Friday, October 24, 2008

How to homeschool your young child

I'm often asked how to get started homeschooling a young child. The easy answer is this: Play.

But if you're like me — and you probably are if you're reading this — you'll first agonize over whether you're doing all the right things for your child, wonder how to maximize every available learning opportunity, think about which specific skills your child should be developing, worry about which tools and materials can best help you, fret and overplan.

Now that I have been through this stage with two children, I can tell you that it really is as easy as being together and sharing your moments. Baking cookies? There's an opportunity to count cups of flour. Doing laundry? Sort clothes by color. Oh, and read. Read, read, read.

If you want to get all neurotic about homeschooling your toddler or preschooler, as I did, you can check any number of lists of skills commonly acquired by children of this age. It's a little silly, really, because the only checklist you should compare your child against is herself. I sometimes did anyway because it made me feel better knowing my kids were on track.

One problem with these kinds of lists is that they're generally meant for kids who will enter a traditional classroom. If yours won't, maybe it doesn't matter so much if your child is not yet comfortable with strangers or able to wait to be called on. You'll want to tailor the list for your preferences. I refuse to teach my child to color within the lines of any kind, so I promptly crossed that one off the list. You also have to think about the big picture. What's important for your family? You won't find character traits, values and faith on these lists. Only you can decide what's important there. That kind of learning comes through real life.

When Addy was almost 3 years old, I was caving into the pressure of everyone asking, "When will she start preschool? Is there a good preschool in your neighborhood?" For crying out loud, she was 2 years old! But I went through an exaustive search of skills lists like those above, added many of my own, deleted some, and compiled them into a long list. That formed the basic plan for what we would do the next 36 weeks. (Before you get your pencil out, know that I don't recommend this.) I also decided we'd learn a letter each week, a color, a shape and an American Sign Language sign. I chose books to support each week's theme, about five skills to work on, and a Bible story. Talk about neurotic.

Then my brother was seriously ill, about to be discharged from the hospital, and unable to take care of himself. I threw my extensive Excel spreadsheet out the window and taught Addy a real-life lesson instead: When family needs us, we are there. I urged my brother to move in with us.

Of course at the time I worried. When would we "do school?" How was I supposed to get through my weekly lesson plans when we were always driving across the state to see doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist? How would Addy learn anything when the times we actually were home, I had to keep sending her out to play alone in the backyard so I could spend yet another morning on the phone to this agency and that? Today I looked back at my spreadsheet to see what I had planned before I knew my brother would be living with us. The skills I thought were so very important to teach Addy? Traces curved and zigzag lines. Completes a 5-6 piece puzzle. Hops on one foot five times in a row.

You get my point.

The real learning happens through life. If you can throw in some raucous reneditions of the ABC song, that might spice things up. Everything else is extra.

So if you are so inclined, here's what works for us for the extra.

Books. Read a lot. Read the same book, over and over and over, if that's what your child wants. Read while your child ricochets off the furniture if yours isn't a sit-down-and-listen type. (What typical toddler is?)

If you want to get formal about it, the book Before Five in a Row is highly recommended by me and plenty of others. The premise is that you read the same book every day for five days in a row. (The "before" is because the original Five in a Row is about kindergarten level and this one is for preschoolers.) The book gives a list of books to read and, for each book, a set of suggested activities. The books are classics such as Blueberries for Sal and Goodnight Moon. What I most appreciate is that you'll never look at a book the same way again after having "rowed" one for five days. The activities are great, but not so revolutionary you could never have thought of them on your own if you had tons of extra time. They do get you started on how to really get the most out of a book. We're using this now for Dori at age 2-1/2 as her "school." We don't do it every day, but instead use it when she seems ready to sit down for a book and some special time together. It can be a complete preschool curriculum.

Letters. Our family's first step to teaching a child to read is to sing the ABC song. Bob used to sing it to Addy in the womb, but it's never too late. That was back when we had time on our hands. All Dori heard from Daddy in the womb was things like, "Addy, put the scissors down. Addy, get off the counter." She's still turning out OK.

It's fun to have something safe and tactile with letters on them to help your child learn the letters and their sounds. We have some foam bathtub letters. Blocks with letters on them would be fun. Magnetic letters for the refrigerator work well, and give you something to fish out from underneath the furniture all over the house — you know, in case you're bored. The LeapFrog Fridge Phonics Magnetic Set works well. I usually avoid toys that make noise, but this one is a good exception.

