Home Schooling 101: The Early Years

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“Do you have any suggestions for our kinder year?”
“What books should we be reading?”
“How much math should we be doing?”
“What should our days look like?”
“Is that all there is in Year 0?”
“What curriculum should I order?”
“What are we supposed to do all day?”
“Where do I begin?”

I get these kind of questions from new home schooling mamas often.
They’re excited to start homeschooling.
It looks amazing!
Especially when they’ve been following all those beautiful home schooling feeds on Instagram.
It looks so romantic and idyllic.
It looks so magical and creative.
It looks like everything that childhood and education should be.

But as inspiring as those images are, any one new to home schooling could easily come away from them feeling a little, or a lot, lost.
Because, what those lovely images don’t provide are the nitty gritty details of what to do with your 5 year old everyday.
Outside of nature walks, tea parties, and reading books, that is.

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So I thought I’d do my best to provide some helpful details and encouragement for those of you just starting out.
I don’t claim to be an expert on schooling any kids (even my own).
And the ideas I share are shaped by my belief that the early years of education should be heavy on play and making learning fun, and light on academics.
And they should, in fact, include plenty of nature walks, tea parties, and reading books.
But if you are ok with all that, let’s get started!

Now I know you’d like me to give you a list of activities to do with your child, and a list of books to read. And maybe post a sample schedule or two.
You think that’s all you need to get going on this journey.
But I’m not starting there.
Sorry. (not sorry)

Instead, I’d like you to sit back for a minute and stop worrying about curriculum and schedules and activities.
Instead, think about why you are home schooling.
Not how you will you home school.
But why.
If you haven’t done it already, spend some time now developing your philosophy of education.
(I talk about that here.)

Next think about these early years.
What is the purpose of education in the early years?
What are the most valuable things for a child to gain at the start of their education?
And what goals do you have for your child as they begin their school career?

For me, the answer is less about learning to read by age 6, knowing their colors, and being able to do simple addition and subtraction.
My goal is something less concrete.
But it is something that will set the stage for the rest of their educational career.
For the rest of their life, in fact.
It is something like this:

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You see, I want to start my children off by falling in love with learning.
I want to light the fire in their minds and hearts.
I want them to give them a yearning for learning.

So for me, the early years are all about making learning beautiful, exciting, rich, and even fun.
Yes, fun.
I’m not sure why, but there is this idea that school shouldn’t be fun.
Or at least not too fun.
Because school should be work.
And work is not fun.

But I think we are doing a great disservice to our children when we embrace that idea.
Because learning can, and should be fun.
It should be a joy!
This quote by Plato says it so beautifully, “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to discover the child’s natural bent.”

So, yes, the early years of learning should be full of fun.
They should be rich with play.
Play time is not wasted time.
Play time is when children learn.
“We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively — they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent.”
This quote, from author and child development expert, Nancy Carlsson-Paarticle, supports what I know to be true based on memories of my own early education, of watching my own children learn, and the simple, yet profound intuition found in my own heart.
I am my children’s mother, and I know how they learn best.

In America, play time is becoming less and less a part of the academic day.
It used to be that kindergarten was largely about play time.
Now, even some pre-schools are limiting play time for their 3 and 4 year old students.
This is a tragedy for young learners.
“Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal – as much as walking and talking. Play is the way children build ideas and how they make sense of their experience and feel safe. Just look at all the math concepts at work in the intricate buildings of kindergartners. Or watch a 4-year-old put on a cape and pretend to be a superhero after witnessing some scary event. But play is disappearing from classrooms. Even though we know play is learning for young kids, we are seeing it shoved aside to make room for academic instruction and “rigor.”” (Nancy Carlsson–Paarticle0

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I’ve spent a good amount of time researching the value of play in early education and am greatly inspired by the schools in the Denmark and Finland.
Formal academics there don’t begin until age 7.
In Finland, the early childhood education program actually writes “joy” and “play” into the curriculum as a learning concepts. (Taught By Finland)
They subscribe to an old Finnish saying, “those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”
This is the kind of motto I want to embrace as I teach my own children.

Yet, how often have I struggled with feeling that my children were behind their peers academically.
And of course I then felt I was doing a poor job educating them.
I must constantly remind myself that there are a host of things my children are doing well, and even excelling at.
I must remember that giving them a joyful attitude toward learning, especially in the early years, is as worthy a goal as is achieving academic excellence.

