Updated: Jul 2, 2022
One of the questions I see and hear most frequently when I visit social media groups, discussion forums, or at in-person events for parents of young children, is “What can I be doing to make sure my child is really prepared for school?” Or if this group is a homeschooling group, the question is “how can I homeschool preschool?” So often these eager and excited parents are met with replies like, “just let them be children,” or just let them play.” While there is nothing wrong with this advice, it often leaves parents without the answers they need.
Don’t get me wrong, as a homeschool parent who studied early child development, taught preschool for almost a decade, and has been an educator in one form or another for over twenty years, I firmly believe play is learning. I do not believe in rushing children when it comes to academics or forcing them to sit and do lessons they aren’t interested in or ready for, and I cannot stress enough how vital I believe it is for children to be given opportunities to make choices, be creative, and develop critical thinking skills. I also have to confess that the term “preschool” irks me a little. I really feel each stage of child and human development needs to be honored for what it is, and not seen as being in “pre-” something else.
So maybe before we discuss how to homeschool preschool, the real question we need to answer is SHOULD we homeschool preschool? Is learning through living enough? And what does homeschooling preschool even mean?
Technically, preschool is actually a stage of child development that occurs between the ages of 3-5 years old. Every child who is in that age group is technically a preschooler regardless of where they spend their days.
Now we all know children learn all the time, and no one is really duplicating school at home. So the term homeschool preschool is really just another way of saying that you have a young child at home, who is no longer a toddler, but also not yet a typical school age. If this describes you, well congratulations, you are homeschooling preschool! But this still doesn't answer the question of what is the best way to support these young learners.
First, Let's Look at How Young Children Learn:
Really, young children learn the same way we all learn. You can read more about this in my blog post: How I Homeschool, my Philosophy and Approach, but to summarize we learn because we have an innate desire to, we learn because we are given the opportunities to, and we learn through interacting with our environment and with others. What does change is the stage of development we are in. Children at every stage have an innate desire to tackle their next developmental task.
The zone of proximal development is a term coined by Lev Vygotsky. Basically the idea is that children will do certain things all on their own without much intervention, but will be able to do even more with an attentive educator. This is why knowing some child development theory, but also knowing how to facilitate your child’s learning, is important.
So having a basic understanding of what developmental tasks your preschooler is working on will really help you understand how to facilitate their education more effectively. As educators, a huge part of our role is to set up a developmentally appropriate environment for our children, to create opportunities for them to make choices, follow their lead, and facilitate their learning through interaction. This is the difference between “just letting them play,” and being an effective early childhood educator (which is really what homeschooling preschool is all about).
Now that we have established a baseline for how young children learn, let’s take a closer look at what preschoolers are learning, and how to teach them in a gentle holistic way:
Symbolic thinking and Language and Literacy Skills:
Around the age of three, most children have a sufficient enough vocabulary to communicate the basics verbally. They also are beginning to pick up on the idea of symbols. Most likely they either already know a picture of a cat is a cat, or they will very soon. Children this age most likely have developed an interest in picture books and stories, and are using pencil and crayons to make scribbles and marks on paper.
Teaching Letters and Phonemic Awareness
I have encountered so many debates about teaching the alphabet to young children. Some approaches, such Waldorf and Charlotte Mason, completely avoid introducing the alphabet at all, whereas other highly respected branches of early education such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia advocate for introducing letters as the child is ready and has a desire to learn them. While I lean towards the second view myself (because if you are truly following your child’s development and interests, I believe you are teaching them the right things), I think if you choose to teach letters is really less important than how you teach them should you choose to. Literacy is so much more than just writing and reading print. Phonemic awareness can be taught without even looking at written letters through storytelling, poetry, rhymes, games and songs. So there are plenty of other literacy skills to focus on if you decide to delay learning the alphabet.
Logical/spatial and order:
Children this age are just beginning to understand quality. A very young preschooler might be able to tell if there is one or more than one of something, but not really be counting yet, or they may be able to count a few items. Some young preschoolers will know a few common shapes. Understanding directional words such as “under,” “over” and “in between,” are another important skill that is developed during these years. Children can also begin to grasp time order especially in contextual ways such as “first we eat lunch, then we lay down for a nap.”
Social emotional skills:
A huge milestone for children this age is that they become much more autonomous and want to do more for themselves. If you give your preschooler the opportunity to be independent you will be amazed at what they are capable of. Children this age are much more aware of their own emotions and those of others. They are expanding their understanding of cause and effect (she is sad because she lost her toy).
