Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pre School Learning Plans -- Homeschooling Series Part 1

Among the most interesting questions I get about homeschooling is the one from a mother who intends to enroll her child in school, but is still looking for a way to supplement early learning, especially reading. I truly believe that every home can and should be a learning environment, and that I learned as much from my parents as I did in school everyday, not just about faith, love and values, but academically as well. I was also blessed to attend a really wonderful Catholic elementary school, and the learning atmosphere there is something that has strongly influenced my parenting and homeschooling. My mother and aunt taught in that school after I moved past kindergarten, so they have helped me to recreate that environment in my home. The reading that I have done about homeschooling has given me the words and philosophies to describe the atmosphere which, to me, was just a natural result of curious, loving teachers.

Since I have had this question twice this week, it seems like school plans are on your minds, and since I am STILL PREGNANT, I thought I would take advantage of the time to finally get my long promised homeschooling post going.

I will move on to specifics, but first I want to talk a bit about homeschooling philosophies. I am an "eclectic" homeschooler, drawing ideas from Charlotte Mason, Montessori and Classical curricula. I see more overlap in all of these than the strict adherents might, and I take what makes sense for my family and try to make it my own.

Each of these methods of learning places strong emphasis on the potential of the child and on offering the right material at the right stage. The child deserves a welcoming atmosphere with real tools (Montessori), real books (Mason) and real information (Classical) which are respectful of his intellect.

I would wager that those who have preschoolers already have many of these good, real resources in their homes, but the child may not be choosing them often because they may be crowded out by junk. I am big on "decluttering" in general, but most especially for our kids. It is just easier to think, learn and be creative when there is less stuff, and when the "junk" has been eliminated. At Christmas, especially, we have been talking about how to make sure our kids have only what is really best for them. This does not mean "educational" toys like leap frogs, but instead toys that really exercise their brains.

So, here is my list of toys for a great learning atmosphere, these are the toys that were present in my wonderful preschool classroom:

--building toys - wooden blocks, legos, castle or tree blocks, wooden train tracks
--home toys - doll and stroller, play kitchen, dress up
--art supplies - easel and paints, lots of white and colored paper, crayons, markers, watercolors, scissors, glue, glitter, sewing or knitting, beads to string, all set up in a way that the child is free to use them often
--outdoor toys - balls, sports equipment, baskets or buckets for gathering treasures, sandbox, bikes, trikes, scooters
-- other - wooden animals, cars and trucks,
--games - dominoes, cards, CandyLand

I find that my children focus on one thing from each category for a while at a time, for example all outdoor time in August and September seemed to be about riding bikes, and in October they were using the easel daily while the watercolors gathered dust, so having just one or two things from each category might be plenty.

The children need a fairly tidy place to play, so we keep toys in baskets on shelves along the wall and try to keep the center of the room free as a play space. My preschool teacher used a bell, which she rung at certain points to tell us that it was time to clean up before we moved on to the next activity. I do not do this, but I really should. This is a Montessori trick, actually, and another great Montessori trick is to try whispering, rather than shouting, to call children to attention. Last night, my rambunctious twins were really helpful getting the house straightened up when I whispered a "mission" in their ears and asked them to come back and tell me when it was finished.

I could go on for hours about picture books, and will put up a list in a future post, but for these purposes I will just say that real books have individual authors and are not based on TV programs. If you find yourself hating to read to your child, you are probably reading junky books, because reading together should be a pleasure for both of you. Read, Read, Read, and also have a nice cozy place where the children can look through books on their own, even though they cannot read, they will look at pictures and tell the familiar stories to dolls and one another. We also use lots of stories on CD in the car, we listen to longer chapter books there, and good music, too.

Okay, so now you have a neat, inspiring play room, maybe put on some classical music and hang an art print on the wall at child's height, and you have a great learning atmosphere -- but what about the part that feels like "real school?" This might be about 45 minutes a day, three days a week, working on the "three r's."

Reading -- if you have a child who likes to color and do "seat work," I recommend the Explode the Code series. For preschool, these workbooks are "Get Ready," "Get Set," and "Go for the Code." The book teaches phonics one letter at a time through repetitive exercises. So far, my children have worked through these books around age 4, although they are not able to do the handwriting portions of the book, and I just skip those.

I also use a "phonetic object set" which I ordered from Montessori Services. You could make your own. This is a box of little toys, all of which have names that are 3 letter words (hat, jet, dog, etc). You could also use pictures, but I have to say that both of my boys got more enthusiastic about the tiny toy jet than any other reading material I presented. We work with these in a variety of ways. First, we play "I spy" using the first position letter, I spy something that begins with "huh", the child picks the hat. Around the same time, I teach that the vowels are special letters and I teach the short vowel sounds. Right now, John is working with the objects by placing one on a board and trying to write it's name, this is sometimes easier than reading.

