Creating a Learning-Rich Environment for Your Preschooler

It’s a popular question these days, three year old at my side: “So when does he start preschool?”

Well…¬†never.

It has been nearly three years since I first shared my reasons for homeschooling. Most of those reasons remain the same today. Some are no longer as important to me as they once were. Other reasons have been added. Some priorities have been reconsidered, shifted. But throughout those three years, our resolve to homeschool has not wavered in the least.

Creating a Learning Rich Environment for your Preschooler

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I did, however, have a moment of panic recently, after reading yet another topic on what curriculum I should buy for my preschooler. Curriculum? Preschooler?? I have a preschooler! Should I be buying a curriculum???

Fortunately, it only lasted a moment. After a few calming breaths and with sanity once again reigning, I was able to remind myself that he’s three. If there is anything – anything – that I cannot teach a three-year-old without the assistance of a full curriculum…well, perhaps I should reconsider homeschooling after all!

It’s not as though there is necessarily anything wrong with the choice to use a curriculum, if that seems to be the best fit for one’s family. If, for example, I had older kids along with a preschooler who wanted to feel included, I may consider something more structured. Or if homeschooling duties were being shared between the two parents, perhaps a curriculum would ensure a well-rounded education was being provided. Or whateverI am not questioning the conscious decision to use a curriculum at this level, merely the assumed need for one.

The homeschooling market knows us well. They have a bottom line to look out for, so it behooves them to know their customers. The more they can sell, the better off they are. I don’t blame them – they are a business, it’s what they do. I just have to regularly remind myself that they are not there to look after my best interests. They are not altruistic simply by virtue of being a homeschooling company, whether secular or Christian-based. They are there, like any other business, to sell their products and make a profit.

My husband, sensible man that he is, is my voice of reason when I start to get lost in the sea of tempting homeschool products.

“Ooh, look at this, do you think this would be a good way to help the three-year-old learn math?”

“Well…no better than a bag of M&M’s would be.”

He’s usually right. I could buy the flashy expensive math manipulatives, sensorial activities, or practical life extensions – or I could simply draw my child alongside me as we go about our daily life. He will learn these things.

In the end, real life is the best teacher. The most authentic. The most lasting.

So no, there will be no curriculum for us this year. Or the next, or the next, or…well, we’ll take on a curriculum when (if?) we feel the need for one. In the meantime, I will continue to offer a learning-rich environment and incorporate learning into our everyday lives, rather than sitting down to “do school” at a particular point in the day.

I wanted to share some of the ways we accomplish this; please do share your own ways in the comments below!

Read

We read. Read read read read read. We read aloud, every day, as much as possible. Nothing could be more important for a child’s future education.

We aim to read quality books, gradually increasing the complexity of language, with longer stories, fewer pictures, and more advanced vocabulary. We seek stories our child loves and is engaged in.

Letter Recognition, Writing, and Phonics

We provide access to letter-based games and puzzles, a variety of letter manipulatives (such as fridge magnets, card stock cutouts, and paper printables), and good-quality drawing tools (pens, markers, crayons, pencils, paint, and so on).

His current favourite is his “mats”, several dry-erase sheets with various tracing activities on, such as shapes, lines, letters, and numbers. He loves to create letters out of toothpicks, chopsticks, straws, noodles – anything that can be formed into the shape of a letter. We try to find letters in unique places, like telephone poles (T), car tires (O), or chairs (L). We talk about the sounds they make as we go about our day. Our library selection always includes at least one alphabet-themed book.

Knowledge Enrichment

Our library selections also include several non-fiction books, whatever he requests on that particular day. I often suggest ones that correspond to a recent field trip or activity – for example, a book on bees after a trip to the honeybee centre, a book on animals after a trip to the zoo, or a book on “a year at the farm” after a trip to a working farm. We bring home and read knowledge-rich books that relate to his current interests, questions, and experiences.

Communication Skills and Problem Solving

If we can’t find a book that answers the question he has, I assist him in asking the librarian for help. This typically includes a script and encouragement for him, and a translation for the librarian. When purchasing a new book or toy, we talk about the price, hand him the money, and allow him to complete the transaction.

When problems arise throughout the day, we work towards handing ownership over to him. What suggestions does he have for solving this problem? What might the outcome of a particular option be?