Physical (large and small muscle development):
By the time they turn three, children are much steadier and are ready to learn more ways to move their bodies. They enjoy pedaling toys, balls, hopping and running, and will be learning how to skip. Fine motor/small muscle control is also very important to develop before they are able to learn to write. This includes developing a pincer grasp, lacing, proper pencil hold, and buttoning.
How to Homeschool Preschool: A break down of what to teach and how to teach it
Make quality materials a part of your child’s environment and allow for choice in how they're used:
Literacy: Set out puppets, items for small world play, books, paper, and writing materials in places your child can reach them. Allow your child plenty of time to play and act out scenarios of their choosing. Let them choose books for you to read to them and to look at independently. Allow them time to use paper and art materials and create freely.
Logical: Add sets of small items to the environment that your child can count, sort, and organize. Make sure they have a set of durable wooden blocks. Include various measuring utensils such as cups and a simple scale. Provide opportunities for your child to scoop things and manipulate objects.
Social/emotional: Organize your child's personal belongings to facilitate independence as much as possible, including keeping their clothing and tooth brush where they can reach them. Allow them to choose their own clothes whenever possible. Take your child to play groups or events where they can interact with other children their own age. Create a consistent rhythm or routine for your day and stick to it so your child will know what is coming next. Make a picture schedule or some kind of visual aid for them and hang it where they can easily see it.
Physical: Make sure your child has the opportunity to practice using eating utensils. Provide small tongs or other tools that allow them to build finger strength and use a pincer grasp. Jump ropes, balls, beanbags, other tossing or throwing toys and a scooter, tricycle or other riding toys are all helpful to have. Take your child to places where they can climb and experiment freely with moving their body in different ways everyday.
Observe and interact with your child as they explore:
Read books and tell stories every day. Introduce your preschooler to rhymes, poems, finger plays, and songs. These are excellent media for teaching skills such as letter sounds, symbols and print awareness.
Observe them as they play and ask questions.
Discuss their drawings and other marks they make on paper with them.
Spend some time quietly watching your child without becoming involved so you can get a better understanding of them and how they learn.
Count along with your child.
Cook and bake with your child allowing them chances to scoop and measure ingredients.
Point out print in the natural environment, through things like shopping lists, products, labels and cookbooks.
Give your child small responsibilities around the house and make them a part of your chore routine.
Model good habits and involve your child in daily care tasks like clearing the table (you clear your dish and they are expected to clear theirs).
Give your child a sense of ownership when it comes to taking care of their things, for example, picking up their toys after they play with them.
Allow your child to have input in choosing family meals, for example let them pick which vegetable so prepare as a side.
Giving two positive choices is a great way to teach critical thinking.
Read books where the characters display various emotions and discuss it with your child. Help them connect emotions to actions.
Be sensitive to your preschooler’s cues and follow their lead:
Notice what materials they are taking an interest in and use that knowledge to add more things to their environment. For example if your child loves trucks, get more books on the subject, and use it to connect to other things. You can also ask yourself what it is about trucks they like and expand on that. Are they fascinated by motors and other things that make loud noises? This might be an opening to look at animal sounds or instruments. Or perhaps they are mechanical and really enjoy seeing how things work.
If your child really shows an interest in learning more “school” type stuff and you want to follow that, make sure you don’t push them to go beyond their comfort level, instead work at their pace. This way learning time will be something they can look forward to.
Homeschool Preschool: What to do each day
Aim for at least an hour for uninterrupted free play:
Hopefully you will be able to carve out even more time for free play than this, but make sure at least one of your child’s play times allows for a full hour of uninterrupted self directed play. Some very young children may struggle to fill up this whole time. So you can work up to this and make it a goal. Don’t be tempted to turn on the tv, or start a parent-led activity during this time. Make sure your child has lots of open ended materials on their level and allow them to play with whatever they choose to for as long as they choose. You can do things like notice what your child is playing with and encourage them to try something else. For example say “Wow I really like your tower! What else can you build?”
Aim for at least two hours of unstructured play outdoors:
Children in our modern world do not get enough time outside. Time to move and explore their surroundings freely is crucial for preschoolers to develop the muscles and coordination they need. There are so many fun and interesting things to do outside, such as taking sensory or nature walks, playing on the playground, going for bike rides together, playing ball, jumping rope, closely observing and talking about changes in nature, and seasonal activities such as raking leaves, sledding, gardening and swimming.
