Monday 30 August 2010

A learning-rich environment

It's a popular question these days, three year old at my side: "So when does he start preschool?"


It has been nearly three years since I first shared my reasons for homeschooling. Most of those reasons remain the same today. Some are no longer as important to me as they once were. Other reasons have been added. Some priorities have been reconsidered, shifted. But throughout those three years, our resolve to homeschool has not wavered in the least.

I did, however, have a moment of panic recently, after reading yet another topic on what curriculum I should buy for my preschooler. Curriculum? Preschooler?? I have a preschooler! Should I be buying a curriculum???

Fortunately, it only lasted a moment. After a few calming breaths and with sanity once again reigning, I was able to remind myself that he's three. If there is anything - anything - that I cannot teach a three year old without the assistance of a full curriculum...well, perhaps I should reconsider homeschooling after all!

It's not as though there is necessarily anything wrong with the choice to use a curriculum, if that seems to be the best fit for one's family. If, for example, I had older kids along with a preschooler who wanted to feel included, I may consider something more structured. Or if homeschooling duties were being shared between the two parents, perhaps a curriculum would ensure a well-rounded education was being provided. Or whatever - I am not questioning the conscious decision to use a curriculum at this level, merely the assumed need for one.

The homeschooling market knows us well. They have a bottom line to look out for, so it behooves them to know their customers. The more they can sell, the better off they are. I don't blame them - they are a business, it's what they do. I just have to regularly remind myself that they are not there to look after my best interests. They are not altruistic simply by virtue of being a homeschooling company, whether secular or Christian-based. They are there, like any other business, to sell their products and make a profit.

My husband, sensible man that he is, is my voice of reason when I start to get lost in the sea of tempting homeschool products.

"Ooh, look at this, do you think this would be a good way to help the three year old learn math?"

" better than a bag of M&M's would be."

He's usually right. I could buy the flashy expensive math manipulatives, sensorial activities, or practical life extensions - or I could simply draw my child alongside me as we go about our daily life. He will learn these things.

In the end, real life is the best teacher. The most authentic. The most lasting.

So no, there will be no curriculum for us this year. Or the next, or the next, or...well, we'll take on a curriculum when (if?) we feel the need for one. In the meantime, I will continue to offer a learning-rich environment and incorporate learning into our everyday lives, rather than sitting down to "do school" at a particular point in the day.

I wanted to share some of the ways we accomplish this, and I'm hoping you'll share your ways too!


We read. Read read read read read. We read aloud, every day, as much as possible. Nothing could be more important for a child's future education.

We aim to read quality books, gradually increasing the complexity of language, with longer stories, fewer pictures, and more advanced vocabulary. We seek stories our child loves and is engaged in.

Letter Recognition, Writing, and Phonics

We provide access to letter-based games and puzzles, a variety of letter manipulatives (such as fridge magnets, card stock cutouts, and paper printables), and good-quality drawing tools (pens, markers, crayons, pencils, paint, and so on).

His current favourite is his "mats", several dry-erase sheets with various tracing activities on, such as shapes, lines, letters, and numbers. He loves to create letters out of toothpicks, chopsticks, straws, noodles - anything that can be formed into the shape of a letter. We try to find letters in unique places, like telephone poles (T), car tires (O), or chairs (L). We talk about the sounds they make as we go about our day. Our library selection always includes at least one alphabet-themed book.

Knowledge Enrichment

Our library selections also include several non-fiction books, whatever he requests on that particular day. I often suggest ones that correspond to a recent field trip or activity - for example, a book on bees after a trip to the honeybee center, a book on animals after a trip to the zoo, or a book on "a year at the farm" after a trip to a working farm. We bring home and read knowledge-rich books that relate to his current interests, questions, and experiences.

Communication Skills and Problem Solving

If we can't find a book that answers the question he has, I assist him in asking the librarian for help. This typically includes a script and encouragement for him, and a translation for the librarian. When purchasing a new book or toy, we talk about the price, hand him the money, and allow him to complete the transaction.

When problems arise throughout the day, we work towards handing ownership over to him. What suggestions does he have for solving this problem? What might the outcome of a particular option be?

Beginning Math Skills

When asked for, say, five marshmallows, I will set three on the counter and ask him how many more I need to make five. If we need to prepare snacks for each of us, I will ask him how many we need for Mommy, Daddy, and two kids. I need three eggs and only have one, how many more do I need to get from the carton? How many more forks do I need for the table? How many more...?

We bake and cook almost daily, which presents a great number of opportunities for counting and introducing math concepts. We count things as we come across them over the normal course of our day - the stairs, the blocks in our tower, the cars we've been playing with. I point out page numbers when we're looking at a table of contents and then flipping to a particular story in a book.

Jars of buttons are ideal for sorting and counting. We categorize everything according to a variety of criteria. Spatial and sequential skills are developed through play with wooden blocks, Lego Duplo, train tracks, puzzles, and marble runs.

Beginning Map Skills

When we're driving anywhere, I have him help me find our way. I tell him our planned route at the start of the trip, and then break it down street-by-street as we drive. "We need to turn left at Clark St. Clark starts with 'C'. Help me find the street sign that starts with 'C'." This helps, naturally, with letter recognition and phonics as well.

We have maps up on his bedroom walls, one of Canada and one of the world. Because we have family, friends, and prior homes spread all across the country, we have many points of reference to talk about.

Fine Motor Skills

Developing fine motor skills prepares his fingers and hand muscles for the physical demands of writing.

