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Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play!

I’m so honored to be a part of the first edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting!  This week Alice Callahan of the Science of Mom is hosting.  She has a terrific explanation of blog carnivals, as well as an introduction to our Carnival, links to the other articles in the series from some amazing bloggers, and a discussion of this month’s topic, preschool.  Check out her post or go to the links to the other articles in the carnival below.

For my post, I wrote about homeschooling and preschool.   Thank you so much to the homeschooling moms that I talked to for this article and who shared their experiences!

Homeschooling - Gustoff family in Des Moines 020
Homeschooling – Gustoff family in Des Moines 020 (Photo credit: IowaPolitics.com)

Pamela is a homeschooling mom.  Her first two kids went to preschool.  One had special needs, and she and her husband had trouble making sure that her school district met his learning needs.  When she had two more kids, she decided that she could provide a learning-rich environment on her own for her preschoolers just as well as any educational “expert.”

With her two youngest children, “we have zero interest in sending them to preschool,” she told me.  “We learned so much from what we did with — and to — the first two kids and always said if we had any more (which we weren’t going to do!) that we’d do things differently. Well, we ended up having two more, and yep, we’re doing things differently. Lots of things!”

During the day, they play with blocks, experiment with counting, learn about letters through board games, work in the garden, learn about camping, negotiate with their siblings, play with the neighbors, and go shopping.

And, interestingly, according to the early childhood educational “experts,” Pamela and her family are doing everything right.

Pamela’s family is part of a growing trend of all parents who are choosing to educate their children at home. While only a small percentage of children are homeschooled, their numbers keep growing every year, as dissatisfaction with public education grows and the homeschooling movement gains more support from online communities and grassroots organizations.  Other homeschooling parents don’t agree with the discipline strategies used in preschools, or they believe that any schooling or day care experiences for young children at all undermine the parent-child bond and can expose children too early to destructive peer influences, academic pressure, and aggression.

One homeschooling blogger, Stephanie Lynn Stevens who writes about preschool, argues that exposure to academics during early childhood can cause kids to burn out early and hate school.  “Maybe one reason [for this burnout] is that they’ve been sitting at a desk when they should be digging in the dirt and chasing butterflies,” she wrote.  “Children are born learners, and the best learning, especially for preschoolers, doesn’t happen in a classroom.  It’s experiential, it’s tactile, it’s relaxed and nurturing and cozy.”

In addition to these reasons why parents choose to homeschool, there’s a simultaneous trend among parents.  Families who are worried that their children will “fall behind” if they don’t reach certain literacy or mathematical benchmarks by a certain age.  Parents who see the global economic trends and logically infer that “earlier is better” and want their kids to read, achieve, and be ahead of their peers.   These parents want a curriculum to match the learning style and social/emotional needs of their children and don’t think that schools — even preschools — are up to the task.  Or they want their children to attend preschool but the costs of a quality program are out of their financial reach.

Other parents — particularly in places like Manhattan, Boston, or San Francisco — have become horrified by the preschool admissions insanity, where two year olds spent their days with consultants, interview coaches and practice tests to prepare for the all-important preschool admissions tests and interviews.  (In fact, I worked a few weekends for an elite private school admissions committee for a Boston-area preschool.  As I peered out the door of the testing room at the beginning of the morning, the anxious parents and their confused toddlers walked in timidly for our school’s full day of testing, observation, and interviews. I felt nothing but sympathy for these terrified parents and their confused young children.)

I was reminded again of my own experiences on the other side of the preschool admissions table when I read a popular NBC blog post this week from a New York writer who “dropped out” of the Manhattan preschool “rat race” to homeschool her daughter, Adi.  She concludes, “They say if you want something done right to do it yourself, so I’m going to homeschool my daughter. There’s a huge homeschool community where we are, and the kids who’ve come out of it are smart, well adjusted, and have gone on to college and careers and all the stuff everyone is paying out the nose for in preschool. I’m going to take the tuition money I save and travel (with Adi of course). I’m going to take the time I save not dedicating my life to preschool admissions and enjoy my life.”

And of course there’s a corporate presence that  is there to meet the perceived needs of all of these parents of very young children who have decided to homeschool their preschoolers.   There is an endless array of curriculum packages designed to meet the needs of parents who want to ensure that their preschool-aged children learn important skills — literacy, mathematical, social, and more –but do it at home.

Yet early educators and researchers are clear:  flashcards, scripted lesson plans, and worksheets — the “direct instruction” that is a typical part of a school-aged child’s day — should play no part in the educational experiences of the toddler set.

Parents are told again and again that the early years are vitally important for the brain to develop and ensure a lifetime of learning.  So doesn’t it make sense that we should try to facilitate and expedite these educational experiences?  Shouldn’t there be a way of ensuring that  you can teach your child a particular set of vocabulary words, reading comprehension skills, and math computation?