The reality is that because I place such a high value on play in the early years of schooling, things at my house are going to look quite a bit different than at the traditional elementary school in my neighborhood.
I have to be ok with that.
I have to be ok with late reading, and messy handwriting, and children who are not up to grade level in all subjects.
I love this quote by Karen Andreola, “Let us be faithful teachers. No matter what the pace, children need to know they can accomplish the tasks set before them. Meeting grade level requirements in the early years is not as important as steadfast effort.”

Of course I do require my children do their school work.
But I also allow them more time with a concept or subject if they need it.
I allow playing with Legos while I read aloud to them from a book.
I consider a nature walk our science class for the day.
I must remember my end goal of education is to create life long learners.
And that happens when children are taught to love learning in the early years.

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As you enter these early years of educating your child, remember its about so much more than your daily schedule or learning those ABCs.
Its about instilling a love for learning, and making that happen with play time and good books and time spent exploring out of doors.
Now is your chance to give them the world!

And thats enough educational philosophy talk, right?
Here’s that list you’ve been waiting for!
These are simple suggestions that you can start using tomorrow if you’d like.
I’d create a loose schedule or rhythm for your days and week, and think about what things you’d like most to incorporate into your days.
Start slow and start small.
They are little, they don’t need a packed schedule.
Remember to let them have fun and to let them play.
Make school time joyful!

To start your day:
I like to begin with the Bible, singing a hymn and poetry.

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Some of our favorites for Bible time are:
‘Read Aloud Bible Stories’ by Ella K. Lindvall for your youngest ones
“The Jesus Storybook Bible’ for your littles to adults
“Leading Little Ones to God’ by Marian Schooland for devotion time with the younger elementary set.

For hymn singing, we sing the same hymn for a whole month, and then pick a new one.
You can find them on the internet, or find a hymnal at a used bookstore or Christian book store.

Some of my favorite poetry resources are:
“A Light In the Attic” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein for poems that will make you giggle
“When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six” by A.A. Milne for more poems that will make you giggle
“A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson is a must for your library.
Ambleside online has a marvelous collection of poems arranged by month I printed them all out and we read them all year long, over and over. Find them here

You can add poetry memorization and scripture memorization to this part of the day
Just remember to keep the whole thing pretty short.
Little ones don’t need long lessons.

Creating a literary culture in your home:
It is incredibly important that you give your children a love for books from the very start.
Read every single day, all day, and make reading fun.

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Have a plethora of good picture books for them to read to themselves before they can read words.
You can find those at used books sales, library book stores, garage sales.
Find an excellent book list of picture books here.

Don’t be afraid to read longer books to them, even when they are young, but provide ways to help them focus while they listen.
Let them draw, play with legos or blocks quietly, or make it tea time and let them eat snacks and sip tea.
Just a few of our favorite longer, read aloud, books are: “The Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the “Ramona” books by Beverly Cleary, “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien, “The Chronicles of Narnia” series by CS Lewis, “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink, “A Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George, “Charlotte’s Web” by EB White and “A Cricket In Times Square” by George Seldon.
More wonderful titles of read aloud books for the early years can be found here and here.
(look under “Free Reading”

Take them to story time at the library.
Check out heaps of books at the library each week–make it a special day.
Just remember to return them!
Visit libraries with beautiful children’s sections and soak in the loveliness devoted to books.

Visit book stores and spend time reading new books.

Listen to audio books often.
When you are too tired to read aloud without falling asleep, or need to make dinner let them listen to audio books.
Listen to audio books in the car.
You’ll be amazed at their capacity to listen to challenging books this way.
Good narrators are the key to holding your child’s attention for longer, more complicated stories.
You can find some quality, free audio books on Librivox here (just make sure you preview the narrator and choose books with only one narrator instead of multiple narrators )
Or invest in an Audible membership.
It has been an invaluable resource for our family.

Learning Activities:
There are so many activities you can do every day with your child that have nothing to do with work sheets or sit down lessons.
And yet, they will be learning so much.

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Here are a few of our favorites in the kitchen:
Cooking
Baking (and sharing baked goods with neighbors and friends)
Making home made play dough
Reading cookbooks for inspiration and trying new recipes
Learning to unload the dishwasher
Learning to wash dishes by hand
Learning to set the table
Making grocery lists
Sprouting beans, potatoes and avocado seeds

Favorite activities around the home:
Playing with blocks–building towers and roads and cities
Playing with Legos
Drawing
Painting
Sculpting with Clay
Cutting and glueing
Stringing beads, noodles, or cereal
Creating a nature notebook to record the discoveries we make while out in nature
Draw maps of the house and neighborhood
Making dioramas
Making forts
Playing dress up
Playing store, family, restaurant, post office, farmers market–the options are endless
Writing letters to family and friends
Singing–we learn the days of the week, the months of the year, our phone number and address, and many bible verses by singing them. Music is a great tool for memorization
Learning to care for the home–dusting, washing windows, cleaning baseboards and door frames, sweeping, and washing floors. Young kids love chores!