With some letters in hand, you can start to introduce the letters and sounds as you play. Knowing the letter sounds is actually more important than knowing the name of the letter. We play around with a letter toy and make up little songs and poems with its sound. "The A says /a/, the A says /a/, every letter makes a sound, the A says /a/." That one is stolen from the LeapFrog Letter Factory DVD, another exception to another of my rules that says we don't stick in a video and call it learning (call it babysitting and yes, we do that).

Reading A Home Start in Reading by Dr. Ruth Beechick is what convinced me I could actually teach a child to read. It sounds like such a big undertaking, doesn't it? It really isn't that difficult.

Here I am recommending various alphabet toys, but it's also Dr. Beechick's book that made me realize I wouldn't need any of these things to teach my children. I've told Bob before that if we ended up as missionaries in some remote village, all I would need to teach reading is a stick to scrape the letters into the dirt.

If your child likes workbooks, there are lots available at stores such as Meijer and Staples to help introduce the letters.

Once your older child is ready to move on, I like Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I'd recommend you read my complete review of this program first, because some people don't like it or give up too soon. If it doesn't seem right for you, there are many other good phonics programs out there. Please, please be sure to find something that uses intensive phonics rather than the whole-language approach.

A good site for comparing curricula of any type is This page has reviews of phonics curricula.

As supplemental materials, we enjoy playing the excellent phonics games at, reading Bob Books and using Explode the Code workbooks (we pick and choose pages and don't do the whole book). This is more toward kindergarten level though, definitely not for toddlers.

There is a free curriculum online called Letter of the Week that, obviously, uses the learning of letters as its base for a complete preschool curriculum. It's fun and simple, and we used some of the ideas when Addy was 3. Feel free to replace books and ideas liberally though, because you may not find all the books or subjects recommended at your own library.

Numbers. Math for toddlers and preschoolers starts with counting. From my observations, the steps go something like this. Getting there is a matter of practice, preferably while playing or doing regular daily tasks.
  1. The child mimics you when you say "one, two, three." She has no idea what those words mean yet.
  2. The child begins to demonstrate one-to-one number correlation, to get fancy about the terms. That means that Dori, age 2-1/2 recently figured out that "two" is a word that means there are two apples on the table, and "three" means there are three.
  3. The child begins to count, putting her finger on each item as she counts a few of them.
  4. The child begins to recognize a lump sum of two or three items. She can look at three blocks and know it's three blocks without counting 1, 2, 3.
  5. Finally, the child begins to associate the numeral with the number word she has been hearing. That funny, curly symbol 6=six.
  6. Early addition is simply counting two groups of objects all together.
  7. Early subtraction is taking some away and either re-counting or, more advanced, counting backward.

For the purposes of educating your young child, what this means is that you play with objects they can really see and feel and hold. Count them, stack them, name them, number them.

Identify shapes. This is geometry. Identify colors. This helps learn to sort and pattern items. Play at which one is bigger or smaller. Which has more or fewer.

If your child is one who actually does enjoy workbooks (I was and Addy is), then feel free to pick up one at the grocery store or office supply store and use it if they seem receptive. When your child is a little older, I highly recommend Singapore Math, beginning with Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics, then moving into Primary Mathematics for grade school. Note that these are about a year ahead of U.S. math levels. The Earlybird series has been updated, so if you find an old set they called them Earlybird 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B. Remember the Earlybird part, because the grade-school levels use the same numbers, but with the word Primary.

Science. For us, the main way to learn science is to observe the world around us. We encourage the girls' curiousity, even when it means dealing with filthy dirty clothes and all kinds of critters being dragged into our house. I wouldn't recommend anything formal here for young kids. Take nature walks. Wonder about things aloud. Answer more questions. Show your child how you find the answers you don't know. Let them pluck the seeds out of the apple core and plant them somewhere.

If you can, have a couple field guides on hand. My own very first bird book was this Birds Golden Guide, only with a retro cover. Our butterfly net gets heavy use for catching all sorts of things. A magnifying glass makes things look cool close up.

When it comes to reading nonfiction science books, I absolutely love the Let's-Read-And-Find-Out Science series. Magic School Bus books are also popular around here.

The living world is really what Bob and I love the most and know the most about (he with a degree in crop and soil science and me with my agriculture communication degree and nature-loving background). All kids I know seem to have an interest in nature, so that's where we start. If physics or chemistry is more your thing — or even if it's not — you can find examples of those branches of science in everyday life, as well. Baking bread becomes a chemistry experiment. You don't even need to use scientific-sounding words with you child, just let them play and explore what happens when ...

Participate in civic life. Remember the old Sesame Street ditty, "Who are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neigh-booor-hooo-ood?" That was an early social studies lesson.

