Is a Homemade Preschool Right for You?
How to create your own nontraditional preschool
5 Reasons to Build Your Own Preschool
When my first daughter turned four I started looking around for a preschool to meet her needs and mine—something that fit her nap schedule, was close to home, and (most importantly) offered a caring, creative environment. I didn’t expect the school to teach her how to read—we were doing that together at home—but I knew she was ready for a more formal educational experience. I started asking friends for suggestions. The more we talked, the more we thought about what we would include in a preschool if we were running the program. Finally, we decided we could be the ones in charge if we operated our own co-op of moms taking turns teaching preschool in our homes.
Since that first group, each of my three children has participated in a homemade preschool. That’s not to say I didn’t sign them up for regular preschool programs, too. But just like I wanted to be there when my child took her first steps and had her first bowl of rice cereal, I wanted to see her practice her first letters and craft her first Popsicle stick picture frame.
Our homemade preschools gave me a chance to participate in my daughters’ educations before I turned much of that work over to their teachers. And while coordinating and teaching preschool in your home isn’t always easy, it is undoubtedly rewarding.
Time, patience, and resources aside, here’s what might tempt you about homemade preschools:
The “Ah-ha!” Moment: “What I look forward to most about homemade preschool is the same as what I love most about all education,” explains Rebecca Winder, a Michigan mother of three. “I love the, ‘Ah ha!’ moment! I love to see a concept click, and to see a child gain ownership of whatever principle, concept, or idea that is being taught. Seeing that moment reflected in your own child’s face is one of the best feelings in the world.” Many of the moms I worked with decided on homemade preschool for this exact reason—they wanted to be there to see their child’s love of learning develop firsthand.
Strong Personal Commitment: Coordinating homemade preschool is not for the faint-hearted. Your group will need to make several key decisions together—how often your preschool will meet, how long the preschool will meet, and most importantly what you’ll be teaching. “The key is to find people who are going to be committed,” advises Jennifer Jensen, a Utah mother who has homemade-preschooled all five of her children.
Winder points out that she felt more comfortable having her son involved with homemade preschool because she knew the mothers involved were as committed to their child’s education as she was. “Because each mother is a friend, there is a greater level of accountability for the care of each other’s child,” she says.
Flexibility: Winder points out that flexibility was a big plus when it came to homemade preschool. “We could decide on days, times, and subject matter,” she says. Her group decided on meeting once a week for two hours. Jensen’s group opted for twice a week for two and one-half hours.
Hands-on Experience: Jensen looked forward to seeing how her child reacted in a group education setting. She also relished doing activities with her child that she wouldn’t normally do, such as paper-maché eggs and other messy craft projects that are doable with a small group of children, but may seem overwhelming to undertake for just one child.
Broadening Horizons: Both Jensen and Winder have backgrounds in education, but even those moms without child education training contributed based on their own interests and strengths. In the past, my daughters have learned a few words in Japanese, tried yoga poses, and studied Picasso along with their ABCs because a mom in the group had a background in that area.
Getting Started: Framework
Intrigued? While part of the fun of homemade preschool is coming up with your own schedule and format, here are some questions and answers, plus a sample schedule to get you started.
What age group will you target? Think about when preschool starts for most children—either at three or four. Those are the same age limits you could propose for your group.
How many children you would like involved? Jeff A. Johnson, who coauthored Do It Yourself Early Learning with his wife and who runs a childcare center out of his home, suggests a maximum of eight children. Many preschools and daycares aim for a 6:1 ratio. Even six children may be a bit of a stretch if you are planning on one mom to teach at each session. I’ve participated in groups with eight, six, and five children. My favorite group size: five. Too many and you spend more time trying to keep everyone happy rather than engaging your little learners.
What are your goals? Decide what you want your children to get out of the experience. You might be tempted to gauge your child’s learning according to how many letters she can recite or how many projects he brought home to put on the fridge. Johnson reminds parents that much of what children learn in the preschool years is difficult to quantify on paper. “There’s a lot of learning taking place in young children that isn’t obvious,” says Johnson. “When a child is sitting working with a lump of Play-Doh she’s using fine motor skills, when the Play-Doh drops, she’s learning cause-and-effect relationships, when someone asks to have some of the Play-Doh, she’s learning socialization skills.” With this in mind, keep the goals simple for all to follow—reciting the alphabet, working well with others, listening while a book is being read, and so on.
Getting Started: Schedules
Keeping expectations and a schedule consistent during each session will help the children ease into the preschool experience. Here’s a sample two-hour schedule:
- During the first 15 minutes, offer puzzles and books for the children to play with until everyone arrives.
- Schedule in 20 minutes of circle time. We bought inexpensive carpet samples so that each child had her own square to sit on. During circle time, sing songs such as the ABCs, discuss the date and weather, and recap the preschool rules: no hitting, waiting turns, etc.
- Plan for 10 minutes of reading books to the children.
- Follow up with 25 minutes of free play or play-based learning time. Think of a theme for the play, such as Play-Doh one week, watercolors the next, and so on.
- Don’t forget a 10-minute bathroom break and washing hands before snack time. This can sometimes take up to 20 minutes, depending on the children’s age group. Have coloring pages and crayons available to distract those who are quicker than their classmates.
- Offer a 10-minute snack time. Keep it simple and make sure you know if any children have allergies.
- Spend 20 minutes on instruction in letters or concepts, and an activity to support that learning. For example, if you’re learning about weather, let the children play with cotton balls (makeshift clouds) and water (rain).
- Allow 10 minutes for cleaning up and getting ready to leave.
Use this format as a guide to help you decide how you’d like to arrange your own preschool. You might decide to pick themes for each month, such as farm animals, space, or gardens. Or think about other ways to get your children excited about learning. For instance, in one preschool we had a letter of the week. Each child had a letter bag and would put an object which began with that letter in the bag to present during circle time.
Easier School Transitions
Homemade preschool can be fun and rewarding for you and your child. And you may be surprised that learning in a familiar environment may make her even more prepared for kindergarten than if she were in a more formal program.
Jensen has noticed her daughter was just as kindergarten-ready as her classmates who had attended local preschools. “When my third daughter was asked on the kindergarten assessment test to count as high as she could, the teacher stopped her at thirty. My daughter told the teacher she could count much higher than that—to 100. The teacher was really surprised,” remembers Jensen. “As a mom there’s nothing better than knowing that my child learned something from me.”
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