Preschool Years at Home

Laughing, Loving, and Learning Together

Two Little Monkeys

We woke this morning to mud puddles, overcast skies, and blessed relief from the usual Texas summer heat, so formal learning got pushed aside for a fun morning out. Our first stop of the day was Bed, Bath, and Beyond, where I stacked coupons to feed my Yankee Candle obsession. I was initially disappointed to find that our local store stocked neither the Vanilla Chai nor the Caramel Pecan Pie fragrances I thought I wanted. But two eager little candle sniffers soon declared Pineapple Cilantro to be their favorite and approved Mommy’s pick of Sage & Citrus as well.

The girls paused to ooh and aah over fairy- and princess-themed Tervis tumblers — until Little Bear looked at the price tag of the smallest cup and realized that even with a coupon, it would cost *all* of her birthday money. Then we headed on to kitchen wares where I tried to compare coffee presses while Little Bear tried unsuccessfully to sell me on 137 single-purpose kitchen gadgets (Really, avocado slicers? Mango splitters? Strawberry hullers? And here I thought a good paring knife was perfectly suited to any one of those tasks. …) and Baby Bear searched for opportunities to test the law of gravity. Testing the law of gravity in a store filled with expensive breakables had the potential to be a more expensive science lesson than I deemed appropriate, so we paid for our candles and left.

Our next stop was a local teacher supply store. Despite two years of regular fine motor practice and several months of one-on-one therapy, Little Bear still struggles with her pencil grip to the point that written work regularly reduces one or both of us to tears. We’ve tried triangular pencils. We’ve tried short pencils. We’ve tried chunky pencils. We’ve tried markers. We’ve tried crayons, triangular crayons, and broken crayons. Up to this point, nothing has made writing any less of a chore. So today, we went in search of pencil grips. I wanted something that would gently encourage a tripod grip. She wanted something pink and preferably glittery. For $6, we walked out with four new tools that met both of our requirements. Now, we just have to practice with them and see if any of them truly help …

Our final stop of the morning was the grocery store — hardly a favorite destination of either girl, but a necessary stop given that they do like to eat. We got in and out in under an hour, got most of what we needed, and had only a few brief tears during the process, so I dubbed the third stop of the morning a success.

After a quick lunch, we tackled our actual work for the day. Today’s planned learning included …

  • sorting through our bin of Safari Toob creatures and identifying ocean animals
  • counting sea creatures (Baby Bear) and using ocean animals to show number bonds (Little Bear)

The girls spent the rest of the day building with bristle blocks, playing with Play-Dough, browsing through favorite books, and playing together. Just before dinner time, Daddy Bear slipped into their room to see what they were doing and found Baby Bear happily “reading” one of her favorite books:

Seven little monkeys jumping on the bed ...

Seven little monkeys jumping on the bed …

Moments later both girls were back in action, burning of a little more energy before dinner, bath, and bed:

Two little monkeys jumping around the room ...

Two little monkeys jumping around the room …

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Critical Thinking and Chocolate Chip Cookies

We’d planned to wrap up our ocean theme study today, but plans changed abruptly when Baby Bear had a run-in with the baby gate. The gate won. Baby Bear emerged with a golf ball-sized knot in the middle of her forehead, and we spent the morning at the pediatrician’s office. Thankfully, she seems to be OK, aside from a big bruise and a headache, but by the time we got home, half the day was gone …. along with our “plan.”

Naps, pool time, and chocolate chip cookie baking (Little Bear’s reward for leaving the pool …) filled the afternoon. But by evening, Little Bear was asking when we were going to “do school.” She wanted to do something that involved working together, so I pulled a couple of our new critical thinking books off the shelf.

We started with Can You Find Me?, a book of word and picture puzzlers designed to help prekindergartners build thinking skills across the content areas. Two of tonight’s challenges required her to listen to a series of verbal clues, then pick the picture that best matched the clues. The final one required her to look at four animals — a chicken, a cow, a fox, and a zebra — and determine which one was least like the others. She completed all three exercises with ease and confidently explained the rationale behind her answers. She declared that she loved this book, and she was not at all happy that Mommy only let her do the first three pages. Mommy’s only complaint is that this $16.99 book has only one puzzle per page. I too love the content, but will have to “ration” out the activities to make the book last longer than a few weeks.

