Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Be Your Own Preschool: Introductions and Early Ideas

A glimpse inside our madness

I should start with a snapshot of our house as it is right now.

We have a brand new baby that has taken any shred we might have had that resembled a schedule and imposed herself (rightfully so) upon it. We have a two-year-old caught somewhere between the new baby sister and two tired, busy parents. He's acting out. And at the same time, he's smack dab in the middle of an incredible brain and body growth spurt that we're going to let slip past if we're not careful.

If things work out this fall, our family will be in a new position for us. I'll be able to stay home two days a week and work a more flexible, part time schedule. P will be in school the two days a week that I am home and working in the evenings. Our kids will be with us and not in daycare. It's a wonderful thing, no?

But it also poses the challenge for us to be Boo and McK's first teachers. With Boy Wonder, I was on my own and sent him to daycare from the sixth week (sigh). But along the way, he had a number of fantastic preschool classroom experiences that laid a great foundation for him when it came time to start school.

P and I were shocked at his kindergarten screening to hear a little boy that would be in his class unable to count to five or recite his alphabet past the first six or so letters. Some kids just don't get the foundation that preschool environments offer. And with us being home with the two younger ones this year, I figured we had the opportunity to "be our own preschool" and I set to the library to learn as much as I could about age-appropriate activities and how children learn in these early years.

Just who are we dealing with?

Guess what? Kids are fascinating. Here is a little of what I learned about Boo's age group:
  • they are prime for memorization (something Boo can do in minutes, as long as it's a Black Eyed Pea song)
  • they value conversation more and more and begin to participate in back and forth exchanges
  • they need lots of praise and encouragement as they venture further and further out from their comfort zone
  • they are natural explorers
  • they seek strong gross motor activities as their coordination improves (movement is vital to this age!)
  • they love and rely on schedules
As I pored over the learning and early education books I found (and our library has a treasure trove of them available!), ideas began to take shape about what our days will begin to look like as we mold our time away from television and other media-driven activities toward the learning adventures Boo (and soon McK) craves.

Two warring theories that will make nice in our house

In my reading, I came across two very fascinating books that, at first glance, seem to offer contradictory theories. But I see the logic in both and as such, both will find a place in our logic and thinking.

The first idea is centered around the importance of free play from "Einstein Never Used Flashcards" by Kathy Hirsh Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. The essentials I took away were:

  • children will learn best when you play with them
  • the goal should be to learn in context of an activity, not through rote memorization
  • educational toys are essentially pointless, while everyday objects will teach everyday, essential lessons
Brilliant, right?

On the other hand, two books about raising lifelong readers caught my attention and had TONS of practical, fun activities that might seem a little too structured for the Einstein group. But I like them.

"Raising Confident Readers" by J. Richard Gentry and "How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life" by Paul Kropp offered great learning games and ideas, along with some frightening facts, including:

% of 4th graders who read for pleasure every day: 45.7
% of 12th graders who read for pleasure every day: 24.4
% of 4th graders who use a library once a week: 59
% of 12th graders who use a library once a week: 10.2

Among 8th graders, 71% watch three or more hours of television per day, while only 27% will read for pleasure daily.

And finally, in Boy Wonder's age group (6-11), the number of hours per week watched: 10.9 with 2 hours of video game time thrown in for good measure. Number of murders a child will see before the end of grade school? More than 8,000.

I was floored. And determined that learning to read was going to happen early and often and that some of their suggestions would be hammered into my brain and daily schedule no matter what.

A few starter suggestions?
  • read to your child every day
  • provide books for your children and they'll turn into their favorite stories that they'll memorize and "practice" reading in the near future
  • limit exposure to media whenever possible
I've only just begun this journey of developing our own preschool-esqe environment in our day-to-day life. As far as I can tell, it's going to be a work in progress that will change as we do and adapt to our kids' interests and emerging abilities. But so far, a few guildelins I'm developing to help include:

Get thee a few resources
Again, I cannot state how helpful our library has been. The early literacy section has walls and walls of books that teach you all about classroom environments, curriculum ideas, learning strategies, creativity sparks, etc. And they're free. And when you're working reduced hours like I am, that's essential.

Develop a plan
Hard, solid schedules may sound too harsh and usually are. But we allocate time each day for specific pursuits, be it art, outside playtime at the park, science experiments, number drawing, etc.

Find a tribe
One of the greatest things the daycares and preschools that Boy Wonder attended gave him was socialization. The kid can make friends in any situation these days and is NEVER shy. That's missing when you take outside caregivers out of the equation, but it is so essential for children to learn social situations and cues from other kids. Find a mother/tot playgroups, church groups, folks at the local playground, etc. They are out there. You should find them.

Think about your own strengths and what you can provide your child with. Are you a natural born artists? Does your family love astronomy? Incorporate what you like, what your talents are, and what's important to your family into the learning process and let your tots feel like integral parts of the equation. At our place, P is working toward his engineering degree and loves numbers. I love creative pursuits like art and writing. We go with what we're good at and eventually, it will all fall into place.

In the next few weeks, we'll be exploring more topics in depth with project ideas and teaching philosophies. A resource page will be up soon, too.

Happy learning!


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