By the time my first-born child was three years old, he could identify every letter of the alphabet. He could count to twenty. He knew his colors and shapes. He was brilliant, I tell you.
Three months after his third birthday, my mother babysat him and his younger brother while I went off to the hospital to have my first daughter. While my husband and I were gone, my mother taught him how to write his name. I was sure he destined for a future of grandiose intellectual achievements.
That fall, he attended preschool at our church. Where we lived at the time, everybody sent their kiddies off to preschool, and the church’s preschool was almost a requirement if you wanted your child to get into the church’s elementary school. But sometime during his second year there, we decided to homeschool instead of enrolling him in the parochial school. I considered enrolling Billy that fall so he could have a preschool experience too, but wisely decided that any possible benefits outweighed all the drawbacks.
And so I began homeschooling my kindergarten and my preschooler.
It was an easy year. Fritz’s kindergarten program took, at best, about an hour or an hour and a half to do. And Billy had no desire for formal schooling of any kind!
There were times I felt a twinge of guilt that he didn’t seem to know his alphabet or his shapes as well as his older brother. I thought I wasn’t giving him enough one-on-one time. Then I asked myself: how did Fritz learn all that stuff? Mainly by reading books with me. From the time he was a baby, he didn’t want to listen to the story, so we looked at the pictures. Do you see a triangle? I would ask. Do you see a brown dog? Do you see a purple dog? Oh, no! How silly!
But I read books to Billy too. I asked the same kinds of questions. Billy was just a different kid, and our family was not the same family: Fritz did not have an older brother who would set up train tracks or build couch-cushion forts. Billy had a lot more playing to do than Fritz did.
The following year, my oldest was in first grade and I had two preschoolers. This was a challenging year! Katie was different than Billy, and she wanted to be kept busy. She wanted her own notebooks. She wanted her own “homework.” And I just wanted her to go and play. The year after that, when I had two who were officially school-aged, was even worse. She demanded more and more time in the classroom, and I demanded more and more time with her out of the classroom.
For her, I finally bought a bunch of preschool workbooks and would give her 4 or 5 pages every day. Sometimes, I would just hand her construction paper and scissors and tell her to make squares or circles. As often as possible, I tried to include her in the lessons for the boys. I assigned her a poem to memorize like the boys. I read the Bible stories to her and had her draw pictures to go with them. I had her doing the phonics based reading lessons until they became too hard, and had her doing the art lessons centered around the letters of the alphabet.
This year, I’m even busier with “real” school as I do third, first and kindergarten. My fourth child is now preschool-aged. And I just want her to go play. She does have some workbooks. She’s learning how to use scissors. And we have puzzles, math manipulatives and lots of books to keep her busy. Reading time is now usually only an hour before bedtime shared by all five kids (although Pete doesn’t really want me to read the book, he just wants to sit on my lap for a minute pretending that I’m reading to him and then he sits on the floor and proceeds through the book at a pace that suits him).
She can’t recognize all the letters of the alphabet, and she’s over 3! And she hasn’t yet mastered making the letter J for Jenny – not exactly a difficult letter to copy. Yes, there are times I feel she may be getting short-changed. But I know it will even out in the end. Billy picked up on his phonics lessons much faster than Fritz did, perhaps because he had heard the lessons already when I did them with Fritz. Katie seems to be doing well on the lessons that I did with Billy only a year ago. And all of the kids are benefiting from listening to the history and science lessons I give to Fritz (and Fritz benefits from listening to a review of the lessons I give to the younger kids).
Preschool isn’t about formal lessons, even if the child is demanding them. The important things they learn at this age are learned through everyday living and interactions. Jenny really wanted to help me in the kitchen the other day. I was slicing onions and could not have her do that. So she kept me company in her usual spot on the other side of the kitchen counter on a kitchen chair. She played with the drinking straws and hid them. She asked me where they were. She found one, and counted one. She found another and counted two. She found another and counted three. I played along, reinforcing her counting, asking her if she had found them all, feigning ignorance over where she had hidden the others.
This is preschool. This is learning in a fun way, using a game of the child’s design. The workbooks, the scissors, the pattern blocks – these are all busy work to help me get formal lessons done with the other children. Her education is really happening in the kitchen, or the car, or the backyard.