Our next pair of activities came from Mind Benders Book 1 (PreK-K). This one is not as visually appealing as the first one, but it guides children through a logical problem solving sequence. Tonight, for instance, Little Bear had to match three characters with their homes using two factual statements. The first statement told her which character lived in the widest house. The second character told her which character did not live in the smallest house. Using those two statements, she completed a yes/no matrix to determine where all three characters lived. Given that she’s just 4 years old (and a young 4 at that), I was not at all sure that she would grasp the matrix concept. She grasped it immediately, however, and solved the second puzzle with no assistance. Once again, she wanted to know why we had to stop after just two puzzles, and once again, my only complaint is that this book includes only 44 activities. To extend the life of the book, I’m planning to give her a supply of Y/N bingo chips and let her use those to complete the matrixes instead of actually writing in the book. Hopefully, she’ll be content to work through the same puzzles several times over the course of the year.

Wrapping up our evening’s fun, I pulled out our Beyond123 BambinoLUK Starter Pack. We’ve got several brain training activities books to go along with this European classroom staple, but tonight, I just wanted Little Bear to learn how to set up the work tray and use the self-correcting tiles. We went through three matching activities of progressing difficulty before she decided she’d had enough. She liked this product, but didn’t love it quite as much as the books. Fatigue probably played a part in her waning interest, and I’m hopeful that she’ll want to use this tool more tomorrow after a good night’s rest. Her biggest complaint seemed to be that she had to follow a series of steps and follow them in a specific order to get the “correct” end result. From a parent’s perspective, I thought the product was well-designed, easy to use, and versatile. I want the girls to have fun while they’re learning, but I don’t mind exposing them to the occasional product that forces them to slow down and “follow the rules.”

Overall, I’d give all three of these products a 5-star rating and would recommend them without hesitation. I’m just hoping that Little Bear doesn’t finish half our planned PreK curriculum before Labor Day!

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Bits and Pieces

With package after package of new educational goodies arriving these days, it’s hard to say who’s more excited — the girls or their Mommy! Our Timberdoodle Co. order arrived this past Friday, and both girls zeroed in on a tin of Heat Sensitive Thinking Putty. Little Bear is a sensory seeker, so I expected her to love having a tin of bouncy, stretchy, color-changing goo in her favorite colors. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was Baby Bear’s fascination with the stuff. The container alone captivated her, and once she figured out how to empty it of its contents, there was no stopping her! I stepped out of the bathroom one recent morning to be greeted by this scene:

Good clean fun!

She’d gotten the tin off one of the school shelves, taken it to the desk, opened it, pried the putty out, and started playing with it in less than two minutes of unsupervised “freedom.” She played independently for at least 15 more minutes (no small feat for a 14-month-old!) before reluctantly allowing me to pry it out of her hands so that we could go bye-bye. Thankfully, the tin holds 3 1/2 ounces of putty — plenty to entertain both girls and at least one parent.

I have to admit, the color-changing properties of this substance are less spectacular than I had hoped. The girls, however, have been so busy stretching it, squishing it, squeezing it, and shaping it that they haven’t even noticed the color variations (or lack thereof).

My overall rating? At least 4.5/5 stars. I can’t quite bring myself to give it that fifth star since you pretty much have to refrigerate to see more than minimal color changes, but it will be on our homeschool supply list for years to come.

We also got our Rainbow Resource Center order this week and dug through it this morning. Among other things, I picked up a magnetic tile and tray set to accompany our much-used Mighty Mind design cards. Little Bear couldn’t wait to try them out and create some freestyle magnetic art on her easel:

“Who’s the best Mighty Mind artist around here?”

Mighty Mind is easily a 5-star product in my book (so much so that I already have Mighty Mind Challenger and Super Mind waiting in the wings). The addition of the magnetic tiles and board make a great product even better.

Magnetic Mosaic

Along with new tools, we’ve also been pulling some older items out of the closet and putting them to good use. Little Bear got the Orb Factory My First Picture Maker for Christmas, but one whiff of the magnetic foam design tiles that came with it sent me gasping for fresh air. I broke the tiles apart, spread them out in the box so that they could air out, put the box out of reach of little hands, and promptly forgot about it … for six and a half months. I finally noticed it again yesterday, gave it the sniff test, and happily observed that the reeking chemical smell was gone.

