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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

My Ideal Early Learning Program

At times I have been asked by some parents to consider hosting a kinder or preschool in my home.  I couldn't fit that in with what I was doing. but mainly,what those asking wanted was a formal program with a focus on academics.  And that's not what I could, in good conscience, do.

I have written a lot on the importance of free play (and outside play, especially) for little kids, and less formal learning of things that don’t matter to them yet- writing ABC, how to hold a pencil, and so on.
Don't misunderstand- I do think early childhood learning is important. But the early childhood learning that matters most is the right kind of play.  During these early years, they are building an important framework for later conceptual understanding. The kid who understands the scientific concept of erosion best at 10 is the kid who at four was building sand castles and watching the waves knock them down, who was making holes in the yard while playing with the hose, who was digging out streams and making dams on stream banks and again with the hose in the backyard, or who at least has poured some coke over his bowl of ice-cream and watched the ice-cream mound collapse.

The kid who has the deepest conceptual understanding of geography later is the kid who from 1-6 was outside in the mud creating mini-geographical worlds- lakes, islands, inlets, peninsulas, streams, rivers, seas- who was digging out cities and villages in the sandbox or the driveway. The kid with the strongest working concepts of pulleys and levers and friction is the kid who spent his preschool years not doing worksheets, but instead was actually discovering friction by pushing wheeled and nonwheeled toys on sidewalks, grassy yards, gravel drives, carpet, tile floors, who learned about levers by playing on see-saws and using sticks to pry rocks out of the dirt and flip them over to look for bugs, who figured out how to lift objects (or siblings) by tossing one end of a rope over a tree branch and attaching the other to the object (or tying it around the sibling's waist) and so on.

The child who has had to experience a bit of boredom, come up with his own ideas, collect the material for those ideas, and do something is a child ahead of the game when it comes to later school projects, organization, and executive function.

The child who has spontaneously decided to move bricks, stones, sticks and buckets of water has a better conceptual understanding of energy, work, load, and gravity later.

Free play, messy play, play with real things and materials in the real world results in a wider, deeper understanding of how the world works.
There is research supporting this, and I have posted some links below, as well as real life experiences. I talked to a science teacher here in the Philippines whose students used to come from homes with no or little electricity, whose play involved a lot of sticks, stones, mud, water, games with their slippers as tokens, cans and bottles, puddles and trees.  When they came to school they quickly grasped the science concepts she taught because these terms and concepts only gave formal names to real world forces and functions that the children already know and understood first hand.

She said now her students spend their days playing educational games on screens, watching educational television, doing worksheets. These kids come to school and they can parrot facts, but they have no idea how to apply them, it's just data they can recite but these facts don’t really mean anything to them at all except as a sort of pen and paper guessing game.  When she tries to walk them through the application of ideas in the real world, they are at a loss. They don't spot problems that the previous students could easily foresee because the puzzles, building, and science 'application' they have done has been on screen, and not in the real world where it rains on your project, your hands slip on the rope pulley you built, the mud you made had too much sand and not enough clay for good mud pies, the mixture you concocted in the kitchen had salt instead of sugar, or you didn't calculate the force of the water coming out of the spigot when you tried to add a bit of water to your already nearly full bucket.  It's like the difference between bowling on the Wi, and bowling at the bowling alley with an 9 lb ball in your hands.
Researchers in England found that on average school children are reaching Piaget’s stages of cognitive development 3 years later than kids of 30 years ago were, and their guess is it is the lack of free play and the freedom to muck about and make messes and get dirty and have free time and empty space in their days for thinking, dreaming, wondering, and processing their experiences.
I feel very strongly about the need for more outdoor, real play and how much more important this is than screens and school at home.  It is more than a bit of a hobby horse of mine, and it really frustrates me and breaks my heart for the kids who are being given stones for bread. This kind of free play, including the risks of bumps, scrapes, bruises, falls and scraped knees, is their birthright. It can’t be replaced.

If you don’t learn the alphabet at 2, if you don't read Laura Ingalls Wilder at 4, if you don't write words at 5, it won’t make a lick of difference if you learn those things and read until six or eight. You will have lost nothing. If you don’t get plenty of free time making messes, getting dirty, experimenting with the real world, singing the songs of childhood, listening to oral stories (this builds the child’s ability to picture things in his mind based on words, which is vitally important for real progress in understanding reading later), etc, before 6, you’ve lost a lot of the important opportunities to build that foundation. And that's the problem with early academics- not that academics are wrong, but they are not the foundation. They are the doors and windows- important, but they have to be set in the right order. You don't put up the door before you have a floor and foundation.
We’re trying to build walls and put in the carpeting without taking the time to build the foundation, floors, and framework. We’re all about instant food for the mind, pellets of factoids that kids just recite without knowing what they are talking about, instead of nourishing food for the brain, which requires slow steeping, marinating, simmering, time to digest, and more.

