Monday, 16 July 2012

Homeschooling Hints Part Two - Preschool

This is the second in this series of posts that we are writing about our experience of homeschooling.

Of course, it should not be forgotten that we are parents of only two children.  Naturally this makes a huge difference to the dynamics of teaching children at home - if you have many more children than this, your methods and schedules are going to be very different from ours.  But we did not start out, when our children were wee, thinking that we would only have two children to school.  Papa Bear and I believe that it is God's will, and His alone, that determines how many children we have.  So throughout our childrens' educational years, there was always the anticipation that at some point, we may be schooling a larger number of children than 2.  This was one reason why we chose to use a flexible, multilevel teaching system for much of our core curriculum.  That way, it didn't matter whether we had two children or twelve - they would all be learning from the same materials, regardless of their age or (more importantly) their learning ability.  Our cubs were born extremely close together, which did make it much easier for us, because most of the time, they were at a very similar level academically.  However, their ability to learn, and their way of learning, was very different!  More about that shortly.

We didn't start formally homeschooling until our children were primary school age - between 4 and 5.  There were several key stages that we felt they should have reached before they were ready for formal schooling, and it is these stages that I'm going to be talking about today.

Babies are born programmed to learn.  To begin with, they are learning all about themselves, then, as they get bigger and more mobile, about the world around them.  They learn to communicate very early on too, and also begin to interact with their caregivers and other family members.  For them, this is their education.  As our children grow, their understanding of their environment and their relationships increases.  They learn to communicate in more complex ways - not just by crying, or smiling, but by using words.  Their ability to focus and concentrate increases too.  When they are tiny, they are very easy to distract, but as they get older, they can hold their attention for longer periods.  One thing we noticed quite early on with our children was the differences between female and male - even as tiny babies, in fact, before they were born, there were differences!  But these became very apparent around about the time they became able to walk.  Little Bear, our older child and our girl, crawled for a long time before she was interested in walking.  Cubby, her wee brother, went from sitting, to running, in just about one day!  Our Cubby was a preemie, but by the time he was two, he had almost completely caught up with all his sister's milestones, especially the physical ones.  But his behaviour was quite different!  He was far less interested in sitting still.  Little Bear would quite happily sit on the floor with a jigsaw puzzle or a book, and be occupied for maybe half an hour or more, busying herself with these activities.  She would do the puzzle the right way around first, then turn over all the pieces, and do it upside down so that all she was working from was the shape of the puzzle, not the picture.  Yes, we were amazed when she did this!  She has a very analytical mind, and has always preferred puzzles, numbers and other factual things, to words and imagination.  Cubby was different.  From the beginning, he wanted to be on the move.  He was not interested in jigsaws or books.  He wanted things that "went".  Cars, bikes, planes, boats, if it moved, Cubby was there.  He was the sort of child you could not turn your back on for a second!  We found it fascinating to see how our children were developing so differently.  As I have mostly sisters, and Papa Bear only brothers, to both of us it was a real revelation.

With both our children, we knew that it was important that they were able to sit still and quietly.  They must be able to sit through a Church service without disturbing the rest of the congregation, and they also needed to be able to sit still so that they could get the best benefit from their home education.  How then did we reach this very crucial milestone?

I have spoken before about the importance of setting an example to our children.  Their minds are like wee sponges, soaking up every influence around them.  It is important to remember this, even when they are tiny babies.  All that they see, hear and experience, is feeding their minds and their emotions.  If we don't show them by example how we want them to behave, then we will have a hard task ahead of us, when we want them to do something that they may not naturally be inclined to do.  This is important in many aspects of homeschooling, but never more so than in this first very important step.  If your children are not physically and mentally receptive to sitting and learning, then whatever efforts you make to teach them are going to be wasted - and your work is going to be doubled, trying to mould them into the sort of pupils that they need to be, to benefit from their education.  So right from the beginning, we kept our children with us throughout the services at our Church.  Obviously as babies, there might be times when they were restless and needed feeding or rocking, but we did not get up and move from our seats.  We gave them the example that at Church, you sat in your seat and listened, and participated when everyone else did, but there were no other options.  It got easier to enforce this as they got older.  We did not take toys or food with us to Church once our children were past about 2.  A child of this age can last an hour or a little longer, if you have fed them just before the service begins, and we felt that to start giving them toys to distract them when they were fidgety, was to imply that we acknowledged the Church service was boring for them.  This was not the message we wanted to give, so they were expected to sit silently.  If they did not, then a privelige (such as eating our lunch out, after the Service) was withdrawn.  This has always been our main method of discipline, and for us it has worked very effectively.

Having this approach with the Church service meant that by the time the cubs were around 3 or 4, they were able to sit quietly, without needing distractions, for an hour or so.  I would not expect a child this young to tolerate sitting still for much longer than this.  Certainly, if they are being expected to sit still and to concentrate, an hour is far longer than they could cope with.  Even at a much older age, about 20 minutes is probably the maximum you can hope for any amount of really intense concentration.  And remember that for a 3 year old, learning to colour in a picture without going over the edges, or thread a lacing card, or trace the letters of their name, requires intense concentration.  It might look like fun to us, but it is work, for them!  This concentration will equip them in the early days of learning to be able to understand the basics of their education, and very soon after, it will enable them to begin reading, writing, counting and such.  The finer details of how we reached these stages, I shall not share, as the techniques we used may not work for other people's children.  We tended to use toys such as blocks, shape sorters, magnetic letters and so on, which were visually appealing, rather than merely written materials.