If the child is ready to read before he is ready to write letters, you can use a magnetic set of letters to "write" the words, place objects or pictures under their letter, etc.

See what happens, and take it at the child's pace. Some kids seem to really click with the "blending" the letters together into words, and others take longer to get to that step. When the phonetic sounds are familiar, your child may be ready to read "Bob's Books." After those, I work through the Primary Phonics series of readers, I chose those because they are the ones that I used to learn to read, so they are familiar to me.

As you can see, I really create my own program, and my children have learned to read quite easily. I have my mom to call on with questions, though, so you may feel that you need more structure or support. For that I would recommend "The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading" by Jessie Wise. One caveat: do not make a goal of teaching your child to read before kindergarten. Make a goal of making reading fun and teaching the child the letters and sounds. If she is ready to start to read, go with it, but many children do not read before first grade and you really do not want it to become a negative thing.

Writing: I really like the Handwriting Without Tears series, and I have a child with some degree of special needs in this area. The preschool book has been well received by my four year old twins this year, and it will also reinforce phonics.

Also, have your children tell you stories, or tell back the stories and fairy tales that you have read together, and illustrate them if they are interested. This is "narration" (Charlotte Mason), and it works on both listening comprehension skills and sentence and story structuring, which will help with writing in the future. It is also cute and fun! You can type these or write them for the child, and you can also write captions under any pictures that they draw for you.

Arithmetic: I am not doing a formal "math" program with my four year olds this year, but we do lots of counting activities, like dominoes, cooking together and using the calendar. Cuisenaire Rods, pattern blocks and base-10 blocks are also great to have around and work with. A preschool wall calendar set is a great investment, you will work on numbers, letters, the weather, days of the week and months, holidays, etc. Next year I will use "Saxon Math K" with the twins, Red is using it this year with her daughter, who is about six months older. This is program is almost a complete preschool in itself.

With the exception of the Saxon, the workbooks mentioned above are inexpensive, and I think they are worth purchasing rather than trying to print off lots of free coloring pages from the internet, though you might do that to supplement if you have a child who really loves seat work. The Saxon book you might be able to get used on Ebay, and then just buy the workbook, which would save money. For Saxon you will also need some hands on "math manipulatives." I just bought the complete set from them because I knew that I would be using them for several years with several children. I think Red took stock of what she had at home and then purchased a few things from a local teaching supply store, and this is more economical if you can take the time.

There is a fourth R, religion, which is a fundamental part of any education, but I am not going to address that here. Texas Mommy, maybe you want to tackle that one at some point, Tex does a great job of "living the liturgical year" with her children. If you read my post about our Advent read aloud activity, you get my general plan, which is to have good books on religious subjects and read bible stories to my children. We also use an Adoremus Hymnal and CD to learn some hymns from time to time.

As for logistics:
Charlotte Mason encouraged doing lessons first thing in the morning, keeping them short, and spending as much time outside as possible. Montessori encouraged a "three hour work period" in which the children had free choice within limits and directors allowed them to focus on what activity at a time. Mason talks about the atmosphere and discipline of education, and I think Montessorians would agree, developing the habit of attention to a task is crucial to learning, Montessori called this "normalization." We work in our school room from about 9-11:30 about four mornings a week, and the children can choose seat work from their cubbies or the Montessori style works that I have out on the shelves. They can take breaks to play outside or in the playroom. I have actually been working on more and more outside time, perhaps we can all chat about that in another post.

For the older children, I have set daily and weekly tasks that must be accomplished and checked off a list, but they can choose these in any order, with the exception that they must do the things that require me when I am free, so I can call them for an individual math lesson when others are engaged in handwriting, etc. I do not usually read aloud during this morning work time, but we have a long reading session at bedtime each night and often a mid-afternoon snuggle and read as well. They are in bed for "quiet time" with books each afternoon for an hour and a half.

Now that I look at this, with the addition of a few more subjects (grammar, science, history, geography), this school outline is what I am doing up to second grade, which is our oldest at the moment. I hope that I have answered your questions about how I teach my children, and that some of this will be useful to you whether or not you are considering homeschooling!


kathleenob said...

Thanks for this post. I have a 2 1/2 year old and an 8 month old. I am not from a homeschooling family, but we really want to try homeschooling. We are not doing anything formal right now. (Lesson plans etc) We do art projects, letters, reading and she talks with me about this all day, but are there any books you would recommend for 2-3 year olds?

margaretjdmom said...

MA, I am so impressed you put this together! Thank you, I appreciate your efforts to answer my question so thoroughly. I am really discerning homeschooling next year when my husband returns from deployment. Regarding books for 2-3 year olds- I recommend a lot of the realistic type books about how things work....DK, Gail Gibbons. Another interesting book in which to find book ideas by age is called Landscape for Dragons by Michael O'Brien. I don't know if I agree with everything he writes in the book but it is helpful with the reading list- you know what to get out at the library ahead of time and don't end with the junky books!

