My third-born child just turned 5 and my fourth-born will be 3 next week. I am in my second round of pre-k now, and although I have a plan, it doesn’t resemble a conventional preschool or kindergarten scope and sequence or curriculum.
I wrote awhile back about how teaching reading is like teaching walking or potty training. I don’t see content or even reading or math skills as the essence of the preschool and kindergarten years.
I believe that the best preschool experience for the 5-and-under crowd is simply living alongside their mothers, who talk and correct and hug and love. Plus, of course, as much time outdoors as can be managed. Many moms (including myself) are going to mix in some phonics and numbers time, but I think that is totally discretionary and non-essential until 6 (or even 7, for the brave mothers and the reluctant children).
1. Obedience & Attitude
A child’s first lesson is often learning what “no” means and that his parents are an authority to be trusted and obeyed. That begins well before the pre-k age, but every new stage brings more experimentation with the boundaries and definitions. My favorite book for parenting little ones is Raising Godly Tomatoes, which is also available for free on her website: RaisingGodlyTomatoes.com. Whenever we find ourselves in a bad way (it’s very cyclical, and that’s normal), I return to her tactics and the extent to which I am consistent, they help bring us all back into fellowship and good habits.
And that’s what it’s ultimately about. It’s not about being in control or being authoritarian (although our family’s style leans that way, not everyone’s does and that’s ok). It’s about establishing rightly ordered relationships and the patterns of interaction that will set you up for being able to instruct them when they are older.
We don’t often notice, but all relationships have patterns, habits, of interactions. And we all have a habitual tone we default to unconsciously. I know I’ve heard accidental or unexpected recordings of myself and been startled: “Do I really sound like that?”
Of course mothers are not the only ones with habitual tones and interaction patterns. Our preschoolers are establishing and experimenting with theirs, as well. They need to learn to say please and thank you, to not whine and pitch a fit, to ask for a turn instead of grabbing, and generally get along in polite society (which includes your family). The best method I’ve found for helping children with this is to have them repeat a situation gone sour with the right responses and requests, making sure the toddlers aren’t turning into little tyrants, demanding and getting their way because it’s easier to let them have it and make the older ones give in to them.
More than letters or numbers, phonics or counting, we need to take the time to develop healthy rapport and respect with our little ones.
2. Interest & Familiarity
When it comes to “lessons” at this age: Circle Time, letters & phonics, numbers and counting, reading good books aloud, handwriting, and anything else you might include, my philosophy is laid back. I believe that the point of including all those is to capitalize on and encourage their desire to learn (i.e. if they ask for books or math or to copy letters, then by all means give them the opportunity!), to cultivate interest (i.e. show them the world is a fascinating place), and to introduce concepts and habits. In other words, my goal is not to have them reading by the time they are 5 or 6, or to have them complete the Primer math book, or even necessarily to know all their letters or numbers. So far, all of that happened with my oldest two, but it wasn’t the aim. If it hadn’t happened, and if it doesn’t happen with my three remaining students, it doesn’t mean I’ve failed or we have to do “summer school” or “make up work” or anything of the kind. It simply means we continue on, waiting for the lightbulbs and also learning good work and application habits.
In all of the elementary years, beginning from the beginning, my focus is more on learning how to learn, on learning that there is much to learn, and on learning that to learn is exciting and rewarding. The content that we learn along the way is mostly tangential. I care more that they have several interests, that they spend time reading, and that they know what to do when they have a question or want to know about something (and that they aren’t too lazy to follow up on it). It’s a much more abstract and harder to measure goal, and it’s also a more long-term goal. It’s not something that can be checked off as accomplished in a year. It’s a general tendency, a direction, we have.
Now, probably the Charlotte Mason-minded among you have all already assumed that I will focus on the habits of attention in the student that should be cultivated early. And, that’s probably true. Honestly, I have not taught that well at all, so I hesitate to include it as essential in our homeschool, because I have totally failed in following through with the CM rules for requiring full attention.
However, what I actually mean in listing attention as the #3 priority is that preschoolers and kindergarteners need to receive attention from their mothers. They need love and lots of it.
In fact, the read aloud times and teaching times are – again – less about the content and more about spending time with that child in particular, giving him the attention he craves. Children are little love and attention vacuums, whose bags never fill up. By giving them your time, you teach them they are worth your time and worth your effort. By teaching them manners and catechism and by heaping affection on their heads, they learn who they are; they receive their identity.
This happens not only during read aloud time or lesson time, but as he is included in chore time, in grocery shopping, in dinner making, in dinner conversation, and at all the times in between. There is never a time where children are not acutely aware of how their parents are relating to them. It’s daunting, but it’s true. All our interactions with them are either building them up or tearing them down.
The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down. –Proverbs 14:1
What each of these three areas really address is a child’s identity. He needs to know and feel that he is loved, a valuable part of a family, a contributing member of a family, a child of God, and that his parents, siblings, and God like and want and choose him. Being a part of a family – both natural and spiritual – comes not only with rights, but also responsibilities. It’s not all hugs and kisses and cuddles, but treating them with respect as a full human being, who can and should do the right thing, make things right (and admit to being wrong) when they don’t, and help out both when they feel like it and when they don’t.
I believe that a child living life alongside his mother will experience the best preschool. If you want, toss some phonics and counting into your routine, but what matters more is that he knows her place and value in his home.