Note: This article is Part I of a series. Part II is coming soon! The follow-up article will include ideas for helping parents include small children while also teaching formal school to older children.
It’s most important to begin this article with the extended note that any time of formal school in the early years is not necessary. This is mostly due to the idea that calling early learning “school” often brings expectations with it and this is what should be most forewarned against. Small children should not have formal expectations placed upon them. The key to toddler and preschooler development is to allow it to unfold as it best fits the child. And while this curriculum has a light program in the works for Pre-Preparatory (Pre-K) and Preparatory (K), it will be specifically designed with a heavy emphasis on helping the teacher grow and develop –helping them to be confident in guiding these early years.
A great deal of this early time in a child’s life is devoted to discipline, a subject that will only be indirectly discussed in this article. Children need discipline, particularly when toddlers and preschool-aged, but this author and this curriculum will not delve into these particulars, leaving this to the parents, who may then turn to their own preferred resources for advice.
Charlotte Mason’s writings and the authors of PNEU articles are reflections of their time. Most children who lived in this time had nurses or nannies –and these nannies were heavily involved in the raising of children, especially in these early years. The nursery was where small children slept and played. It was considered best if the nurses were chosen carefully, since these foundational years are so profoundly important. Mothers should want them to complement their own presence. In “Nursery Games for Children”, Lady Hankey writes that “It is a mistake, in choosing a nurse, to insist on her being clever at amusing the children, endless resource in suggesting games and occupations for them is what is wanted, and a word of encouragement or some assistance when little fingers cannot accomplish their work”. Generally, this lifestyle is not relatable to most homeschooling families today, but you may come across this as you read PNEU articles.
In A Mind in the Light, we would add the level Playroom (2-4) to just before Pre-Preparatory (K4). The latter is followed by Preparatory (K) and then children begin formal school with Year One. Early School will include all of the aforementioned levels as well as Year One, so all ages up to and potentially through age 7. Please remember that the ages corresponding to the levels are not included to create boundaries. The ages are guidelines, but you will know your child better. Some children will be ready for Pre-Preparatory at age 3.5 and some will be ready at 5.5. Adjust as needed.
Playroom (Ages 2-4)
Parents today often ask for ideas on how to begin following Charlotte Mason’s ideas even when their children are still very young. There are also parents and teachers who have already begun lessons with older siblings, but who are seeking advice on how to best include their toddlers and preschoolers into this learning environment. Homeschools today are different from homeschools of before –there are no nurses or nannies to help with smaller children. Families today must create an environment where smaller children have their time and place as well as the older children. All of the children are in need of the attention of this one person –often Mom. This significant demand on one person can lead to struggle and frustration. With that struggle, naturally, comes a need for order and organization –hence, the desire for ideas on how to best accommodate all children in the house. Hilda Eleanor Breckels writes “The first five being the most influential learning years of a child's life, it follows that it must be during this phase that parents most need help towards the understanding of the truth about the behavior of the mind and the PNEU principles of teaching (“The PNEU Nursery”).
Surprisingly, parents and teachers of Charlotte Mason’s time also often asked about lessons and guidance for children under the age of six. Elsie Kitching’s attributed article “Children Up to School Age and Beyond” (and its parts) shares many thoughts about this. In her article, she reminds us that Charlotte Mason wrote in Home Education: “In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part out in the fresh air”. She continues with these words: “…we need to remember that children deprived of a quiet growing time suffer later when ‘lessons’ should begin, showing signs of a lack of vitality or a want of concentration…” So, while adamant that lessons and expectations should not be required, she offers some ideas on how to best parent and guide these early school children.
The primary focus should be in helping younger children become ready for lessons later. This will benefit both them and their teachers tremendously. Parents should work on discipline, character and habits, while also giving children as much freedom to explore the world, experience life, grow their imagination and develop their senses, coordination and speech. Most importantly, small children should see learning as natural and worthy of their attention. Ms. Kitching writes: “A child should enter the P.U.S. at six ready for the serious work of ‘lessons.’ His early years should have prepared him as regards the discipline of habit and the joy of life out of doors; he should also have learned that knowledge is desirable and he should understand something of what it means to say ‘Our Father’.”
Even in Charlotte Mason’s time, there was growing awareness that children under six were in need of a safe and beneficial place to be when parents could not be at home with them or attend to them as they knew they should –whether for financial or other reasons. Not all families –even in this time– had nurses and nannies. Ms. Kitching’s wrote: “When the idea of P.N.E.U. Playrooms was started some fifteen years ago the name was chosen of set purpose. Nursery schools and classes have been carried on for many years in poor neighborhoods, but it was felt that in a Playroom attached to a P.N.E.U. school it was very important to omit the word ‘school’ or ‘class,’ and in this way to divest it entirely of any idea of school work, class work, time-tables, examinations, organized games and the many things that are useful and necessary in dealing with a number of children of school age.” Small children do not need their days to be arranged around specific learning goals or to be educated in the same sense as “school” children. They do not need formal lessons or expectations. Days should unfold as they do, letting the child’s natural curiosity lead the way. Parents might consider keeping a journal, recording in it some goals and objectives they see being met and others which they might want to work in when it fits. This way, a parent still has a record of what happens from day to day, but the children still benefit from learning on their own time and in their own ways.
Playroom Activities and Guidelines
Give children as much unstructured playtime as possible.
Children should have toys, but lean towards toys with open possibilities. For example, blocks, scarves, blankets, child-sized dishes or toy food, dolls, toy cars, trains, trucks, animal figures, etc. These are all toys which lend themselves to being used as the child’s imagination sees fit. They not only inspire imaginative and inventive play, but they also often help develop motor skills.
Even empty boxes, thread spools, leftover pieces of cloth, yarn pieces, empty plastic containers and other items can be used in creating fairy houses, towns, etc. Natural items collected from outside [leaves, acorns, smooth rocks, etc.] could also be used this way. Sometimes empty boxes really do make the best “toys”.
Give children much access to safe, creative supplies such as Play-Doh, modeling clay, paper, crayons, paints, easels with paper, etc. This too will develop creativity and motor skills, but will also work on building habits in attentiveness and application. Children may struggle to achieve their desired creative outcome, but with help and encouragement may persist and succeed.
Children should have access to large sheets of paper for painting and drawing, allowing for large strokes as needed. Smaller strokes come with fine motor development. Chalkboards can also work in this regard.
If mess is something that troubles you, then find ways to make it work –encourage art outside or give children a tray to contain their mess. This may be one area where you decide to outsource an activity.
Be sure to in invest in quality materials, since they provide better color and texture. Consider purchasing washable paints, etc.
Reading and Stories
Tell children stories –about your own childhood or stories you remember. Encourage other relatives to do the same.
Read aloud to children –often! And be open to reading favorite stories and books over and over again. Share poems and rhymes as well. Look for picture books which offer beauty –through story and art. Encourage children to act out their favorite parts through imaginative play if they’d like.
This is also a good time to share stories which uphold virtues or family values. In “Family Bickerings” by Leader Scott, we read “The children’s hour is a fine time for cultivating the nursery virtues and setting down bickering. When the boys and girls sit round the fire with mother, a series of stories might be told bearing, evening after evening, on instances of love and self-denial –“would not you like a chance to do such beautiful things for each other?”
Music and Songs
Sing songs –particularly songs children can learn and enjoy. Singing songs help build a sense of rhythm and rhyme. These, in turn, lend themselves to pre-reading skills and the enjoyment of poetry.
Toddlers and preschoolers love to sing songs which include clapping and hand motions.
Listen to different composers and genres of music together and talk about it. Share your thoughts on the vast range of emotion evoked by listening to the music. Children can learn how to express and, in turn, handle their array of emotions.
Give children simple instruments, if possible, to further expand on their lessons in rhythm. Create your own percussion instruments, if needed.
They might also enjoy marching, dancing, clapping and stomping while listening to music and songs. These work on large motor skills and develop their sense of hearing. Matching rhythms with clapping builds on the habit of attentiveness.
Be aware of differences in children –some children are more sensitive to noise than others. Adjust as needed.
Share child-friendly art with small children and talk about it, too.
Post large pictures of art in a prominent place in the home –consider art calendars as well.
Consider purchasing or borrowing from the library well-illustrated children’s books as well. These offer art and story in one book.
Discipline and correct children. Doing so is in their best interest –both now and long term.
Some of the very wise remind us that children imitate what they see us do. Be a good example and not a “do-what-I-say-and-not-what-I-do” adult for them.
Children also learn much about how to be a good person when playing with siblings and peers. Let them work out their differences on their own –as long as they are doing so in a generally positive manner. Sibling will grow up to have strong relationships with each other when parents enforce the idea that age has no bearing on one’s right to kindness and compassion.
Pets can also build character and good habits.
Teach children simple manners and model them.
Consider giving children choices whenever possible and asking them their preferences. Ask, “Would you prefer apples or grapes?” Consider asking children if they’d like help when struggling with something rather than taking over immediately. Ask, “May I help you?” And if they say “No” in a reasonable tone, then respect this. Ask again, if needed. This respects that children are people with ideas and feeling of their own and will help reduce toddler and preschooler frustration. Save the absolutes for what is really important in your family.
Children need as much time outside as possible. Let them be outside for so long that they feel as if they are part of the natural world. Mild weather can also be experienced. Invest in a pair of rubber boots and a water-proof jacket for each child.
If you do not have a large enough outdoor space just outside your home, then find a nearby park or make use of a relative’s place that can reached frequently. Find ways to fit this into your schedule.
Don’t do instructor-led nature walks –go on nature experiences and let nature come to the children. Follow their lead as much as possible. Occasionally, there may be a good moment when you might point out something that ties with something already discussed or wondered about, but generally let children come to you with their curiosity. Invest in field guides or take photos of nature items of interest and look them up later.