Little Bear was eager to try it, so I set her up with the first pattern card in the deck. She worked alone for about 20 minutes before getting frustrated and asking for help. The magnetic backing on the foam mosaic tiles is quite weak, and the slightest bump was enough to displace them. Digging through a bag of 300 tiles to find the ones she needed was also a bit daunting. Inevitably, every time she’d turn to hunt for tiles, she’d bump her project and skew half the tiles she’d already positioned. In the end, I dug out tiles while she positioned them, and she finished the task happily enough. She said that she liked this product, but not as much as sticker mosaic kits made by the same company because, in her words,  “the stickers stay where you put them.”

I was admittedly a bit disappointed by this product. On the one hand, I love the idea and versatility. It comes with 20 reusable pattern cards which challenge kids to match tiles by color, number, and letters. It also has great potential for free play. The magnetic tiles are rather flimsy, though. Five of them lost their glittery top layer during the first play session, and we were handling them gently. The pattern cards are also quite thin — similar in weight and feel to glossy fingerpainting paper. Laminating them for added longevity isn’t really an option due to the weakness of the magnets in the magnetic tiles. Last but not least, the chemical off-gasing concerns me. Yes, the odor has decreased with time, but I don’t typically expose my children to chemicals that leave me gasping for air.

Overall rating? 3.5/5. We’ll probably get a decent amount of use out of this product, but I wouldn’t order it again.

So what else has our week been filled with? Lots of reading and lots of time in the pool, a few games, daily fine motor work, Duplo zoo building, Magnatile farm building, and Konstruk Tube rocket building … lazy summer fun with a purpose!

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In Lieu of Pre-Kindergarten …

As we venture into the world of unschooling, even I get excited when I see our school shelves overflowing with fun-filled opportunities for learning. In lieu of textbooks or formal curriculum, here are a few of the resources we’ll be using:

Math and Logic:

… and more. Amazon limited me to 10 items per carousel, and I wrestled to choose the 10 most fun, versatile, and age-appropriate items I could find. In reality, math makes its way into virtually everything we do — counting apples and bananas at the supermarket, charting the girls’ growth, measuring milk to add to muffins, keeping score in a game, or comparing prices on second-hand books.

Language and Literacy:

… along with books, books, and more books. We do have a few beginning readers on the shelf these days since Little Bear recently discovered My World: Now I’m Reading! and happily began reading through them on her own. She also enjoys reading through titles in the Brand New Readers series with a little assistance. As a rule, though, she’d far rather listen to “real” books than subject herself to the plotless narratives and mediocre artwork of beginning readers. And so we read, day in and day out, delighting in the beautifully illustrated stories of Elisa Kleven, enjoying the humor of Jack Prelutsky, relishing classic tales retold and beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and feasting on the timeless writings of authors such as E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

People and Places

Although history was one of my favorite subjects in school, the topic seemed a bit deep for a 1- and 4-year-old. Little Bear is currently fascinated with countries and cultures, thanks in large part to two lift-the-flap books (Animals Around the World and People Around the World) we’ve acquired over the past year. Over the next year, I’m hoping that we can go on a “virtual” tour of the world, reading stories from different cultures, sampling international cuisine, watching video clips, and of course, reading about lands and people groups.

Science

… to be supplemented with observation, experimentation, and nature studies galore. When you have a child who notices (and questions) everything, it’s impossible *not* to teach science through daily life.

Fine Motor Skills

Little Bear still struggles a bit with motor control, especially fine motor skills. I faced the same issues as a child and never want my little girl to feel like I felt when all the other first graders made fun of my coloring or my third-grade teacher made me spend recess after recess sitting inside with the “bad” kids and practicing cursive. Little Bear is a fantastic little girl no matter what her handwriting looks like. But any creative, open-ended toy that offers painless opportunity for her to hone her motor skills is money well-spent in my book.

Last but not least, there’s The Workbook Shelf:

I’ve gone back and forth over whether to have a workbook shelf, and I know that the use of workbooks is hotly debated among unschoolers. Little Bear, however, likes workbooks. We can do half a dozen activities, but if she doesn’t have something to take to her desk and do on her own, she doesn’t feel like she’s “done school.” So I’ve pulled together a collection of simple, inexpensive workbooks that she can do when and as she chooses. A few will help her review basic academic skills, but most focus on motor development. Could we do without these? Sure, but when you have a child who LOVES cutting, coloring, pasting, paper-folding, stickers, and such, ready-to-go, full-color activities that cost less than a nickel apiece seem like a bargain. Add in a tub filled with markers, colored pencils, and twist-up crayons, and even workbooks can be kind of fun!