My ideal preschool/kindergarten would include:

LOTS of free play outside and the freedom to become absolutely covered in dirt and mud from head to toe. Running, jumping, climbing, rolling, skipping, kicking, hopping, crawling, swimming, splashing, marching, and falling down, which is an important part of life. 

Time spent being bored and coming up with their own ideas. 
LOTS of oral story telling- Bible stories, basic folk tales, fairy tales, and fables. Stories of when Mom and Dad or Grandparents were little.  This is not the same as listening to audio books.  This is interactive, personal, and the story-teller knows when to add details and when to speed up to the end, when to elaborate on the colours of the dress and the size of the beans and when to elaborate on the sharp edge of the sword and the gleam of armour. 

Mother Goose- The Mother Goose rhymes are the first introduction to word families, to rhythm and metre and play with words and making up your own poems based on others.  

Singing- hymns and folk songs. Pop songs not so much. Singing- not listening, not watching, but singing.  You can sit down for five or ten minutes a day when everybody is tired or grouchy and sing.You can also sing while working, playing, washing dishes, digging holes, driving places. I have a playlist here if you need ideas.

Traditional games- most of my kids learned to count playing hide ‘n seek. Tag, hide the thimble, hopscotch, throwing things at targets (this one apparently is connected to developing good executive function), hopping, skipping, Mother May I and Simon Says type games.  Throwing balls and beanbags. Playing catch.

Trips to the grocery store, the park, the pond, church, the department store, to the courthouse to pay taxes to the bank to make deposits, to the DMV to renew a license and to the library, talking about where you’re going, what the people who work there do and why, and how to behave in public.  Although I know that Americans are reveling in the joy of grocery delivery and curbside pick up, once in a while go ahead and take the kids to the grocery store.  Let them help to fill the bags of fruits and vegetables, count apples, have fun finding red things, yellow things, looking for the letter c, weighing the carrots, comparing the weight of an eggplant and a winter squash of the same size. Updated to add: Maybe do not do this in a pandemic.

A few chores- mine mostly also learned colours two ways- helping with laundry folding, and being bribed with gummy bears when they were toilet training.  Having a pet is a wonderful way to combine responsibility with nature study and compassion lessons in real life. Other chores the under 5 can do: Set the table, clear the table,wipe chairs, lightswitches, cupboard doors, water plants (give them a small creamer or measuring cup that holds just the amount of water you want in a plant and have them water that plant with that much water once a week), dry cups. They can learn to peel carrots, put lunch meat, cheese and lettuce and tomato slices on sandwiches.  They can throw things away for you, and help carry out small bags of trash or compost. They can fold washcloths and dishtowels.  They can dance and sing to entertain a baby while you take a few moments to make tea or run to the bathroom.
Self-care- the value of tidiness, having a clean face, teeth brushing, hair brushing, clean nails, healthy eating, regular rest.

Some basic habit building- the most important being respect for parental authority, putting things away, and make all the messes you want but you have to help clean it up afterward. Respect for property- yours and others.  Consideration- don’t make other people’s lives more difficult and unpleasant than they need to be.

A few free style art projects- painting, playdough, helping to knead bread dough and make it into shapes, finger paint, maybe weaving, corking, lap looms, stringing beads. Not so much time on kits. 

Collecting things like rocks, seashells, stones, acorns, pine-cones, leaves- sorting them (the best kind of early science)
A few favourite classic picture books, but far more oral story telling
Daily Bible stories- I have some suggestions for stories for oral tellings here, and it includes Bible stories.
Traditional preschool topics- counting, shapes, colours should be learned naturally in your home as you go along- square sandwiches, round carrot slices, red socks, blue socks, six raisins on a celery peanut butter log, triangle slices of cheese, star shaped cookies or decorations for a Christmas tree, playing with parquetry blocks. Give them some regular playing cards to sort and match, first by colour, later by shape, then by number.  As you play with blocks of different shapes and colours these things should come up in natural conversations.
Toys: Open-ended, blocks, dolls, dishes, balls, a few smallish toy animals, a yard or two of fabric, a bath towel or two.  Bath towels make great flying carpets and super hero capes.   I have had some fabric yardage in our dress up box for over 20 years and it has been the favourite of two generations of children now.  Look for novelty fabrics and fancy silks after October 31 when they will be on sale. Look for sparkle, shimmer, and shine. 
Plenty of hugs and kisses and snuggles.