But we cannot simply transplant what works in the older grades — either in schools or in homeschooling — and reproduce it for three year olds.   Learning for young children both in the home and in a school setting comes from play.  Play, play, and more play.  According to researchers, such as early childhood play “expert” Doris Fromberg, play is the best way that young children develop language skills, problem solving, social competence, perceptual and motor skills, as well as begin to integrate all these different sorts of abilities together in complex and new ways.

Luckily, for parents and kids, if families decide that preschool at home makes the most sense for their situation, every thing that a child needs to explore, grow, and learn is right in your house or a walk away to the park.  No software, curriculum packages, or assessment checklists needed.

So what would preschool at home look like?

Music, singing, crafts, games, housework, meal preparation…. All of these household activities can help kids learn about their world and to stimulate their brains.

Kids need lots of practice in gross motor skills, using the large muscles throughout their bodies to throw, kick, jump, and catch.  They should be given time to dance, run, swim, learn how to balance, swing, and play with balls.  Today’s preschoolers are increasingly replacing time spent being physically active with screen time, a fact that researchers caution is harmful to kids’ short-term and long-term physical health.  Physical fitness experts advise that preschoolers engage in both structured and unstructured physical activity for large parts of their day.  Time spent outdoors in nature — observing and interacting with the natural world — should also be a part of a child’s daily routine.

According to early childhood professor Laurel Bongiorno, there is no reason that the activities that are most vital to learning and development of young children cannot happen in the home.  In her Huffington Post piece about how to make sure that educators “get preschool right,” she states:

“Preschool children develop physically through running, jumping and climbing,” states Bongiorno. “They improve small motor skills by stacking blocks, drawing with markers and squeezing glue bottles. They develop large motor skills as they climb and run outside. They begin to understand the dynamics of friendship and negotiating during pretend play and playing games. They use vocabulary words and exhibit their knowledge of the world we live in when they take on roles during their play. They practice math concepts as they build block towers. They explore science concepts as they play in the sand box, the yard, the water table, and with the art materials.”

Play experiences — whether supported by a parent at home or by a preschool teacher — are what allow preschool kids to develop in every area: cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically.

As Stephanie Lynn Stevens, the homeschooling blogger, states in her post succinctly about how to teach preschoolers at home, “I hear parents who want to homeschool their 2, 3, or 4 year old and they are asking, How do I know I’m covering everything?  How do I know I’m teaching them correctly?  What curriculum should I use?  There is so much anxiety around preschool, and I just want to tell you: RELAX.  If you are a loving, nurturing parent then your preschooler is getting everything he needs.”

I talked to another homeschooling parent who came to this conclusion without the help of any researcher or expert.  At first, she elaborately constructed her preschooler’s homeschool curriculum, planning out instructional times and educational objectives.  Then she realized that she and her daughter Glory were happiest — and her daughter learned the most — when she stepped back and allowed her daughter’s day to be about play, discovery, and new experiences.  (And she documents her family’s evolution as preschool homeschoolers in her blog.)

Glory learns about money with an allowance.
Glory learns about money with an allowance.

What’s best for kids’ growing minds and bodies doesn’t change whether they’re in a preschool or a living room.

Stay tuned for next month’s Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting!

 Here are the links to all of the bloggers in this Blog Carnival:


The Early Education Racket (Melinda Wenner Moyer)

Preschool Should Be Less School and More Play? (Momma Data)

Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play! (School of Smock)

Mixed-Age Preschool: Benefits and Challenges (Science of Mom)

Picking a Preschool (Momma, PhD)

Universal Prekindergarten: Evidence from the Field (Six Forty Nine)







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  1. Wendy says:

    I was shocked to read the comment stating that preschoolers get school burnout because they are sitting at desks and not digging in the dirt. While I have not seen every preschool, the ones I have seen were always play-based. I know some parents fear preschool is not academic enough but that is crazy to me. I suppose there are preschools that would cater to this fear but I would argue this is not the majority. As this blog suggests, there is a lot of evidence to support learning through play is the best avenue for not only children’s social and emotional development, but cognitive as well. This is why I chose a patent cooperative nursery school that is play-based. I love the school so much that I volunteered to participate on the Board of Directors.

    I do think making high-quality preschools accessible to everyone is important, so people can have choices. Not everyone can stay home with their children. We need to do a better job as a country caring for other people’s children by providing acces to quality childcare and preschools or some type of financial support should a parent want to homeschool.

    Check out the website http://www.powerfulinteractions.com/. It is a neat way to think about how we play with our children.

  2. This was so interesting, Jessica! I am grateful that there is middle ground between home-schooling for preschool and those insane “preschool coaching/interview/rat race” competitive preschool experiences, because I don’t think I could do either option without losing my mind.
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for real. recently posted…HerStories: Leslie and MeMy Profile

  3. Very interesting Jessica and having 2 pre-school agree kids gave me tons of food for thought here. So I truly thank you for that and need to do a bit more research at this point, because to be honest I am still unsure and so on the fence about so much of this.

