Homeschooling. Think it’s not for you? Think again. While we tend think of “homeschooling” only as the commitment to educate school-aged kids at home, the truth of the matter is that EVERY child is homeschooled.
How Young Children Learn
What do we know about how babies, toddlers and preschoolers learn? We know that young children learn best when they have a stable and deep emotional connection with the teacher. We know that they learn best in a relaxed and inviting environment. We know that they learn through exploration, play and imitating others.
You know what that sounds like, friends? That sounds like learning at home through play and daily life with family.
Whether your kids are at home with you all day, attend an educational center or have caregivers come into your home, YOU are poised to have the biggest influence on your child’s early education.
In lieu of homeschool curriculums and planners, kindergarten readiness activities, early literacy crafts and things that can easily feel overwhelming or better fit for “teacher types," I propose 10 basic ways to make the most of your role as your kiddo’s first teacher. And while it’s easiest to read these through the lens of parenting a toddler or preschooler, ALL of them are easily applied to babies!
Embracing Your Role As Your Child's First Teacher
1. Establish Rhythms, Routines and Rituals
Young children thrive and parents feel less stressed with rhythm and routine in their days. Does this mean sticking to a strict schedule or over-planning your days? Oh good grief no! It simply means being intentional about how your days flow (or the portions of your days when you’re with your babes).
Wake-ups, bedtimes and mealtimes are the most naturally occurring times for routines in the home. Additionally, letting similar play activities occur at similar times of the day help establish daily rhythms - times for music, for outside play or walks, for independent playtime, for active play, for outings. Even the way you use the spaces in your home can establish a sense of routine and structure - consider using different rooms or play areas at predictable times of day.
You don’t have to be at home all day with your little ones to make rhythms, routines and rituals a priority. Maybe you have a special song you dance to in the car after daycare pickup. Maybe your little one picks out your coffee mug every morning. Perhaps you take a walk as a family before bedtime. Because he has to wait patiently in the car as I unload his baby sister, my toddler gets a special silly walk from me every time I come to get him from the car in the driveway.
For toddlers and preschoolers, explore weekly rhythms and routines. In our home, Monday is Trash Day - the day to roll the cans out to the curb with Daddy when he gets home from work. My husband established a Firetruck Friday ritual - a day for our toddler to sport a piece of firetruck apparel from his extensive collection.
2. Embrace Repetition
Kiddos learn through repeated experiences. Don’t feel like every day needs new books, new toys, new activities, new outings. Ever notice how your child wants to read the same books over and over and over? That’s because she loves repetition - she's learning from it!
Look for opportunities to repeat experiences and words. Something as simple as saying the name of your street each time you turn your car onto it is a little lesson. Stop the stroller on your walks to look at, talk about or even touch the same things (certain plants, a neighbor’s dog behind the fence, a stop sign).
3. Talk. A Lot.
Be the crazy person in the grocery store narrating everything. Even if your baby can’t yet talk back. Those little ears are listening. Learn more from a speech therapist Alison at Chirpy Chatterbox.
4. Connect The Dots
Draw connections for your child between their experiences. Did he see a child crying at the park? Help him soothe a crying babydoll at home. Point out crying babies in magazines and books. Talk about reasons people cry and things that make us feel better. Reading a book about fish in the ocean? Toss a few fish toys in the bathtub at bath time, draw fish on paper for your kiddo or do a silly fish dance to music (come on, you know you’ve got a killer fish face!).
5. Follow Your Child's Lead
Young kids are so incredibly curious. Notice what’s capturing your little one’s interests and find ways to expand on it - through books, through toys, through pretend play, through art, through songs, through outings.
Even before my kiddo could talk, I would notice what he liked to look at and run with that interest. In the springtime he was about 9 months old and I noticed him looking at flowers so we visited a garden center nursery and I bought fresh cut flowers to put on the table near his high chair.
6. Slow Down. Way Down.
You can match socks and get the laundry put away in 6 minutes or you can spend 15 letting your young toddler help sort the piles by family member or letting your preschooler match socks. You can make your coffee in 2 minutes or you can spend an extra moment bringing your baby close to smell the ground beans.
You won’t always be able to slow down, life won’t allow it. But look for the times when you can. Ask yourself, do I have to rush now or can I take the time to involve my kiddo?
7. Embrace The Ordinary
Everyday life offers some of the best learning opportunities for your little one, so don’t feel like you have to be crazy creative or over-the-top extraordinary in order to be teaching. Sure, your kiddo could learn to count to 5 using some adorable frog worksheet or clothespins you decorated to look like numbered petals that clip to a flower stem (thanks, Pinterest!). But seriously, friends, counting the back porch steps every time you leave the house works just as well.
If you love being crafty and prepping cute activities, go for it. But don’t sweat it if a giant felt Chicka Chicka Boom Boom coconut tree isn’t your style.
8. Think Outside The (Toy) Box
Don’t think for one minute that you need a boat-load of fancy toys to teach your child (or keep them busy). A big cardboard box can offer dozens of play activities in which your kiddo is learning. Pots, pans and wooden spoons on your kitchen floor are educational. The mirror you prop near baby is a great teaching tool. I filled two books full of play activities for the first year of life with very few actual toys needed!
9. More Play. Less Tech.
I’m not here to judge or shame you if you use screens with your young kiddos. But here’s the thing that as a pediatric OT I wish parents understood about tech: learning through technology is NOT necessary and is NOT superior to learning through play. I think we somehow erroneously ascribe more intellectual demands to tech activities. And we’ve become convinced that screens are an essential part of early learning. (We’ve also become convinced of the untruths that screens are necessary for taking young children out in public and for entertaining young children so we can get things done at home, but that’s another post for another day.)
Children’s brains are designed to learn through multi-sensory, three dimensional, real-world experiences. Using a finger to drag puzzle pieces into their spots on an iPad screen does NOT offer the same learning as placing an actual puzzle piece in a wooden puzzle. Is it better than staring at a wall? Yes. Is it better than playing with toys, running around outside, finding all the things on a list at the grocery store or playing I-Spy in the doctor’s waiting room? Nope - not even close.
I can’t tell you how many parents ask me what are the best apps for teaching handwriting. Crayola….as in, crayons. What’s are the best apps for learning letters? The signs in your neighborhood, a letter puzzle, the magazines in the grocery checkout aisle. And the best learning app of all?! YOU.
More play, less tech also applies to us as parents. Which brings me to the next tip...
10. Get Down On The Floor
Joining your child in whatever play he’s engaged in is an awesome way to teach. It doesn’t necessarily mean adding number, letter or color concepts to the activity. Just by watching you play and hearing you talk your child is learning. Tap back into your silly, imaginative, carefree younger self. Let go of your to do list and any educational agenda and just be fully present in your child's world for a few moments a day.
Sometimes getting on the floor means Tummy Time face to face with your baby while singing Bohemian Rhapsody. Sometimes it means filling dump trucks with mulch in the back yard while wearing a bicycle helmet as your hard hat. Sometimes it means rolling down a hill with your preschooler until you're nauseous. It takes just a few moments of your time to join the fun and get close enough for your child to learn from you.
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