Mary Alice said...

A preschool book list is coming soon...

Right Said Red said...

Great post MA! You are so wise on this topic. Our family has greatly benefited from all your hard work and experience in this area.

For younger children's toys, I believe very strongly that less is more. Clutter not only drives moms crazy, it overwhelms children and they end up not playing with many of their things. Now is a great time of year to give away the extra toys our children don't need.

In addition, I would highly recommend Ambleside online ( They have a great book list by age. I was able to use their lists as a great reference point for my children's literature collection. I purchased some books in the early fall and we have used these books all year. I plan to add to this collection each year. They even have pre-school recommendations (check out their year 0 book recommends).

Anonymous said...

We are looking at an international move soon (with a 3 year old and a 1.5 yr old). Any advise on how to weed out the toys, give away toys with less tears? (Most of their toys are good quality and I wouldn't necessarily get rid of them if we didn't have to pare down.)

Right Said Red said...


I don't know if I have advice for an international move! My advice goes for general toy decluttering, but here are some suggestions, and I apologize if none of these work.

1) Get rid of any non-expensive toy that your children are not absolutely crazy about (especially plastic toys made with lots of pieces)

2) Try to keep only toys that fall into one of MaryAlice's suggested categories. If they absolutely LOVE a toy that is not in one of these categories, allow them to keep it, but otherwise, give it away.

3) Try to avoid (or get rid of) marketing based toys (Disney toys, or non-generic versions of toys). Under this system, once a child has a car, they are satisfied with that toy, rather than craving every new Disney cars character that hits the market. Sticking to basic/generic toys really helps to limit a child's wants and to declutter.

4) Consider a rotating toy system if you have a basement or other storage area. I put toys "away" for a week, then rotate them with the toys in use. This greatly reduces clutter, AND the children get excited on the day we bring out some new things.

5) Courtesy of Flylady--grab a large trashbag and walk and force yourself to fill it with toys. Do not stop until you are done. Do this as often as necessary to reduce clutter.

Good Luck Amy!

sera said...

Amazing as always, and quite impressive even during a normal month, but if this is what you accomplish just moments from welcoming your newest child, are you sure you are a mere mortal?

Mary Alice said...

I just want to second Red's suggestion about character based toys -- our little boy loves Thomas trains, and as a result we wind up with more trains than we could ever play with, they are messy and a pain to store, but when we try to pare down it seems that each identity is important to the story -- I wish he just had one engine, a few cars and a caboose instead! Avoid this if at all possible, it turns into a "collection" rather than a toy.

Juris Mater said...

Ha, funny MaryAlice... I strongly dislike character toys but love love love the Thomas Trains. I like that each one is wooden and non-battery-operated and expensive and good quality, so we can request them for gifts and not get all that many. I like that we can collect them slowly and enjoy getting to know each new one, and I like that the name-brand track pieces are sturdy. I find that this is a perfect activity for 18 mo-3 year old fine motor skill practice, for boys who love things that go, and for a child who is less imagination/creativity prone (because he can do a little creative play within some pre-written stories with reasonably good moral lessons all about trains). I also really like the different personalities of the trains. For example, Toby is an old tram engine, and there's a sweet little song that says "oldies but goldies, we still care for you" which has helped me explain to the kids why we respect the elderly and why we don't quickly discard tried-and-true ideas. These have been THE perfect toy for Bean.... he will drive them up and down and around his track for literally two hours each day and he is so soothed and satisfied by this. I don't know enough about children's educational and temperament needs to know exactly why this is, all I know is I'm SO thankful that Thomas and his Friends have entered our family.

I wanted to thank you, MA, for pointing out to me a couple times that if you hate reading to your kids you're probably reading junky books. I'm finally starting to digest this advice, and I have hated reading to my kids until now, when we're starting to find our way toward better books. What a change! Thank you!!

Mary Alice said...

JM - I totally agree with everything you said about Thomas, which is why this is the most "cluttered" area of our play room -- who am I to say that Toby has to go? It is just that when the three year old gets his hands on the little catalogue and announces that all he wants for Christmas is Arthur -- a train who happens to be retired and commands high prices on Ebay, I start to feel like we are in over our heads!

JesusThroughMary said...

Why does only one of the three "R"s begin with R?

Juris Mater said...

MaryAlice, I feel your pain on the Arthur situation... and if I were you at almost a week postdue I'd be hating Thomas and then some.

Mary Alice said...

Well, I just found out that the kid next door asked santa for an Iphone, so I suspect it is going to be disappointment all around the cul-de-sac this year.

Julia A said...

One bit of advice when you've got multiple little ones and need to spend 15 minutes working on school with an older one: fill up the little ones first. A 5-minute tickle-fest with a toddler followed by a quiet picture book can buy you quite a bit of uninterrupted time.