As my youngest daughter nears preschool age, people are asking about my plans for school. They are surprised and curious to hear that she's not going to preschool. Since I made the same choice with my other two daughters, I have my answer ready: I will create early learning opportunities for her instead of enrolling her in a traditional preschool program.
One of the main reasons I have kept my children home is to make the most of these formative years while building strong relationships among my daughters. Though some days with preschoolers can seem interminable, the distance between the delivery room and the kindergarten classroom is too short.
By keeping the girls at home, I can individualize their learning experience and allow them to progress at their own pace, academically and socially. I choose topics of study and methods of learning to fit their unique personalities and interests, making sure their learning is integrated into everyday life.
Before each school year begins, I sketch out a basic plan for each child. We combine at-home learning with regular times of social interaction. Because most kids this age like structure, I establish a routine of activities but keep it balanced with free time to play and explore. Here's how:
Park district classes
We go to classes at the park district because they are high quality, convenient and inexpensive. We've enjoyed gymnastics, dance, art, drama and swimming. And we've been curious to try many others: music, soccer, cooking, basketball and nature classes. Another benefit is making new friends and widening our social network.
We plan a weekly trip to the library to choose books to take home. I scan the bulletin board for special programs including free plays, magic shows and weekly story time. My girls love summer at the library, with extra programs and incentives for reading. Many local libraries also have puzzles, toys and puppets to enjoy, so we can happily spend an entire morning at the library.
Each month, we set aside a few days for outings to museums, nature centers and parks. We enjoy taking advantage of free and low-cost learning opportunities by using museum passes, free days and memberships. As often as possible, we integrate our outings with our other learning and include other families in our plans. At times, I have hired a babysitter to help with my baby or toddler so I can focus my attention on my preschooler's learning.
The resources for at-home study can be overwhelming at times. We like to choose themes for our study.
Letter of the week theme: We choose songs, poems, books and an animal to study based on our letter of the week. While grocery shopping, we search for food that starts with our letter to have a special snack time. We practice writing the letter of the week by tracing our letter in corn meal, shaving cream or pudding. Before pencil and paper, we use finger paints.
Animals: We read lots of books about our animal, draw pictures and take a trip to the zoo with a special focus on that week's animal. We bring our sketch book and camera to capture pictures of our animal.
Enjoy and celebrate
As you join your children in play and learning, stay focused and have fun. At the end of the year, take time to celebrate your accomplishments. Consider including a slide show or presentation of favorite artwork, songs or stories.
Many families find a formal school setting best fits their children. For our family, though, keeping our daughters home for preschool has been the best decision. Our combination of park district classes, library time, at-home study and participation in a learning co-op has resulted in children who are engaged in learning, confident in their abilities and socially at ease.
Start your own learning co-op
The highlight of my daughters' preschool experiences has been joining with other families for shared learning.
When my oldest was about 3, I realized I had several friends who hadn't made plans for preschool. Together, we created a learning co-op and I have now initiated co-ops for the past four years. The first two years we chose a drop-off format. We rotated hosting and teaching responsibilities. But as we added more families to the group, and as everyone added more children to their families, it became more complicated. We needed extra help to care for babies and toddlers, so we scheduled both a teacher and a helper while some parents got time off each week.
This year, our co-op has eight families with 22 children total. To provide classes for each age group, all parents must stay and for the first time, we are meeting in a facility instead of our homes. In the first years of the co-op, our learning consisted of focused play around a weekly or monthly theme. As our group has grown, we have chosen more structured materials, especially for the older children.
Here are some ideas to help you get started:
Identify priorities and determine structure. What would you like the group to accomplish? It is important to find others who share your goals and objectives for the group.
When planning, there are many factors to consider:
• Formal curriculum or focused play?
• Drop off or parents stay?
• At home or neutral location?
• Lunch or snack?
• Once a week or more frequent meetings?
• A few families or a large group?
• Multi-age or preschool only?
Delegate responsibilities. The best co-ops are truly cooperative. Parents take ownership of the group, contributing their unique gifts and abilities. One parent may be in charge of making the schedule, while another chooses materials.
Becky Robinson is a freelance writer and Chicago mom of three daughters. She blogs for Mountain State University at mountainstate.typepad.com/leadership