Manual dexterity is another skill that is necessary for effective learning.  A child that struggles to hold a pencil or to use scissors or a ruler, is going to find the basics of formal education more challenging than one that uses these tools confidently.  Of course, everything that a small child plays with is developing this skill.  There are two elements to motor development - the fine motor skills, as described above, and gross motor skills, such as running, kicking a ball, skipping, hopping and so on.  As I have mentioned, with girls, the fine motor skills seem to be developed more acutely first, than the gross ones, and it is the reverse with boys.  Or so it has been for us.  We felt that we needed both our children to be able to manipulate the basic tools they would need for successful learning, before we could reasonably expect them to benefit from their schooling.  They reached this stage between 3 and 4.  Before this age, using toys as described above such as blocks and shape sorters, helped to develop these skills.  Cubby may not have like jigsaws, but he loved Legos, and was able to construct the most incredible buildings and objects, very early on!  Little Bear on the other hand, preferred to line up all the bricks and group them into separate colours or shapes, rather than actually building anything!

All this talk of toys brings me to another topic - one that is quite broad - and that is, the environment and the equipment you will need.  Again, this does depend very much on personal circumstances.  However, one thing that I think is essential, is that you are able to have a designated area where your teaching takes place.  We personally did not feel that it was desirable for our children to be learning, in the same environment where they played, or ate, or slept.  However, we also have not ever had the privelige of living in a large enough home (we have moved house many times, since our children were born) to dedicate a room entirely for the purpose of homeschooling.  Rather, we had to designate a corner (and on some occasions, during our life journey so far, this has been a very small corner) of one room.  Although the obvious choice for many families who homeschool and don't have much room is to use the dining table, we did not ever feel that we wanted to choose this option.  Our reasons for this were that firstly, if we used the table that we also ate at, this would blur the boundaries between teaching, and times when the children were not being taught.  And also, we felt that it would be inconvenient to have to clear the table at lunch time, in order to make room for the midday meal.  Instead, we used small fold-away picnic tables (child sized ones, to begin with) and folding chairs, that were brought out for school time, and tidied away, the rest of the time.  Things that went on the wall were put on boards that could also be placed out of sight, and the books and workboxes that we used were kept in roll-out, stackable drawers which fitted nicely into a cupboard when not in use.  This way the school materials were nicely contained, kept separate from the rest of the room, and the distinction between school time and play time was maintained. 

We did feel that it was important to keep the distractions around the children while they were being taught to a minimum.  There were several ways in which we achieved this. Although some families find the idea of a more unstructured learning approach appealing, this was not something that we ever considered.  We wanted a more formal, timetabled approach.  For this reason, we started working to a simple timetable of chores and activities when the cubs were quite small.  To begin with, they would watch me as I did my chores, then as they got bigger they would join in.  As they did so, they were learning that for much of the day, both grown-ups and children alike work.  We come from a culture where perhaps children are expected to be included in the work of the adults at an earlier age than might be expected by people outside our culture, and in general, children in our culture don't have very many playthings.  Certainly I was always surprised, when visiting the homes of families we had met through Church or in our near neighbourhood, to see how many playthings the children had, in comparison to our own.  Of course, the cubs did have toys - more than enough - but they were kept out of the room where we homeschooled.   And for schooling itself, we really didn't need to use much specialist equipment apart from the actual teaching materials.  Just the basics, such as pens, scissors, rulers, crayons and paper.  Everything else is a bonus, but not essential.  Certainly, children really do not need that many toys.  To them, everything is a toy!  And you can use this fact to encourage your children to enjoy doing chores.  I am not suggesting that you need to make a game out of them, but if you demonstrate to them that at least for some of the day, everyone will be working, no matter their age or ability, then they seem more willing to accept this.  And this of course then translates into a willingness to get on with their schoolwork, when they are a little older, and their learning becomes more formal.  Our routine has not really varied that much over the years.  We have always breakfasted together as a family, and then, when the cubs were preschoolers, we would get on with the chores together.  After finishing these, we would play together, as a reward for having finished our "work".  Then it would be mealtime, and the preparation, eating and tidying up of this.  After that a rest time for everyone, then more play, and then dinnertime!  Nowadays of course, I do the chores alone and the cubs are at college - but that's for another post! 

To summarise this section of our homeschooling series, I would say the following.    The early years of childhood are a preparation for the important task of learning formally which will equip our children to be effective adults, practically, using life skills they have learned with us, academically, through the thorough teaching you have given them, and emotionally, through the development of character qualities that have been formed throughout these experiences.  Central to all of this - and the most important guide of all - is a continuous and earnest knowledge of Scripture, and a deepening personal relationship with God, and understanding therein of how faith builds and develops a family.  Without a solid grounding in the preschool years, all your work thereafter to mould your children in this direction, is going to be very difficult.  This time is a very crucial one in a child's life - the first two years are the most important of all, and certainly before seven, a child's character has pretty much been formed.  So we do need to plan ahead.  Although a preschooler isn't quite ready for formal education yet, there is still much to be done to prepare them for this, and it doesn't have to be done with lots of expensive equipment or detailled planning.  All it does require is time, patience, and most important of all - consistency.  Show that you mean what you say, that you do what you intend, and that you thank God for everything, good and bad - and you will definitely be setting your children on the right path for a successful education!

"Shew me thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths.
Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.
Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness' sake, O Lord.
Good and upright is the Lord: therefore will he teach sinners in the way.
The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way".  (Psalm 25: 4 - 9).