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  4. Wow, Jessica. Now I feel kind of embarrassed about my contribution to the Carnival… this was INCREDIBLE.

    I would have never even thought about “homeschooling” for preschool. I think I would’ve just called it, I don’t know, life? Opting out of preschool? Because in my mind, preschool is mostly for social interaction, learning to play with others, etc. I know that most homeschooling parents are really awesome about making their own socialization networks so the kids get those benefits, and I don’t doubt that those schooling the preschool set do the same thing. But I guess I do have a bit of a hard time thinking of it as “schooling” at this age. My preschool (as I explained in my post) is not academically based at all; sometimes that gives me anxiety about whether my kids are going to be at a disadvantage later on. But I think kids are little sponges, and doing things like taking them to museums, playing at the park, doing nature hunts, having playdates – this would be sufficient “homeschooling”.

    This is coming off way more judgmental than I want it to. I think homeschooling is fantastic – it’s something I would even consider, depending on how public school ends up going for my kids. But the whole craze around preschool curriculums – whether they’re being implemented at a toney NYC private preschool or a home in Brooklyn – makes me wonder if we aren’t doing kids a disservice by just letting them be kids.

    Geesh. Who knew that the person who goes around yelling about not judging each other’s choices in infancy had so much latent judgment festering over preschool?
    Fearless Formula Feeder recently posted…Preschool, Shmeeschool: Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting, First EditionMy Profile

  5. Sorry, just reread my comment and realized it was off in a million directions. I know what I was ranting about was pretty much exactly what you were trying to say in this post – and the comment from the homeschooling blogger at the end was fantastic, and what I’d like to imagine homeschool preschool was all about. I think I just went to a dark place in my head imaging a bunch of people holing up in their apartments with their 3-year-olds and following some sort of curriculum…

    This is why one should never respond to blog posts too late at night.
    Fearless Formula Feeder recently posted…Preschool, Shmeeschool: Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting, First EditionMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Oh, I don’t think you’re being judgmental! When you know about good preschools, it’s hard not to be sort of shocked by the idea of making preschool “academically focused” with curricula. But there are a lot of people who are using curriculum packages to “teach” their kids preschool at home. I didn’t know either that there were people who were intentionally following lesson and unit objectives at home. (Like you, I had thought your kid either went to preschool or “stayed home.”) Honestly, even as an educator, I was really surprised too. But to people who know a lot about the homeschooling communities that I talked to, they were well-aware that there’s a vast industry of homeschooling “teaching” packages.
      Jessica recently posted…Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play!My Profile

  6. This contrast between homeschooling preschoolers (and hey, it’s interesting we refer to this age in terms of “school”in the first place!) and traditonal preschool is fascinating. The idea of a preschool curriculum implemented at home might be uncomfortable because it points to some of what the school-based programs might actually be doing wrong – in so far as the program stresses structured lessons, workbooks etc.

    Maybe because of my background in social psychology I see the value of getting kids in group situations (i.e. other kids not necessarily entire classrooms) from an early age and so it was much easier to send them off to school – I have never been good about arranging playdates so I would have failed at providing enough kiddie social interaction.

  7. Barbara TherExtras, PhD says:

    Ditto what Polly said (1st paragraph). (See my comments on her blog, too.)

    The use of a ‘curriculum’ for preschool doesn’t fit my image of a best preschool either. A clear understanding of child development and the variety of how children develop, even in small groups of children of similar chronological age (3 & 4 years old) – is the best basis for an adult managing a ‘preschool’. From that basic science, the adult should be able to prompt each child towards their next step in growth/learning/achievement. That can be done in a home & ideally with an adult who is invested in the child beyond salary and job commitment – someone who is more likely to follow a ‘curriculum’/protocol/recipe.

    Group interaction at ages 3-4 years is a good thing but not necessarily 5 days a week for a full day, I think.

    • Jessica says:

      I agree! It seems like knowledge about child development brings most people to the same conclusions about the role of curriculum and play in preschoolers’ learning.

  8. I will likely home-preschool secondary to financial considerations and I was wondering how to choose good books. We have TONS of books that were given to us, but is there a brand or quality or level of book I can look for that would be best for 3 or 4 year-olds? Thanks!

    • Jessica says:

      I would say at this age go for quantity, just like it sounds like you’re doing. Choose tons of books from the library on topics that interest them. Give them lots of choices and see if they develop “tastes” for certain authors, topics, or styles. I wouldn’t worry at all about leveling at this age. Maybe have a few ABC type books and counting books. And a mix of toddler books and “bigger kid” books.

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  11. HOME says:

    Thanks you so muche for sharing your experience ,there is many parent in the world who see their child sufferring at the preschool and don’t know how to help them .I like what you have written “Children are born learners, and the best learning, especially for preschoolers, doesn’t happen in a classroom. It’s experiential, it’s tactile, it’s relaxed and nurturing and cozy ” .The best way for learning for a little child if the parent have time is with his parents !

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