Monday, October 26, 2015

Things a Preschooler should be learning

I've had a few questions from well-meaning parents about how their child is doing developmentally in the preschool class that I teach at our homeschool co-op. While I am more than happy to answer any behavioral or social concerns that they may have, the questions that I feel most uncomfortable answering are the academic questions. Because what should a preschooler really be learning academically?

In the preschool class that I teach, we have a letter of the "week" but it's only one day for 2 hours, so it's a quick introduction. We also have a book of the week, and I bring a few extra books to read that go along with the theme of the day. We usually do some type of active song or outdoor activity. We do science experiments and art and play with toys. We discuss a number of the day, color of the day, and shape of the day. I've brought in sensory toys like Kinetic sand and Tactonimoes. I've brought in lacing toys and even attempted a board game (it didn't go well with mostly 3 year olds, but I have another card game that may go better this week).

So, for those parents that ask about academics, I don't think they need to learn the alphabet down pat by the time they turn 5, or be able to write each letter legibly before they can read. I don't believe the one who can color in the lines is more advanced than the one who just wants to play. In our society today we focus on academic success, but there is more to life than academia.

For those interested, here is my list of  what a preschooler should be learning and experiencing, and very little of it actually has to do with school or even "preschool".

  1. Who they are in their family. They should learn that they have parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives and caretakers who love them unconditionally and ensure they have a safe environment.
  2. Who they are as a person. They should learn about their strengths AND weaknesses in a positive light. For example, my young 5 year old knows that he's just not great at fine motor skills, but he learned to ride a bike in one day. We discuss the fact that even though he learned really easily, some of his friends are still learning to ride a bike. He learned not to brag, but also not to feel bad about his own weaknesses, but just keep practicing.
  3. Using their senses. Preschoolers should be experiencing the world through a variety of textures, sounds, shapes, colors, smells, and tastes. If all your child knows is a piece of paper and pencil, grab some flour and baby oil and make moon sand, or go outside and play in the mud. Buy or build a water table, take them to the ocean or a lake, go out in the snow, collect leaves and rocks, it doesn't have to be expensive, but try to do at least one or two new things every week.
  4. Build fine motor and gross motor skills. One of the things I love about the homeschool curriculum we use for Kindergarten is the fine motor and gross motor skills already built in. For fine-motor skill development in preschool, you can use pipe-cleaners to thread a colander, practice picking up cotton balls with a spoon, practice using scissors and tweezers, play with play-doh and marbles, and more. For gross-motor skill, find active songs and encourage your kids to dance along with you, get them outside at a park several times a week to climb the jungle gym, take them on walks around the neighborhood, ride bikes, play active games (one of our kids favorites is what they call the "alphabet game" where they try to jump to certain letters on our large alphabet mat, it's adaptable to ages 2-6, younger kids get just a letter, older kids have to find the first or last letter in a word, or spell a short word). Another fun game anyone can play is "who can..." jump, gallop, skip, crawl backwards, sidestep, slither, bear crawl, etc.
  5. Spend time at a library and reading quality books. Rather than just getting 20-30 random picture books at the library, ask your librarian for recommendations. Whether your child struggles with recognizing certain letters, numbers, shapes, or animals, there is a book to help. If your child is fascinated by a certain theme, find a quality educational picture book about it. Don't be afraid to read "older kid" books, "baby" books, non-fiction children's books, or even non-picture books. Also, make sure storytime is a time selected by your child and includes lots of snuggles. Go ahead and let them select one or two books as well. Read with enthusiasm and expression.
  6. Don't dread the "why" stage. In the beginning of the why stage (2 years or so ago) I just wanted it to end. Unfortunately, when I thought it did, it popped right back up again. You can probably get rid of it, if you want to, by ignoring the "why" questions, but do you really want to? Now that my oldest is 5, his "why" questions have more purpose, and he actually remembers many of the answers. I figure if I answer at least 90% of his "why" questions to the best of my ability, he should have a college level education without even opening a book. Try to answer in clear language, short sentences, and as accurately as possible, look up answers if needed. If you aren't sure, you can use "I don't know" or "because God made it that way" but try to keep those for the end when things get very esoteric (at least with my child). After about 5-6 "why" questions in a row, we usually end up talking about God, so children are often the best theologians and philosophers around.
  7. Spend time in nature. This is different than just building gross motor skills. Let your kids be outside, doing their own thing. If they want to dig in the dirt, or play in the leaves, or take a walk through the forest or meadow, give them that opportunity. I spoke with a stranger one time who mentioned that their child hadn't been outside in several months because both parents worked and the weekends had been poor weather. Go outside despite the weather, change childcare providers to one with a larger nature based play area, find a different work schedule, or a family friend or neighbor who can help. So many kids today can read and write, but don't know the names of wildflowers or trees.
  8. Spend time with people of all ages, colors, and abilities. Whether you find them at the grocery store, story time, or in your own neighborhood, make sure your children are around other people. Let them talk to strangers, as long as you are nearby. Let them play with older or younger kids. Teach them how to pay for something at the store, order their own meal, or introduce themselves to a new friend. If your child is shy, don't call them shy or excuse their behavior, but don't force them into something they don't want. The next time they express some interest in meeting a stranger, just get down on their level and tell your child they can go say "hi" and you will go with them holding their hand. The next time, maybe they will be brave enough to say hi on their own, but if not, make sure you don't pressure or berate them for their natural hesitancy, this is a skill that takes time and multiple efforts to build.
Wait, no alphabet, or phonics? What if they don't know one-to-one correspondence by kindergarten? How will they know to wait in line or open and eat their own lunch or follow instructions even when they don't want to?

Kindergarten is supposed to be preschool. Kindergarten is when children should learn the basic alphabet, phonics, and one-to-one correspondence. That doesn't mean that they won't learn it already just by doing everything I've mentioned above. If you're reading good quality books, you've probably read a book or two with counting in it. If you've been around people, they've probably had to learn to wait in a line. If you've been building fine motor skills, they probably will do okay at opening their lunch (or buy bags that they don't have to open). If they've been read to at least 15 minutes a day, they may already be interested in reading themselves, so if they want to read, teach them! If they don't, let them keep playing until they are ready.

The most important thing to teach at this age is not the academics, it's the experiences that kids need at this age. Visit a museum (not just a kids museum). Take them to a concert. Experience all kinds of weather. Go out in the ocean, lake or pool. Play in the dirt. Listen to their favorite CD. Take them on errands around town. Ride a bus. Visit the library and park. Meet your neighbors. Plant a garden. You'll find that they are learning something new every day, and maybe they can teach you something too.
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