When we are starting out trying to do learning activities at home, there is so much information that it can be daunting, overwhelming, and even anxiety producing. Much like Pinterest, we have all these ideas, all the curriculum, and a million different "philosophies" floating around in our head as well as various idealistic vision in our head of what that will hopefully look like. As a mom and former primary education teacher who has read all the books and tried all the things, here is a simple method of taking all the puzzle pieces and using an easy method to put them together, on the fly, to create memorable and effective learning activities at home with preschoolers...without the stress. in addition to giving you key points, I want to give you a play by play of what this actually looks like in action. Once you get the concept, you will grow your pre-school teacher wings and start to fly. You don't need a fancy curriculum to tell you what to do...your kids will have a curriculum for the rest of their life. Before they start formal school is the perfect time to help them fall IN LOVE with learning, and there is absolutely no better way to do that than following their interests. Even if you just plan one day a week to do this kind of spontaneous creative learning and come to the day ready for anything, you will make some of the most fun memories with your child that may just become the things that help them begin a lifelong love of learning.
Start with a book. Any book. A board book, a picture book from a random shelf. If you have a pretty basket of books you have carefully curated great...grab one of those. Got the book? Great. You might even want a small pile of books.
Sit with your child on your lap and read the book. Slowly. If they are all over the place and flipping pages, stopping for large amounts of time to look at the pictures, or going out of order...even better. Playing with books is the first step to becoming a true book lover. I remember with each kid the thrill of walking into a room and for the first time they had taken off every book on the shelf (I know for some moms this is cringe worthy) and were totally surrounded with a mountain of books. Books that stay neatly on the bookshelf are sad books. Books that are all over the floor, being used, read, and even sometimes abused are happy books. Think Velveteen Rabbit books. You almost always know the most loved books in the house because they are completely falling apart.
Ask these three key questions and make statements that help open up their thinking and get them making connections:
- I notice________. What do YOU notice?
- I wonder______? What do YOU wonder?
-This reminds me of_______. What does ______ remind you of?
From there, go with it. Say yes. Reading a book about food and for some reason they won't stop talking about potatoes? Guess what your learning activities will revolve around today....POTATOES. You are now potato lady for the morning. I know it's a weird example...stay with me.Take an idea that comes up in the book, something they seem really interested in, and use that for the core of your learning. Remember that stack of books you gathered? Wait for an idea in one of those books makes their eyes light up and you've got your inspiration for the day.
Grab a few of all those cool open-ended toys you have been carefully curating and ask them if they want to make potatoville with you. At this point they are trying to figure out if you are serious and also very excited that mom or dad is going with this super silly idea and actually running with it. Get your wooden blocks and magnetic tiles, your waytoplay roads and cars, a few people or animals (or real potatoes), and let your imaginations go wild. Draw faces on the potatoes. Make up wild stories about how they put potatoes in all their food, and have different potato businesses all over town. See what direction your child starts to run with their new found love for potatoes...the key here...don't force a specific idea on them but sort of watch them and lay down a few little ideas and see which one really takes...spoiler alert...at this point almost anything you suggest that has to do with potatoes they will probably be over the moon about. Go all in.
Continue using your "theme" for whatever learning activities you do throughout the day. Sound like a unit study? It basically is, except your child is helping to pick the theme of the study. The reason unit studies works so well for kids is it helps them to learn the way they learn most authentically the rest of the time...where all the subjects are connected. Does being spontaneous scare you? No worries. Jot down ahead of time a few areas you want to focus on in learning and take the ideas they bring to the table and work them into that area of learning. If you want to sort of "guide" this kind of learning to meet certain goals, see the bottom of the post for extra tips for doing this. Here are some different ways you could go at this point depending on what your day looks like and what your child's interests are. One piece of advice if you don't have a specific focus in mind already...do the thing that sounds fun...to YOU. Our energy and passion when doing things with our kids (or lack thereof) is contagious. If we are bored to tears they will know. If we feel like a kid again and are a little giddy because we get to do weird silly experiments with food or whatever...they will know. Do something that you can get into, and they will follow suit.
