An amazing early education does not need to be expensive, confusing or require tons of prep work. There are entire websites dedicated to educational projects to do with young children and while these are very helpful sometimes they can overwhelm. I see the evidence of this every time I spend any amount of time on a homeschooling facebook page as I scroll past the multiple posts of young moms who are desperately trying to give their children the best.
I get that. I totally and completely understand that drive to create the most amazing preschool program possible. The drive to create that picture perfect private school education (that you wish you could afford but just can’t) at home fills moms around the globe with crafters jealousy and Pinterest fury. From the dyed pasta noodles to the homemade play dough, we all want the best.
The problem with this line of thought is that we often bite off more than we can chew. Instead of doing one or two planned crafts a week (you know those kinds that require obscure materials or recycled pieces that need to be collected) we delude ourselves into thinking that we need to have one or two everyday. I used to work in one of those fancy preschools and we left those crazy awesome, but oh so time consuming, projects for once a month! The other problem is that there has been talk in multiple circles (here, here, here, and here) where the idea that this model is the best has been questioned and that younger children (under 7) need less school and more play. Moms are busy enough, children need open ended play, they need time to pretend, play with blocks, time to be outside, etc… so where do we start? How do we create a foundation for learning that spans the years regardless of how we end up educating them down the line?
#1: Let them play.
For moms with only one child or with a large age gaps between children this means finding outside playmates or becoming the playmate and it does make it harder but it is so necessary. Let them explore their world, inside and out. Let them get dirty and make messes. Let them climb sofas or cabinetry. Let them empty the pantry and stack your canned goods while you cook. Let them bang on pots and pans as they discover things around them. Let them build with Legos for hours at a time. Let them wear clothes from your closet and walk around in your heels. Let them tinker with electronics, sticks, rocks, dirt, or teach them a skill like sewing, woodworking or yarn crafts (like knitting or crochet).
Give them hours of unstructured, unfettered playtime. They are not wasting that time. They will build their core muscles allowing them to have better concentration, as they grow older. They will learn how to focus, problem solve, and they will process things they learn as they play. Allowing children time to create imaginary worlds has actually been found to help them with creativity in STEM skills later on, so encourage that World building!
Here is the other side of letting them play…let them play with words, letters, numbers and other more schooly subjects. It doesn’t have to be a workbook or curriculum and it doesn’t have to be forced either. Playing with magnetic letters, drawing pictures and writing stories together. Playing with chalkboards, white boards or boogie boards to develop writing skills. Counting M&Ms, playing dominoes or Uno, baking…there are so many ways to incorporate learning into play without making it a chore for mom.
#2 Go Outside
Whether your child is six months old or 15, being outside in nature is necessary. Whether it’s a local park, the beach, lake, river, pond, wildlife refuge or a nearby farm, being out in the world regularly allows your children to see the world as it’s meant to be. It allows them to see cycles naturally occurring and helps them to place themselves in the wider context of reality. Watching life cycles happen on a screen is vastly different from catching and releasing or actively observing nature in real life.
Even if you don’t know the names of the plants, animals or insects that you see, there is so much you can learn on a twenty-minute walk. Don’t just wait for the weather to be good either, proper clothing makes all the difference and the coolest things to see are happening on rainy days, windy days, just after thunderstorms, early in the morning and in the late afternoon. Visiting the same pond you always visit in the summer can be like a whole new world in the dead of winter.
Journals are great, whether you draw them or just let your kids take pictures with your phone. Smash books can be a fun alternative to a nature journal with printed copies of photos, collected leaves or sticks, and little notes or feathers found along your journey all smashed inside. No matter how you record your time out there the point is to do it and observe the untouched world around you. If your not used to being outside for long periods, then gradually build up until you find yourselves enjoying the outdoors for hours at a time or driving thirty minutes just to go hiking down a forest or mountain path. Even a small amount of regular unstructured time spent in wilderness can help build a scientifically curious mind and open doors to other kinds of STEM learning activities.
#3 Read, all the time… or as much as your voice can handle
Reading to children builds emotional attachments, language, reasoning, logic and widens their worlds with every page. Reading out loud to children regularly can also help to create a sense of warmth within a family, providing a safe place to explore a million wonders. From birth onwards being read to can be an amazing experience and just because a child can read doesn’t mean that they still can’t get a lot out of being read to, even teenagers. Board books like Goodnight Moon, fairy tales and folklore, fantasy, scientific articles and exploratory encyclopedias all have their place developmentally, even if the child is not sitting still while being read to.
Also, don’t limit what your reading. Lately there has been such a huge focus on STEM related activities that some have started to doubt the importance of the humanities in the process, but we cannot forget that science and technology do not exist in a bubble! STEM is the how, Humanities are the why and both are necessary to change the world. The greatest scientists are also great lovers of the arts and having a balanced education leads to a well-rounded adult. Three year olds love poetry, five year olds love math books, and twelve year olds love picture books, expand your literary horizons and explore the world through books. If you feel like there needs to be more that’s fine but keep it simple, children don’t need lots of extra work sheets to go along with books, usually conversations are good markers of depth and understanding.
#4 Go Places
Take your children places. Teach them about the world that they live in, introduce them to science, languages, cultures, art and music by taking them to places that have them. Go to museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, fire houses, police stations, Post Offices, grocery stores, restaurants, book stores, small shops to talk to local business owners, art galleries, plays, concerts… the possibilities are endless. Finances shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you plan out when your going where because even for museums, galleries and concert halls (think orchestras) there are programs in most cities that offer free days or homeschool options.
If you are too far away from a city to take advantage of these kinds of things then get in touch with the art, music and theater departments of your local high schools or colleges and plan a yearly big trip over a long weekend to your nearest city for a museum, zoo or aquarium visit. If a trip is just not in the budget or within driving distance than get online and take a look at the worlds most amazing museums virtually, many have wonderfully detailed websites. If there are local landmarks or historical places nearby get familiar with the places and stories that make them memorable. Don’t be afraid of doing things alone, don’t be afraid of misbehaving children or that your children are too young. If you get into the habit early of exploring the world then your children will learn how to act under various circumstances and they will learn how to cope with new things.
#5 Technology is a tool, use it
We live in an amazing time where all of the world’s information is easily accessible with a few flicks of your fingers. Unfortunately as adults we are afraid of the technology and we allow that fear to dictate how we live and learn. One of the most important things we can do for our children is to help them build healthy relationships with technology. I don’t believe that you can do that by limiting and censoring technology but you can do that by modeling healthy technology use.
We practice screen free days and we have days that are filled with multiple uses of screen technology each one depending on the day. Some days we are so busy living life that we just don’t get around to screens, we don’t specifically call them screen free days, or weeks, they just happen naturally. On the other hand when a question is asked we find a way to answer that question using any method available. Whether that be videos found on You Tube, Netflix or Amazon or a quick Google search on a computer or tablet, all of these options are just as viable as picking up a book, although usually faster. We supplement many of our screen free activities with a visual or hands on enrichment activity that can only be used via modern technology (apps, games, internet, videos, documentaries, etc…) and often times they challenge further and deeper thought in ways that I could never have planned for. Especially for a gifted child who craves more and more information at levels that often go over my head, knowing how to use technology is an absolute!
These five are the basic building blocks to an amazing foundation, sure you can add in more like montessori manipulatives or mixed media arts and crafts but thats just extra. Regardless of the educational philosophy, intensity, schooling difficulties, or family income, any one can create a world-class education at home during the early years. Love immeasurably, keep it simple, learn from the Masters, and let your child teach you how to teach them. Everything else is icing on the cake.