To learn about the world, start close. Your family, your neighborhood, your city, your state, then your world. From there, maps and geography, stories about the past and history all sort of evolve into something your child can actually be interested in and learn.

This is easier than it sounds. Go to the grocery store, not a special trip, but when you're going anyway. Notice who cuts the meat, scoops up the potato salad, stocks the produce. Attend the fire station's open house. Watch the garbage truck workers do their thing. Let your child see what members of your family do to contribute to community life, whether it be paid work or otherwise. Play dress-up and pretend. Take your child to the voting booth, and talk about what you're doing and why it's important to you. Celebrate holidays. Talk about your cultural and family traditions as your child participates fully in them.

This is not stuff you can get from a workbook.

Look at maps. See that Aunt Marion in California is very far away, while Aunt Kathy in southern Michigan lives much closer, and Grandma is even closer yet.

I grew up thinking that geography and history were very specific, very boring, very tedious school subjects. It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I had any concept of how they affected me. Once I realized that, I was able to translate it into things that would interest my children.

To me, history equaled boring dates I could never remember. When I found out I had a great great grandfather who was a Union soldier in the Civil War, I suddenly became interested in what was happening in the world that would have affected his life at that time. It turns out history and geography are not about calendar dates and kilometers. They're about stories — stories of people's lives and places.

What stories interest your child? Addy likes having Little House on the Prairie books read to her. Right now that translates into dressing as Laura Ingalls for Halloween, wearing a bonnet and wishing to ride in a covered wagon. Someday it will translate into wondering what else was happening in the U.S. during Laura's time — the aftermath of the Civil War, settlement of the West, the Great Depression. She'll probably want to find the places Laura lived on a map, maybe even visit them someday.

She's already beginning to make connections through history. We try to relate everything in ways she can understand. The Great Depression? (She hears about it in the news.) Who cares about the specific years; it happened when Great Grandpa B. was a little boy. Daddy remembers him telling stories about his farm family eating a lot of cornmeal. His mom would make corn mush in the morning, then fry it up as cakes in the afternoon. Great Grandpa was awful sick of it, but it was cheap and they could grind it from their own corn. Those stories are history.

There are plenty of good books about people and places in history. For learning about contemporary cultures, we enjoyed Children Just Like Me by DK, which even has a neat accompanying sticker book. It's not a book to read verbatim to young children, but instead to explore the pictures and main ideas. It includes pictures of real kids in real faraway places. We encourage the girls to talk to people who have visited faraway places and ask about everyday life — what people eat, what their houses are like, what clothes they wear. My globetrotting nieces have come in really handy on that one.

We introduced a globe early, in the form of an inflatable ball. I can't say our kids started using it to identify countries early on, but having it introduced it as something to play with and explore, rather than something to sit on a shelf and not break.

My sister Anita found a couple good books that fit in here, Me and My Family Tree and Me on the Map.

To learn about hero figures for kids beyond toddlerhood I like the one-page stories in My First Book of Biographies: Great Men and Woman Every Child Should Know. Any stories about historical figures that might trip your child's trigger are good. Johnny Appleseed, Helen Keller and Sacajawea have been popular at our house. Lots are available at the library.

Dance. I wish I had the cash for Kindermusik classes for my toddler or the discipline to encourage weekly piano lessons and practice for my 6-year-old, but instead we mess with music at home. I'm anxious to get our piano back (we're in a temporary smaller home until our remodel) so the girls can experiment. We enacted a no-banging-on-the-piano-with-fists-or-toy-tractors rule, but other than that they are free to experiment. The girls do a lot of dancing. Daddy is good at this one.

Remember the basic songs from your childhood. I can't sing or play an instrument, but I do it anyway and the kids haven't complained yet. With toddlers, encourage them to clap along to the beat or the rhythm.

Make or buy some music makers. We have a box with a tambourine, harmonica, bells, egg shakers we filled with rice and beans, and whatever other noisemaker that finds its way into our house.
Practice making low notes and high notes. Practice soft and loud. Practice slow and fast.
Find some music that you can all enjoy. Our first children's CD was a really annoying, sappy sweet one that made Bob and I cringe. Then we discovered Laurie Berkner and found out children's music can be really cool. Her CD Victor Vito is the most played at our house. That and Reba.

Get messy. Come to find out, some families have rules about not mixing the Pla-Doh or say things like "make it pretty now." We don't have those rules.

We do have a ton of art supplies. We beg the grandmas to give the girls art supplies instead of more noisy toys for gifts. Therefore, there's almost always enough paper for more sheets all around, for more globs of poster paint, to go crazy with glue.

