Friday, March 15, 2013

Letter to the Book Chook - Pre-school at Home

Letter to the Book Chook - Pre-school at Home 
by Susan Stephenson

Dear Book Chook, 

My 4yo, Ethan, will be going to Kinder this year, but we are currently on a waiting list and have no idea how long it will take to get in, if at all.

What things could I do with Ethan in the meantime (education/development-wise) to help him while he is at home with me? I don't know what kind of activities he should be doing at his age, and I'd like to do something, at least one planned activity each day, rather than just having him play with his toys and watch TV.

Ethan's Mum

Hi Ethan's Mum,

My first thoughts are to ask: What fits in easily with your schedule? What resources can you access?

Since Ethan already plays with toys and watches TV, lets start there.

TV - I would look carefully at what Ethan is watching and limit shows that are pure entertainment. Instead, look for TV shows that might have something to offer educationally and creatively. In Australia, Playschool is one recommendation I would make. The show has a strong focus on literacy and creativity. It can provide you with a focus for further activities. For instance, you could go to the local library to find the books the presenters share, and read them aloud to Ethan. If the presenters say a rhyme and dress up the toys, you could copy that idea with Ethan or build on it. Maybe you can copy the water play with a big tub and some containers outside, or challenge Ethan to a tower building contest with blocks. (There's a tower building game I invented in this post.) Check the Playschool schedule ahead and work out if you prefer the morning or afternoon show - the topics like Messy or Stomping with Dinosaurs will give you a clue and I suggest you choose the one that suits you both best. You can even get the Playschool Art Maker app for your iPad!

Kids learn best by playing, but we can help them get more from their play by encouraging them to think about what they're doing. If you're building a tower together, chat to Ethan as you go. Ask him things like: Whose tower is bigger? How can we be sure? What could we measure with? You're not so much looking for a "right" answer as prompting Ethan to think for himself and solve problems. Ask Ethan to design different structures with his blocks: can he create a place to park a toy car? How many blocks does he need to build a house for a LEGO man? With water play, set him a challenge like: which container has the most water? Take a guess, then figure out a way of measuring. Count aloud together if you decide to use measuring cups or similar. Be sure to include some creative activities in your day. Drawing, painting, creating with paper and scissors, anything that allows Ethan to express himself at the same time as acquiring fine motor skills is wonderful.

The simplest, best, and almost magically effective thing you can do for your son is to read aloud to him every single day. Bring the story to life when you read. Chat to him about it when you're done. Try playing games with books - act them out, make up more stories aloud for the main character, set up a scene from the book with toys, decide your favourite part of the book, read the story for a second time and see if Ethan can remember what will be on the next page. Little silly games and activities can really enrich the whole experience and give him the chance to develop skills to help him at big school next year. Make sure Ethan goes with you to your local library and chooses stacks of great books for you to share.

I think mums make wonderful teachers. But I also know it's important for kids to get along with other kids. Is there a chance Ethan could go to a playgroup one morning a week, or to an occasional care centre sometimes? I know you'll have a new baby soon, and that will give you undivided time with the baby, while it allows him to learn to share, and to make friends. If he doesn't get into the new Kinder soon, I would definitely consider this.

As for formal lessons, I am inclined to say "let kids be kids"! The pre-schools I admire are those that stress learning through play. I would make sure Ethan can manage those things I mention in my article, Top Tips for Kids Starting School, but not worry too much about "teaching" him to read and write. Encourage reading by reading aloud to him, playing with words, and reading in front of him. Encourage writing by writing in front of him, pointing out words and letters and the sounds they make in your environment, and making a book together maybe - one where he draws his favourite toys and you write their names underneath. Encourage all sorts of thinking skills by wondering aloud: "I wonder which car will go the farthest?" "I wonder how many pegs are in the bucket?" "I wonder what would happen if we put detergent into the water and blew in it with a straw?"

Kids learn so much by play but toys sometimes confine the play. If you have a toy library in your town, look for different blocks - big and small - connectable blocks, simple jig saws, wooden train sets like Brio etc so Ethan can be challenged by new, more open-ended material. Encourage him to build cubbies, make a fort from a big cardboard box, create a hide-out under the kitchen table. I'm not suggesting you become a hovering mum, but one who takes an interest in his play, and helps him think about what he's doing.

Another smart idea is to have a chat with the Prep teacher at the primary school Ethan will attend. Ask her what she expects of children starting school, and concentrate on helping Ethan develop those skills. Would she like him to be able to write his own name? read his name? throw and catch a ball? speak clearly? use scissors? Is there a special way she wants those things done? Her expectations can help shape the activities you do with Ethan. I would make these short regular activities but the bulk of his day should be the play I talked about above.

I hope you enjoy your time together with your son. Being partners in playful learning is a great way to get the most out of each day and have fun at the same time!

UPDATE: Since answering this letter, I've been told about two great blogs that focus on learning through play, In Lieu of Preschool, and Learn with Play at Home.

Image Credit: My Cute Graphics


  1. I hope this is okay to post. I recently wrote a whole series called The ABCs of How to Home Preschool. It's really less of a "how to" and more of a "how we" and it should give her lots of ideas for things to do! Here's the intro post:

  2. @In Lieu of Preschool I think your "how we" is wonderful! Thanks, Genny!

  3. What a helpful and encouraging blog! I agree that kids learn by play, and I love your emphasis on play time being problem-solving time, where kids are encouraged to think for themselves.
    But the BEST idea is READING ALOUD every day. My daughters are now grown, and I know without a doubt their love of learning was born in those moments we spent reading together as a family.

  4. @Susan HutchisonI appreciate your heart-felt and enthusiastic support of reading aloud, and agree totally!

  5. Very timely post, Susan. I had my knickers in a twist last week as I let myself get caught up in some school mum warfare- a group of us have younger siblings all around the same age, and two of the other mothers have their younger siblings enroled in a preschool educational program to teach these cherubs the alphabet and first level sight words! I started to get the guilts that my younger cherub only recognises the letters of her name, and the intials of her sister, but then shook myself together after having a look at the educational program online. It's insanely expensive, goes for one and a half hours, relies on homework sheets. These kids are under four- do they really need to read or know letters other than their name? Thanks for the reminder that play based learning is the way to go rather than sticking cherubs in a mock classroom two years before they enter a real one! OK, rant over!

  6. @Green MamaI hear you, Holly. It frightens me what is done because of parental competitiveness and political point-scoring. These are our children! Some of them won't be ready to read until they're 7. At what cost to them do we pressure-cook them with sight words and formal lessons? My fear is that the cost is a horrid one - turning children OFF reading and labelling them failures.

    OK, My rant is over too. It's been nice venting with you!

  7. How cute! My kids should enjoy cooking!I also got some learning activities from my child's preschool. You might like it too. Please check it out Preschool Activity

    1. It seems you're the owner and principal teacher of that preschool, but I'm letting the comment through in case it's of benefit to a reader.


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