing through is fast; it takes a couple minutes to go through a stack of ten cards, twice. We have also added books from the Learning Program with simple sentences to help her make the connection between words on a flashcard and words in books. The goal is for Kate to be reading and comprehending at or above grade level when she begins first grade.

In addition to teaching reading in the preschool years, we also are teaching early math literacy – counting everything (steps as we go up and down the stairs, objects on pages of books we read, pieces of food), sorting and categorizing toys, and playing with pattern blocks and attribute blocks, among other more formal activities. Looking back, so many of these early concepts came naturally for her brothers, either through playtime together or through videos from Leap Frog. We didn’t think much of what we were doing, we just included colors, numbers, shapes, and sizes in everyday conversation with our boys. With Kate, though, nothing can be assumed. Yes, we play with her in the same ways, having similar conversations. But we also pull out flash cards, linking cubes, and small math manipulatives. We must be much more deliberate with Kate, much more explicit with the instruction, much more repetitive with her. The idea is that she must have 10,000 times more input than typical children to retain information. She must have her working memory exercised consistently to build connections and synapses. We can never just assume with her that she is learning the ways her brothers learned – just by picking things up in everyday life.

The final, and the most beautiful, piece to the puzzle for Kate’s early preschool education is the new Simply Classical curriculum from Memoria Press. Harkening back to the quote from Martin Cothran, and based on her book, Cheryl Swope is designing classical curriculum for special needs children. We have begun working through the first level with Kate this summer. We start each day with a prayer from the beautiful Little Golden Book Prayers for Children. When we talk about the baby birds and mama bird on the page, Kate practices her speech and her signing. From there, each day includes basic calendar activities (days of the week and weather), counting and alphabet recitation, as well as beginning memory work from Scripture. We then read the book of the week. Cheryl Swope has chosen wonderful books from authors including Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, and Margaret Wise Brown, among others. Because these are board books, they are perfect for little hands and allow Kate to practice her fine motor skills by turning the pages for me.

Fine and gross motor, oral language, and other therapies are wrapped into the weekly readings. We practice making a pointing finger to count objects; we jump, squat down, and push strollers to act out parts of a story; we discuss feelings and learn empathy while learning to read emotions on the faces of the characters. Cheryl Swope has taken those skills that need explicit instruction and woven them beautifully into activities springing out of the books we are reading. She has captured special needs preschool and bottled it inside something true, good, and beautiful.

Early academics is not something I would normally advocate. If I did, it would come in the form of “only if the child shows an interest.” Of my three boys, the younger two did show an interest, but ultimately, it was not the early academics that drove them. It was the desire to emulate their older brother(s) by doing “school” too. We kept it simple – a few Kumon books; a white board and marker to practice “writing;” some paper, scissors, glue, and crayons. If they felt like being at the table with the rest of us, they were welcomed. But it was not planned or forced. We do not have that luxury with Kate. We knew early on that she needed an early start to build a foundation that came easily for her brothers. We knew her development was an uphill climb from the beginning. But we also knew that given the skills, the input, and the time, she would be able to fly. Early academics, beginning much younger for her than her brothers, is the key to helping her fly. For us, that takes the form of early reading instruction, explicit math instruction, and a beautifully written preschool special needs curriculum. And she is thriving.


10320484_10152303634377954_6796617664035885030_n1Brit and her husband are living this beautiful, crazy life with their three sons and one daughter in sunny California. They made the decision to homeschool when their eldest was a baby after realizing how much afterschooling they would do if they sent him to school. Brit describes their homeschooling as eclectic, literature-rich, Catholic, classical-wanna-be.