That's all I have to say about art for young children.

Where do I get this stuff?
I do hope you caught the part about real life and interaction with you being a child's primary lessons. Beyond that, if you have the funds and inclination to buy some formal materials, here are my favorite sources. It is really easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices.
  • Read reviews of various programs at
  • If you're really lucky and live near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Home School Building or any other town that has a store specificially for homeschoolers, go there. Now. You'll be able to get your hands on the materials before you buy and probably ask questions of real homeschool parents who work there.
  • Buy nearly everything, and I mean everything, in the homeschool world through Rainbow Resource Center. I have checked prices time and time again, and can never beat these.
  • When it's general books I'm looking for, I use and take advantage of free shipping over $25.
  • Can you tell I live in a rural area with no malls within an hour? If you actually have retailers in your area, Barnes & Noble offers a 20% discount for educators, including homeschoolers. Sign up for a discount card, but it only works in stores. Again, you won't find the specialty homeschool curricula here though, but you will find workbooks and general resources.
  • If you know specifically what you're looking for, find it for sale from another homeschool parent at The interface isn't pretty, but I have had really good luck with it. I think it's safe to say that homeschoolers are reputable, so if you send away your money you can trust you'll get what you purchased. I've never had a problem anyway. EBay has become overpriced for homeschool materials. I have seen plenty of used items go for more than they would be new!
  • For young children, yard sales and resale shops often yield some pretty good finds. Basic books, workbooks and games can be found cheap. If they don't end up working for you, so what? You only paid a quarter.
  • What I use the most, though, is my local library. I use interlibrary loan like a fiend. They probably hate me for the number of books I request each week.
What else?
If you're thinking of homeschooling beyond preschool, think about attending a meeting of a local homeschool group. You will get your questions answered and so many ideas that you may feel as if your head will explode. At least I did.

It may take some work to find a group that really fits your family's lifestyle and beliefs — or you might find it right away. If you do find the right group, it can be really helpful.

If you're into it, you can start reading about the various homeschool methods. Yeah, there's a lot to it, so ignore it if you're not as detail-oriented as I am. You've probably heard of Montessori schools, right? Well there are also a number of other styles embraced by homeschoolers. You can learn about the Charlotte Mason method (this fits my bent the best), Waldorf, unschooling, Thomas Jefferson education, classical education, traditional school at home and lots more. Comment or e-mail me if you want a specific book recommendation.

What will your child be missing by doing preschool at home?
Frequent colds. The flu bug. Bad manners. Jokes about boogers. Separation anxiety. Time for you to watch TV alone and actually clean the house.

Warning, I have some strong opinions here, which may not be for the weak.

Seriously, though, I think we concerned parents tend to worry about what our children may be missing whatever they're doing. In my mind, conventional classroom preschool is all about learning the basic skills, but those who promote it will tell you it's also about learning social skills — how to get along in a group, accept strangers, share and so on. Those all sound real nice, but I think we tend to use preschool as babysitting and then force our kids into some of these experiences before they are ready. We're also quick to forget that children can and do learn social skills in their own families. Unless you are a family of wolves, you can do this yourself. Try living in a downsized house with one bathroom and you'll learn about sharing, by golly. Living real life with you and interacting with real people in the world — the ones you meet at the bank as you do your weekly errands — are genuine social experiences for your children. If it's interaction with other kids you're after, you can seek it out in many ways. You can set up playdates, you can participate in story hour at the library, you can take part in Sunday School or other church activities, you can join a 4-H club or an AYSO soccer team, you can seek out a homeschool group. We do all these.

So what have my children missed out on? Fake Thanksgiving reenactments where the children all dress as good little Pilgrims and Native Americans. Instead, we learn our family's version of the whole truth about the holiday. It's still fun. The kids aren't shooed out of the room while I prepare for a holiday tradition. They take part in it. They get their hands dirty. We talk.

My children have no idea how to get a hall pass to use the bathroom or that they might even consider raising their hands before speaking. Thank God.

• • •

I think the bottom line is to have fun with your young children, take them with you instead of thinking you need to find a sitter, let them experience real life.

If you need to convince the nosy neighbor that your homeschooling is working when they ask what you do all day, throw in some pedagogical terms. Instead of "played ball in the back yard," try "practiced gross motor skills." Instead of "stacked blocks and counted them," say you "explored size and spacial relationships and practiced one-to-one number correspondence."

Good luck to you. If you can count to 10, know your colors, can sing the ABC song and love your child more than anyone else in the world (and I know you do) you can do this.

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