In addition to all of the drawing, writing, and painting materials, he draws with sidewalk chalk, plays with playdough, and laces pasta onto bits of yarn. Having access to an easel or other vertical surface (like paper taped to a wall) is great for developing different hand muscles. He gets long stretches of sand play at the park, and he loves water play as he "helps" me wash the dishes or splashes with his baby brother in the bathtub. Scissors are another excellent hand muscle development tool, and even knife skills are beginning to be developed here with the assistance of a butter knife and a pizza cutter. Texture play is also encouraged - running hands through rice, drawing with shaving cream, or hunting for buried "treasure" (small candies) in a container of flour.

Gross Motor Skills

Big muscle movement is also essential. Besides just being outside as much as possible, we have fun with learning new skills such as hopping on one foot, doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, playing hopscotch, and throwing and catching balls of various sizes. He runs, jumps, plays soccer, swings, slides, digs, and climbs. Exploring the natural environment has nearly endless benefits in a multitude of areas.

Computer Use

There are excellent websites out there, such as and Get Ready to, that can be of great use in teaching a child. At this time, however, we have chosen not to make use of those, preferring a more organic approach as well as minimal screen time at this age. Likewise, we have no television in our home, occasionally watching a movie (educational or otherwise) on our computer.

Talk, and Relax!

We talk all day long, about everything. We excitedly point things out, drawing his attention to the wonders of the world around him. We answer endless questions, and when we don't know the answer, we seek it out.

Nothing we do, however, is a formal "time to do this" or "you need to learn this" sort of thing. Because our child is very interested in letters and numbers right now, we provide those sorts of activities and he does them as he wants to, along with the everyday pointing out letters and numbers as we go along. If he wasn't interested, it would not be a concern to me until he was closer to six or seven. There is much to be said for a slower approach to formal education. Those early years of play develop integral skills that will greatly enhance future learning.

Our constant dialog seems to naturally cover the things he needs to be learning at this young age - manners, community, nutrition, health, weather, and so on. He learns how to clean up his messes, take care of his body, and contribute to a functioning household. He learns how to take turns and how to carry on a conversation. He develops a rich creative imagination coupled with self-confidence that will serve him well in future problem solving. He forms an increasingly detailed understanding of how the world around him works.

The more he learns just by living, the more I understand the whole concept behind unschooling. Better to spend the day playing hard in the sunshine than sitting in front of alphabet flash cards.

In what ways do you offer a learning-rich environment and incorporate learning into your everyday lives?


  1. I think your approach of "continuing to offer a learning-rich environment and incorporating learning into your everyday lives" is excellent. That's what we chose to do when our first child was at pre-school age, and we decided to just keep it up we liked it so much. :-) You have listed wonderful ideas! A few things we do are go to the library each week (my older children each learned to read at about 8 years old in their own time, and they each absolutely *love* to read), we use the internet a lot to find information, and we go on nature walks a lot. Thank you for your post!

  2. I did buy a pre-k curriculum for Rylee. But, I did it just for the books. I've never utilized it as an actual curriculum and have no intent to. The books have been a wonderful addition to our home library though!

    I tend to agree with you about how preschoolers should be taught. I think at this age learning should be very natural. Rylee is going to a preschool/daycare currently but I really had no other choice with that. At home I encourage the kinds of things you listed here. You have some great ideas here ... some I hadn't thought of. Thanks for sharing! :)

  3. I love your list of ideas. Sounds like a wonderful environment to grow up in! I nanny for a 14 month old, and would love to know how you set up a similar learning-rich environment for your younger son. Thanks!

  4. Books, books, and more books! And, then, talk about what you read. There is so much for a toddler to learn while you are going about your daily life. No need a formal curriculum at all! I also intend on using sandpaper letters when my little sweetie gets big enough (she's only 6 months old). They are just too darn cute not to!

    In case you need encouragement, none of my siblings (5 of us total) went to preschool and Mom certainly did not use a formal curriculum... we all have done quite well in school and in life. Your kiddos will appreciate Mama Preschool someday too!

  5. @Caitlin: Great question! I wanted to expand on that a bit, so I wrote about the subject here. Hope you find it useful!

    @Sew Many Mamas: Thank you for that encouragement; it is much appreciated!

  6. This is pretty inspiring. Right now it doesn't pertain to me in my life but you always keep me thinking about the future. It's not something I'm worried about right now, but it's nice to hear how you foster learning in the home.

  7. I agree with everything you said. It's so easy to teach kids this age so much just by living life, including them and giving them real answers. Personally I think encouraging their current interests does way more for them than trying to make every lesson diverse and to make sure you get in a little of everything all the time. That just seems segmented to me. Teaching them as it's relevant answers a lot of the "Why do I need to know this? How can I ever use this?" questions kids ask in school. You're showing him! Right now! That's way better.

    (I've read some articles about segmented learning periods actually teaching a lack of follow-through.)

  8. THANK YOU for writing this! I have made the decision to home school my boys and, even though I myself was home schooled, I am SO lost! I have a 3 and 4 year old and love the un-schooling approach.

  9. I love all of these ideas! We do many of them on the toddler level. I really believe that there are always opportunities to learn, no matter what the situation.

  10. This has set my mind at ease. I have also decided to homeschool my son, and although he is only 16 months now I have caught myself often looking at curriculum's. Thanks so much for writing this :)

  11. I love these! We do the same type of free-form things with Mikko, and it works great. I will enjoy adopting your ideas, too!

  12. Speaking of maps...we also have one of the world which we've laminated and attached to the wall with velcro stickons. Underneath the map is a sheet of metal (hardward store) just a bit smaller than the map but allows magnets to be placed on the map, making it more interactive. Also, with the velcro, you could easily remove the map and have a blank magnetic surface to interact with for other play. Just an idea to make maps more interactive. Sandra