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Engage Your Preschooler with Real Books & Real Life

“Mama, can I do my school?”

My 3-year-old daughter made her way to me at the kitchen table where I was going over a phonics lesson with her older brother, carrying her grocery store ABC coloring book and crayon set, carefully tripping along in my high heels that she’d pulled over her chubby feet. We looked through a few pages together that she painstakingly marked with her favorite pink and purple crayons, face serious and tongue half out, before she lost interest and scampered away to play dress up with the very tolerant 1-year-old sister.

School for her was fun, a quick few minutes here or there, usually initiated by her. Little did she know I was educating her most of the day through regular life, walks and play outside, and reading picture books.

Preschoolers are smart! And sometimes, we ambitious parents are quick to think that, since our preschooler is constantly learning and growing and changing every day, it’s time to get on with it already and start real school.

Google “how to homeschool preschoolers,” and you’ll be met with lists upon lists of what your preschooler ought to be doing. And sure, there are a few things you’ll want them to pick up at this age, like learning to hold a pencil, basic letter sounds and counting, and writing their name. But dig deeper and you’ll find more suggestions: what I call “busy work curriculum” or even entire preschool programs done wholly on screens. Ugh.

While a worksheet or computer will have an appeal for a time (and actually, more appeal the less you use them, not more!), I can just see the light of wonder leaving your little one’s eyes when faced with such a program. Can’t you?

In my opinion as a mom of four homeschooled graduates, worksheets and busy work are not the best way for kids this age to learn and, more importantly, retain information. I propose two avenues instead: real life and real books.

Use Real Life

This is simple, and you’re probably already doing it. As you go about the normal course of your day, include your preschoolers. Lessons they easily absorb through the rhythm of everyday life include:

  • talking about foods and prices at the store
  • observations of daily weather and seasonal changes
  • learning basic household chores
  • life science through time outdoors

I would also add a caution here. Often, as part of the real life of homeschooling, we hear advice to let our older children help with the younger, and I am all for family togetherness and responsibility. However, your preschooler deserves time with you, the parent.

It’s important to make a concerted effort to spend one-on-one time with your child each day. I found that beginning the day with my youngest learners seemed to fill their tank, rather than putting them off all day which led to whining and frustration (on both our parts!). Let your little ones know they’re a priority.

Use Real Books

The library can be your best friend when it comes to homeschooling kids of any age, but it’s so easy to use picture books for preschool learning. Make regular trips to refill a basket of books for read-aloud time. I usually kept a rotation of themed books going based on whatever we were talking about (for instance, topics like “neighborhood helpers” such as the police and firemen, the solar system, or the changing seasons), along with random books of their choosing.

We had some wonderful librarians who grew to know our family and would pull books to recommend when we arrived for our weekly visit based on what they saw us checking out.

Keep It Age Appropriate

Fully engage in the world of your youngest! Get down on their level to talk, play, or instruct and make eye contact. Accept invitations for tea parties or play with trains together. Whatever you do, become a part of their world for a time. These moments are so fleeting and worth protecting and nurturing.

Preschoolers have fantastic memories, which you can use to your advantage when it comes to learning. Using rhymes and songs (Will you ever forget the words to “Itsy Bitsy Spider”?) to cement Bible verses, basic math and geography facts, and more will come in handy later when the real work of learning begins.

You can put together your own or purchase Montessori materials for tactile, kid-friendly learning, which preschoolers will come back to on their own because it’s fun, while also incorporating real life. The internet abounds with Montessori homeschooling ideas.

Enjoy this time with your littlest learner! Though you may feel stretched by the many demands of parenting young children, homeschooling in its essence is so very time efficient. You don’t need expensive or time-consuming curriculum, co-ops, and lessons to fill their time. What preschools create with much more time and cost involved, you can accomplish in your own home in a much simpler, less stress inducing, and enjoyable way.

And who doesn’t love a good tea party?

Jen McDonald is an experienced editor and writer who’s been featured in several books and numerous national publications, including Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Military Spouse Magazine. She’s the author of You Are Not Alone: Encouragement for the Heart of a Military Spouse, a book for military spouses born from nearly three decades of experience. She’s currently the Content Editor for MilitaryByOwner Advertising.

Jen and her amazing Air Force husband have lived all over the world and are the parents of four grown children who were all homeschooled, including one who is serving in the military. They’re also brand new grandparents! Find her at her site Jen McDonald: You Are Not Alone, on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram as @jenmcdonald88.

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