In traditional preschools, children sit together on the floor for large group or circle time. I like to call this time floor time in homeschool preschool, because oftentimes it is just you and one or two children. Think of it as a time to sit on the floor with your child and sing, say rhymes, do finger plays and talk with them. You can also plan playful activities to do together during this time that target specific developmental goals, such as having your child retell a story, counting activities, or classifying and grouping collections of objects.
This is another homeschool adaptation of what children do in traditional preschool. This is a time set aside for you to sit at the table with your child as they create art or do a targeted developmental activity. Even if the activity is open ended and child led, having your full attention focussed on your preschooler for this time is going to be so valuable for both of you.
You will be able to observe your child, ask them questions, and get a good idea of how they are progressing, and what their interests are. Some examples of table time activities include, sorting and matching activities, art, cutting, pasting and following directions, and sensory and fine motor activities such as play-dough, sensory bins, and science activities such as fizzing bubbles and looking closely at seeds.
Healthy Meals and Snacks
Preschoolers are growing so much and this leads to them often being hungry. This is all the more reason to make sure we are giving them food that will nourish their bodies. Planning ahead for the five plus times a day they will most likely ask for something to eat, is a real help. Think about having a fresh fruit and vegetable snack available every day. Involve your child at the grocery store, giving them the opportunity to choose which fruits and vegetables they might like to eat. Preschoolers also enjoy being involved in helping to prepare their meals and snacks, and can be given little jobs to do as you cook.
Children’s bodies are working hard on growing and learning each day, and it is vital they get some time to rest. A vast amount of research has shown preschoolers do better, and learn more if they are given the opportunity to sleep during the day (more sleep at night does not produce the same results). Even if your child is not falling asleep anymore, it is still helpful to provide them with some quiet time. I suggest having a dedicated basket for this time of day with books and special quiet toys. Make this something you and your child look forward to, your special time to snuggle, sing a song and share a peaceful story. Turn off all the lights, blow a fan, and give your child a soft toy. Have your child lie down and rest for thirty minutes; then, if they haven't fallen asleep, transition to quiet play for the remainder of rest time.
How to homeschool preschool while also homeschooling older children
Homeschooling preschool while you are also teaching older children can be overwhelming. In fact, aside from parents asking how to homeschool preschool, the second most common question I see among homeschooling parents of young children is how to keep their preschool age child busy while they teach their older ones. I am going to share my favorite ideas and recommendation on this subject:
Set aside some time early on in the day where your preschooler is the focus of your attention: I think it can be easy to feel like our older children’s learning is more important or urgent than our younger children’s. They pick up on this and compete for our attention. Then we fall into the trap of just trying to distract our little ones so we can do the “real” teaching with our older ones. Try to let go of this mentality, all children are learning all the time, and it is all important.
Work with your older children while your preschooler plays: We have already talked about the importance of setting aside some time for your preschooler to develop the skill of playing independently. Set up their play area near, or as part of your school area so that you can watch them, and help your older child at the same time.
Teach lessons that take all your focus during rest time: This is another perk of establishing and sticking to a consistent rest time routine. Even if your preschooler doesn’t sleep, once you have them resting or playing quietly, it will give you the opportunity to work with your older children free of distractions.
Whenever possible, include the whole family: Meal times, story time, table time and outside play are good examples of activities that can easily be adapted to serve a wide variety of ages. Your older children can even practice reading out loud to your younger child. My older children love saying the preschool rhymes along with my youngest as well, and the little one enjoys all the big people who are participating with her.
Homeschool Preschool Sample Schedule
7:30-8:30 wake up, dress, breakfast and morning routine
8:30-9:30 free play
9:30- 10:00 floor time: songs, finger plays and rhymes, daily job, quick snack
10:00-11:00 outside play
11:00-11:15 story time
11:15- 11:30 or 11:45 table time
11:45-1230 get ready for lunch, eat together, and clean up
12:30-1:00 outside play
1:00-3:00 cuddle time, read and sing, rest
3:00-3:30 snack time and clean up
3:30- 5:00 inside or outside
5:00-6:00 chores and prepare dinner
6:00-7:00 eat dinner as a family and clean up
7:30-8:00 quiet activities, bath and story
Do you homeschool preschool, or are you getting ready to? If so, I'd love to hear about what you're doing in the comments.
Want more? You can now get my Homeschool Preschool: Getting Started Guide, absolutely free! This handy guide will walk you through the process of setting up a learning space in your home, creating a rhythm for you days, weeks, and year, and help you decide what to teach and when. It also comes with a preschool skills checklist, and list of additional resources.