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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Volcano!!

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.