Beginning Math Skills

When asked for, say, five marshmallows, I will set three on the counter and ask him how many more I need to make five. If we need to prepare snacks for each of us, I will ask him how many we need for Mommy, Daddy, and two kids. I need three eggs and only have one, how many more do I need to get from the carton? How many more forks do I need for the table? How many more…?

We bake and cook almost daily, which presents a great number of opportunities for counting and introducing math concepts. We count things as we come across them over the normal course of our day – the stairs, the blocks in our tower, the cars we’ve been playing with. I point out page numbers when we’re looking at a table of contents and then flipping to a particular story in a book.

Jars of buttons are ideal for sorting and counting. We categorize everything according to a variety of criteria. Spatial and sequential skills are developed through play with wooden blocks, Lego Duplo, train tracks, puzzles, and marble runs.

Beginning Map Skills

When we’re driving anywhere, I have him help me find our way. I tell him our planned route at the start of the trip, and then break it down street-by-street as we drive. “We need to turn left at Clark St. Clark starts with ‘C’. Help me find the street sign that starts with ‘C’.” This helps, naturally, with letter recognition and phonics as well.

We have maps up on his bedroom walls, one of Canada and one of the world. Because we have family, friends, and prior homes spread all across the country, we have many points of reference to talk about.

Fine Motor Skills

Developing fine motor skills prepares his fingers and hand muscles for the physical demands of writing.

In addition to all of the drawing, writing, and painting materials, he draws with sidewalk chalk, plays with playdough, and laces pasta onto bits of yarn. Having access to an easel or other vertical surface (like paper taped to a wall) is great for developing different hand muscles. He gets long stretches of sand play at the park, and he loves water play as he “helps” me wash the dishes or splashes with his baby brother in the bathtub. Scissors are another excellent hand muscle development tool, and even knife skills are beginning to be developed here with the assistance of a butter knife and a pizza cutter. Texture play is also encouraged – running hands through rice, drawing with shaving cream, or hunting for buried “treasure” (small candies) in a container of flour.

Gross Motor Skills

Big muscle movement is also essential. Besides just being outside as much as possible, we have fun with learning new skills such as hopping on one foot, doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, playing hopscotch, and throwing and catching balls of various sizes. He runs, jumps, plays soccer, swings, slides, digs, and climbs. Exploring the natural environment has nearly endless benefits in a multitude of areas.

Computer Use

There are excellent websites out there, such as Starfall.com and Get Ready to Read.org, that can be of great use in teaching a child. At this time, however, we have chosen not to make use of those, preferring a more organic approach as well as minimal screen time at this age. Likewise, we have no television in our home, occasionally watching a movie (educational or otherwise) on our computer.

Talk, and Relax!

We talk all day long, about everything. We excitedly point things out, drawing his attention to the wonders of the world around him. We answer endless questions, and when we don’t know the answer, we seek it out.

Nothing we do, however, is a formal “time to do this” or “you need to learn this” sort of thing. Because our child is very interested in letters and numbers right now, we provide those sorts of activities and he does them as he wants to, along with the everyday pointing out letters and numbers as we go along. If he wasn’t interested, it would not be a concern to me until he was closer to six or seven. There is much to be said for a slower approach to formal education. Those early years of play develop integral skills that will greatly enhance future learning.

Our constant dialog seems to naturally cover the things he needs to be learning at this young age – manners, community, nutrition, health, weather, and so on. He learns how to clean up his messes, take care of his body, and contribute to a functioning household. He learns how to take turns and how to carry on a conversation. He develops a rich creative imagination coupled with self-confidence that will serve him well in future problem solving. He forms an increasingly detailed understanding of how the world around him works.

The more he learns just by living, the more I understand the whole concept behind unschooling. Better to spend the day playing hard in the sunshine than sitting in front of alphabet flash cards.

In what ways do you offer a learning-rich environment and incorporate learning into your everyday lives?
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Cynthia is the mother of 5. She blogs at The Hippie Housewife, where she shares her thoughts on attachment parenting, natural living, life as a Jesus-follower, and more, all tied together through her journey towards a more intentional life. She wrote this post back when she only had a homeschooled kindergartener and energetic toddler.

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