Here are a few ideas of fun leaning directions you could go (these are the different categories often included in pre-school curriculums that you can utilize to learn AND have a blast while doing it). Notice how all the main school subjects are covered:
Write a story together (English/Language Arts)- Is your kid coming up with wild potato ideas and really getting into the storytelling? Offer to go grab some paper and help them make up a silly story about potatoville complete with pictures and a potato adventure.
Fine Motor Skills (Muscle Memory/writing/Art)- Play with shapes and talk about how potatoes are ovals. practice drawing ovals together, discussing the difference between ovals and circles and drawing silly faces on them. If you child is learning letters, it's a great time to practice the letter P.
Get in the Kitchen (Practical skills/math)- Have some potatoes on hand? Get cooking together for a hands on kid-friendly cooking lesson making baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, or whatever kind of potatoes you like best. Feel like really going on an adventure? Go on a spontaneous trip to the farmers market and buy some local potatoes for dinner.
Do a Science Experiment (Science/reasoning)- Did you love science experiments as a kid? Bring out your inner scientist and do a quick Google or Pinterest search for easy potato science activities. Changes are you can find at least one with things you have around the house.
More Books! (Literature)- Do you have kid that is hungry for knowledge, facts, and loves to deep dive into learning about different things? Grab any other books you have about potatoes, farming, or gardening and dig in together. Watch a youtube video about how potatoes are grown and go down learning rabbit holes together.
Free Play (Problem Solving, Creative Thinking)- Maybe your child really got into their small world play and they just want to stay and play in potatoville all day...awesome! sometimes going with their ideas means keeping it simple and letting them get lost in imaginative play instead of forcing them to come and do all these amazing learning activities we have dreamed up. In fact...our biggest obstacle to our kids leading the way is often our own great agenda.
Have a dance party (Music/Rhythm/Exercise)- Find a silly song about potatoes or gardening and grab some instruments or pots and spoons to make your very own potato farmer band.
When you say yes to the ideas of kids, they start to say yes to themselves and their own unique ideas. I'd be willing to bet money they can 't wait to play in potatoville again and show their other family members their cool day and share about all the crazy potato stuff you did together...all because you picked up a book and said yes.
Tips for Parents Who Like to Plan: The categories above are the same categories you would see in a boxed curriculum. The only difference is that you are using something your kid came up with (in this case potatoes) as your muse. If you want to help guide or plan more of the activities you end up doing here are a few tips to help:
- Carefully select the books you are putting in your book pile (chances are you can actually guide your child to exactly the theme you want them to end up on and help them take ownership so they still feel like it's "their" idea).
- Write down and plan ahead general materials for different "subjects" that you can basically incorporate any theme into. Some examples would be:
- art supplies you can use to draw, paint, etc whatever the theme is
- writing paper or a handwriting book can use to practice whatever letter goes along with your theme
- A fun music playlist that you can use with any theme and incorporate the theme into a costume, instrument, or role play without needing specific music.
- open-ended toys that can be used to create your story
- A basic baking recipe you can put a themed spin on with decorations etc
- Make a little person or thing related to the theme that they can bring along doing whatever regular activities you have planned... so in this case potato person out of paper if you don't have a real potato...give it a name, and they can bring their "spuddy" (buddy), tater, tater tot, or SuperSpud on all their adventures that have nothing to do with potatoes and suddenly anything and everything with their new friend is a potato activity. Is it naptime, bring spuddy along and let him take a nap on the windowsill in their room? Using a real potato, invite Spuddy to bathtime. Time to do chores, pin spuddy to their shirt and have them teach him how they clean their room, fold the laundry etc. Need to run errands, take Spuddy along and snap a picture of them in the car together reading a book or sitting in the grocery cart next to your child. Little stuff goes a LONG way with kids. Your entire "theme" could be as simple as reading a book and making a paper Spuddy to follow them around all day.
Enjoy the journey!