Hmmm. Mommy Bear should probably end this post, get off the computer, and go to bed. We’ve got a busy day of “school” (aka “life”) ahead tomorrow!

P.S. Speaking of life and learning, I unearthed this magnetic art board and pattern cards while digging through some old teaching materials. Little Bear has spent several afternoons happily “playing” with it, all the while sharpening her visual perception skills and painlessly exercising her fine motor skills. I loved her smile, radiating confidence, after she followed a pattern card to create a horse.

The sweet smile of success!

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New Year, New Directions

July marks the end of our first year of semi-formal homeschooling efforts. Odd timing, I know. But Little Bear had been begging to do “school” almost as long as she’d been able to converse in complete sentences. In the early months, we focused almost exclusively on theme-based activities, with her only “bookwork” being some fine motor activities from Kumon First Steps workbooks and the Big Skills for Little Hands series.

Somewhere along the way, we began to add in more formal textbook-based math and phonics lessons. And as we did, her interest in school began to wane. I wrestled with the disparity between her comprehension level and her writing level. Preschool books bored her to tears. She’s known colors, shapes, letters and numbers since she was a toddler. More challenging workbooks, however, frustrated her because she had the writing skills of a 3-year-old, not a 5- or 6-year-old. Her letters don’t fit beautifully on lines, some of her numbers are recognizable only with the help of an active imagination, and I might as well ask her to climb a mountain as to write two sentences.

The more I tried to “encourage” her to practice writing, the more resistant she became. And then came the day when she spent an hour tearfully (and eventually angrily) protesting that she absolutely could not write the numeral 4.

… I turned to the Internet and began researching handwriting curricula, looking for something — anything — that would engage her, build her confidence, and ultimately make math and phonics less of a chore. I filled an online shopping cart with books and supplemental resources, went through the first two screens of the order process, then stopped.

Calling DH to the living room, I showed him the materials I’d selected. “My background is in early childhood education,” I said. “I know what’s on the market like I know the back of my hand, and I believe these are the best textbooks for our child. But I don’t think they’re what’s BEST for our child.”

Somewhere along the way, I’d lost sight of the forest for the trees. My goal wasn’t to have a child with textbook-perfect handwriting, a child capable of reading independently at the age of 4, a child who could count to 100 by 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s. I wanted to whet her curiosity, foster her confidence, appeal to her interests, equip her to achieve her goals, and ultimately ignite a lifelong love of learning.

So I backed off.

For the past month, I’ve been filling workboxes with read-alouds, puzzles, crafts, games, theme activities, fine motor tasks, and random fun, then leaving her to pick and choose what, if anything, she feels like doing. I’ve discovered that she likes “easy” tasks that she can successfully complete on her own. These build her confidence and foster a sense of accomplishment. She loves showing us what she did “all by herself,” and she delights in praise for a job well done.

She enjoys open-ended activities that leave ample room for creativity and self-expression — using stamps or stickers to create the patterns of her choosing, drawing and writing with assorted media, crafting stories around a series of pictures.

She also enjoys more difficult activities that we can tackle together. She’ll rise to almost any challenge with a bit of support and encouragement. She thrives on camaraderie and teamwork and savors one-on-one time with the grown-ups in her life.

What doesn’t she like?

Drudgery. Monotony. Busy work. Painstakingly using a No. 2 pencil to form the same letter or number again and again. Drawing black stripes on a zebra or coloring the sun yellow simply because the workbook says to. Circling groups of three (or 5 or 10) again and again and again.

… I really don’t care whether she writes in workbooks, on her MagnaDoodle, in the sand, on a Buddha Board, or in shaving cream on the bathtub wall as long as she’s forming letters and numbers. Pink stripes on a zebra? Fine by me! She’s honing her motor skills just the same whether she follows “the rules” or indulges preschool fancies of pink zebras and rainbow kittens. And as for counting, as long as she can pair up socks, count out three eggs to put in a cake, hunt until she finds all 10 stacking cups that her baby sister scattered throughout the apartment, and make sure all 17 Zoologic tiles make it back into the game box, we’re good. She really doesn’t need to circle groups of three eight times over either to master basic counting or to demonstrate proficiency.

With that in mind, our K4 “curriculum” looks more like Christmas in July than a school order. We’re restocking the craft bins and adding to our game and puzzle collections. We’re pulling new toys out of the closet and expanding the family library. Will there be written work? To the extent that Little Bear wants to do it; instead of buying expensive textbooks, though, I’ve picked up some cheap preschool and kindergarten workbooks, sticker books, and a few more wipe-off activity books. She’ll have markers, crayons, colored pencils, and a shelf full of colorful, engaging activities to complete as she chooses.