To schedule these:  Look at the rhythm of your day as it works more than a schedule.  Figure out what they can help you do at breakfast and assign those chores.  Think about telling stories while you fold or hang up the laundry+ Look at your house and where you live and do what you can do in the circumstances you are in.  Apartment dwellers in city high rises will have different limitations and opportunities than a family living in a farmhouse ten miles from the nearest neighbours.

Fit things in around natural breaks in the day- getting up, eating, cleaning up after a meal, getting ready for bed.  If you have to go outside with the children, and maybe take a train, bus, or car trip to make that happen, how and when can you make that work for you?

What is your best plan for a simple portable lunch?  Boiled eggs, kimbap, sandwiches, triangle rice (onigiri), fruit, crackers and hummus, or well-wrapped steamed potatoes and a thermos of hot chocolate or tea?  Can you make a double helping of supper some night, or use a crockpot or rice cooker so that you already have supper taken care of before you leave the house in the morning for the beach or river?   Or maybe mornings work best for getting outside for you.  In that case, plan an easy breakfast that you could eat on the way or take outside.  Leftovers from supper are fine.

When is a good part of the day to get the kids busy with drawing, painting, working with dough (whether it's bread dough, play dough, home-made dough, beeswax, weaving, cutting, pasting---- a time they are most often bored and fractious?  You could head off the fractious by pulling out the art materials at around that time each day.

Learn a folk song and a hymn yourself, if you don't already know some.  Start the day by singing a hymn. Wake them up to a hymn. Sing to yourself as you work and drive and they will join in.

What is one job you really *have* to get done each day no matter what?  Plan to sit down and read a book together when you've finished that task.

These are suggestions, not how you might arrange your day, but there is not one right and true best way to do this- your house, your life, your personalities, your priorities will be different from somebody else's.  What matters is that you give your children the gift of free time, free space, outdoor play, story, song, poetry, and lots and lots of love.

Some background information:  Reading Too Soon-  (this website is no longer in existence).
There is a widely held belief in this country (and many others) that if we start teaching children to read, write, and spell in preschool and kindergarten that they will be ahead of the game (and their peers) by first grade. We think that pushing our kids to start early will make them better and give them the edge.
But it doesn’t work that way, in fact it can be detrimental. 
Here’s why…
Children’s neurological pathways for reading, writing, and spelling are not formed yet at these young ages, therefore they are not equipped. In child development you can not miss, shortcut, or rush steps, it just doesn’t work.
Between 3 and 7 years old, predominantly the right side of the brain is developing. The right side of the brain is not where word reading takes place. The right side sees pictures and shapes and uses mental imagery to create the movie in their mind to understand the story.  The left side of the brain is where we read words, it is responsible for decoding words into letters and phonetically sounding them out. This is true word reading. It is not until about age 7 that the corpus callosum fully connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain to make reading complete for kids.”
I've created the following items for sale.  When creating these things,  my constant thought was 'What might readers like to know or think about? What will help our Charlotte Mason parents and families?  What will give them something to think about, something to love, something to grow on?'  I hope you can tell. 

$5.00- Education for All, vol 2- the Imagination (and more) issue!- transcript of the imagination talk from the AO Camp meeting, with additional material I had to cut to save time.  
 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal,   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science. See sidebar for purchasing options if you are in the Philippines.

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.

  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

Picture Study!  Miguel Cabrera's beautiful, diverse families, painted in 18th century Mexico this package includes 9 downloadable prints along with directions for picture study and background information on the artist and his work. $5.00

Common Kitchen:  What's for lunch?  Isn't that a common problem in homeschooling families?  What to fix, what is quick, what is frugal, what is nourishing?  How can I accomplish all those things at once?  We homeschooled 7 children, and I was a homeschooling mom for 29 years on a single income.  I collected these recipes and snack ideas from all over the world.  These are real foods I used to feed my family, my godsons, and sometimes my grandkids.  Includes some cooking tips and suggestions for sides, and for a variety of substitutions.  I think every family will find something they can use here. $5.00


  1. You can use the Wayback Machine to see that blog that's been taken down:

    1. Interesting. I tried that when I wrote this and they didn't have it. Thanks!

  2. Any chance you can direct me to the English research on piaget delay?

  3. Michael Shayer is the name of one of the researchers. You can read more here: