Preschool Years at Home

Laughing, Loving, and Learning Together

New Year, New Directions

on July 9, 2012

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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