Favorite activities outside the home:
Building forts
Hammering and nailing
Drawing with chalk (full disclosure–my kids love chalk, I don’t. So messy, so…chalk dusty)
Riding bikes, scooters, skateboards, and skates–physical activity and developing coordination is so important
Climbing trees
Nature walks –now is the time to train your children to hike. Start slow and build up their endurance as they grow stronger. You’ll be giving them a life long gift!
Field trips–go on at least one a week. Make it a priority to make the world your classroom
Visiting nature centers, the beach, wetlands, wilderness parks, mountain trails, desert trails and anywhere else where they can run, climb, and see birds, plants, trees and animals.
Visiting museums of all sorts
Collecting rocks, sticks, bugs, wild flowers, and anything else they find out in nature
Use their grocery list to shop at the store
Try new foods at the farmers market
Find different kinds of architecture around your town and visit it
Draw in nature, at the art museum, or at a cafe
Plant a garden or just some seeds in a pot
And I’m sure there are so many more things you can do with your kids in the first years of school.
But I hope this is a good place to start!

One last thing.
Please remember that one of the best things about home schooling is that education can be tailored to fit each child.
That means if you have a child who is ready to read early, you teach him!
And if he just wants you to read aloud to him because he isn’t ready to do it himself, you read aloud to him!
There are kids who love worksheets and you should let them do some.
Others would rather die than fill our worksheets.
So have them practice writing in ways that isn’t so painful for them–draw in the sand, or steam up the mirror in the bathroom and write their name.
In the end it is up to you to know your child and what lights that fire of learning in his heart.
Be the match and get that fire going!
Cheers to the early years!

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8 thoughts on “Home Schooling 101: The Early Years

  1. Kathy Thill

    Really appreciate your perspective. Excellent, it will take you far! As a first generation homeschool mama, I found my way through with flexibility, grit, great joy and sometimes shed tears. There was no huge selection of curriculum, no maze of homeschool education options, it wasn’t legal or accepted then. Yet, with the power of hindsight, I would do it again, I would not do it any other way.

    It was a true gift to our family, bonding us together, allowing us the gift of many memories we now hold dear. Trips to view, walk on, and learn from places we would only read about in history books. Gettysburg. Supreme Court in Washington DC. Holocaust Museum. The Grand Canyon. Plymouth, Mass. Williamsburg. The Liberty Bell. The Gold Rush country in California. They each started and ran their own businesses at one point. Hands on learning is the BEST.

    We learned TOGETHER. Daddy learned, I learned, even as the children learned. We were growing a family, together. I did some things right, some in the wrong way, learning as I went along. Isn’t that what LIFE is about? We grow in understanding, wisdom and stature even as our children do,

    I now have married children and precious grandchildren. Their parents plan to homeschool, some have even begun. It’s an honor & privilege to see these once little ones now raising and teaching their own.

    If I could offer one tidbit of advice: Focus on character and developing wisdom, rather than filling them with knowledge alone. Choose a character quality which you unwrap together for several weeks or a month. This adds depth, passion, and dimension to their lives, even as they watch you practice it alongside them. Stay flexible. Be humble. Ask forgiveness. Be consistent. Continue to be a life-long learner and your children will, too! God bless! You’re doing amazing jobs, mamas & papas!

    Reply
    1. greta Post author

      This is all so wonderful to hear. Thank you so very much for your advice and for sharing your story.
      I love hearing from people who have finished thier home school journey and have such good things to say about it. I appreciate your wisdom. Thank you!

      Reply
  2. ariel

    Thank you for posting this! I am excited for this series. My son is only two, and while we are considering it, we aren’t sure about homeschooling yet. BUT I have been wanting to be more intentional with our time, and this helps!

    Reply
  3. Britany Schmiel

    Hi, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam remarks? If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it?s driving me mad so any assistance is very much appreciated.

    Reply
    1. greta Post author

      The spam is out of control! I’m sure there is a way to control it, but I have no idea what that is. I just ignore it. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

      Reply
  4. Raimie Harrison

    Amen! These are the words and ideas I want every new home-Ed mama to read and think on! I have to every day not to get stuck in the trap of anxiety and “what if I’m not doing enough?!”. Xoxoxo

    Reply
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