Let children keep small collections –fallen leaves, rocks, acorns, etc.
Create simple nature scavenger hunts –look for items that are all red, or all round, etc.
Let children find something “special” in nature and then tell you all about it. Ask questions to stimulate deeper observations: How does it feel? What shape is it? What color is it?
Go to museums, historical sites, natural history sites, plays, musicals, parks and other educational and cultural places as often as your family can fit them into your schedule.
Take advantage of opportunities to meet unique people with special skills –for example, beekeepers, quilt-makers, firemen, nurses, farmers, authors, etc.
Let children learn simple handcrafts for themselves. This builds motor skills as well as strengthens good habits. Small children can use stamps to make cards and bookmarks, weave paper for placemats and make collages or paintings –all which can be given as gifts. They can also use stamps to create wrapping paper or stationery.
Small children also enjoy creating small items for imaginative play, such as for dollhouses, forts, castles, etc.
Children love to help in the kitchen! Let them help with baking and cooking. They can practice simple math skills such as counting [later measurement and fractions], following directions, correct order and more.
See the website for an article which specifically lists many, many different activities for younger children – “Handcrafts for Small Hands”.
Build good habits. Small children can learn to put away toys and creative supplies –especially if you make this easier by keeping them stored in baskets or containers.
Toddlers and preschoolers can also wipe tables –teach them to first push the crumbs into a dustpan or wastebasket and then to wipe the table.
Give small children a bookshelf of their own. Each time they pull books off of it, they can then put them back when finished.
They can do simple chores with pets, such as refill the water bowl or take the pet outside.
Teach young children to take shoes off when coming inside –make this easier by having a specific place or bench to do this. A place to store shoes would also be helpful.
Other habits are worked on through other activities such as, nature experiences, creative art, handcrafts, etc.
Children of this age should absolutely be learning how to work with buckles, laces, buttons and snaps. This allows them to dress themselves and work on motor skills too. Have children practice this before rushing out the door.
Many other activities described here –such as, creative art and handcrafts– will also contribute to working on fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are important to develop because they increase hand strength and finger dexterity –both needed for writing.
Active play outside which includes jumping, running, climbing, swimming, skipping, etc. will help with large motor skills. Hopscotch, hide-and-seek, leapfrog and other playground games will also do this. Consider using sidewalk chalk to create simple obstacle courses with long, slim rectangles to mimic a beam for walking a straight line, circles placed a few feet apart for jumping onto like rocks in a river, etc.
Games & Puzzles
Playing games together as a family develops pre-reading skills, pre-math skills, habits, motor skills and character.
Family puzzles can also benefit children by giving them practice in close observation, patience and attention.
Having conversations are of great value to small children. An interested loved one not only inspires feelings of worth, but also provides a model for speech and feedback for ideas.
Use moments when viewing a beautiful piece of art, singing a favorite song, listening to an inspiring musical composition, noticing a unique nature item or a listening to a captivating story to talk about them! This is the moment to slip in a new word or two, thereby not only increasing their vocabulary but giving them even more tools to share their own thoughts about the topic.
Letters & Numbers
As children reach age 3 or 4, they may begin to show signs of readiness to learn letters and from there to learn to read. Some reading readiness signs include: interest in knowing the names of letters, interest in learning to read, pretending to read books, wanting to spell their name, pretending to write and print awareness (understanding that words convey meaning).
If your children don’t already know, then first teach them the way a book opens, that reading is from left to right and how to correctly turn pages.
Have children use the air or sand box (tray) to practice making straight lines and curves, developing early writing skills.
Charlotte Mason suggests that children have a letter box. Children as young as 2 might enjoy just learning the names of the letters –capital and lowercase. This should be free of pressure and only “played” with as long as interest allows.
As the letter learning commences, have children draw the letters in the air first. From there, you might move to a sand box (tray). Children can write the letters here. Focus on one letter at a time. Let children pick out the letter anywhere in print, write it in the air and in the sand box (tray) and introduce the sound. Be sure to use correct phonetic sounds and not the name of the letter. “D” is pronounced /d/ [as in duck, dog, bed and rod] and not “dee” (Home Education).
As they learn more letters, they can then expand the use of the letter box. Write dog, cat, hen and pig in large letters on a board and then let children find the first letters of each word and match them to the correct letter from the letter box. Make or purchase alphabet picture cards and do the same. So, a picture of a dog gets matched to “d”, a picture of a cat gets matched to a “c”, and so on. As always, these sessions should be very short and always end when the child loses interest.
Letter fun can be expanded –let children create letters from modeling clay or Play-Doh.
Children enjoy using counters [beans and buttons would suffice]. Small animals, plush animals, small cars and other toys can also be lined up and counted. When you wish to take this a step further, write simple number cards [cut a regular-sized index card in half and write a large number from 1-9 on it]. The number cards can each be placed in front of the toy as it is lined up and counted or one card can be placed as a total of toys are given.