In short, I’ve officially divorced the classroom teacher mindset and followed my child — and my heart — into the liberating realm of unschooling.

Does that mean that we’ll someday have a 14-year-old what wants to learn to raise goats while her peers are studying Shakespeare? Perhaps (although she’s just as likely to delve into the writings of Shakespeare while her peers are drooling over the Justin Bieber of the next decade). We’ll evaluate and address the girls’ future needs in the future. For now, we’re not dealing with a 14-year-old. We’re dealing with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old, children who learn best through play, through real life experiences, and through meaningful interaction with the adults who love them.

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Our Monthly Themes

The one thing that has not changed in the six months we’ve been on our semi-formal preschool-at-home venture is our monthly theme calendar. We focus on one theme each week, occasionally using the end of the month to review or play catch-up. Each study is literature-based, with a blend of fiction and non-fiction books. We also try to include at least two related math activities in our week’s activities, an art project, a science experiment, and a puzzle or game.

January

  • Our Calendar
  • Our Community
  • Arctic Animals
  • Snow

February

  • Friends
  • Valentine’s Day
  • Manners
  • Dinosaurs

March

  • Spring
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Seeds and Plants
  • St. Patrick’s Day

April

  • Easter
  • Poetry
  • Farm Animals
  • Earth, Our Home

May

  • Weather and Seasons
  • Families
  • Pets
  • Mother’s Day

June

  • Summer Fun
  • Insects
  • Our Solar System
  • Flag Day, Father’s Day

July

  • Our Country
  • The Beach
  • Water Animals
  • Independence Day

August

  • Around the World
  • Legends
  • Transportation
  • Zoo Animals

September

  • Fall
  • Occupations
  • Apples & Pumpkins
  • Labor Day

October

  • Human Body
  • Safety
  • Spiders
  • Halloween

November

  • Food
  • Fairy Tales
  • Forest Animals
  • Thanksgiving

December

  • Winter
  • Hibernation
  • Gingerbread
  • Christmas
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Our Curriculum … Of Sorts



My goals for our first year of preschool at home are, quite simply, to …

  • lay a solid foundation for learning
  • foster a love of learning
  • build character and confidence
  • encourage good listening habits
  • develop fine motor skills

The books posted above are simply a few of the tools we’re using to reach those goals.

We begin each day with a Bible story and memory work, the Pledge of Allegiance, and calendar time (incorporating informal math and phonics). From there, we move on to our literature-based weekly theme or letter of the week and read, read, read! Both Little Bear and Baby Bear like to cuddle with Mommy in the morning, so we use daily read-alouds in the recliner to help lay a foundation for learning. We take time to discuss illustrations and stories, hunt for our letter of the week in the text, let Little Bear sound out simple words, sing related songs, and occasionally watch related video clips on YouTube (especially during our animal/nature units!).

If time permits, we’ll do math or science activity, a craft, a game, or a puzzle related to our morning’s theme or letter. If there’s laundry or some other chore calling, Little Bear moves on to her handiwork while Mommy tends to the house. I’ll freely admit that I am not a fan of workbooks, especially during the early years. Both my prep time and my creativity are limited these days, however; and Little Bear loves to complete tasks successfully and independently. So Kumon First Steps workbooks have offered a simple, cost-effective way to develop fine motor skills, to encourage listening and following directions, and to foster a “can-do” attitude. We have cutting, pasting, coloring, paper-folding, and tracing books and try to do a page from each at least 3-4 days per week.

After lunch, Baby Bear is usually ready to nurse down; so we all pile into the recliner for another round of read-alouds. Inevitably, Mommy’s voice gets tired, and Little Bear takes over and reads to me. Most of the time, she reads sight word readers that she’s simply memorized, but she’s building confidence with each page.

Often, Little Bear will want to do yet more bookwork during the afternoon. We’ll usually do 2-3 activities out of Let’s Get Ready (Gakken Workbooks), then move on to School Zone’s Big Preschool Workbook if she’s still eager for more. I generally limit her to no more than half an hour of bookwork at a time. She enjoys it, but there are plenty of other ways for a preschooler to learn — and we want to have plenty of time for making music, playing with Play-Doh, building Duplo castles, and running around outside.

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