Adventures in Home Preschool

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With two tots at home, I’m not immune to the academic anxiety many parents share. Would my kids head off to kindergarten with a firm grounding? And would they do well once they were there? So I paid close attention when my sister-in-law, Rebecca, started looking at schools for my 3-year-old niece, Jillian. I watched as they toured top-notch Montessori schools, private preschools and charter schools. Nothing clicked.

Their chosen school was none of the above. Instead, they opted to preschool Jillian at home, riding a wave of interest in home schooling that has trickled down to the pre-K set.

They’re not alone. The home preschool movement has grown from a few interested parents to legions of families forming home preschool groups and connecting in person and online. This trend isn’t going away any time soon. The National Home Education Research Institute reports that home-based learning is growing between 5 and 12 percent each year.

Can children really prepare for kindergarten and learn social skills without setting foot in a traditional preschool? According to Susan Lemons, author of Home Preschool and Beyond: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Home Education, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

“The goals of preschool are to lay down a simple base of knowledge about the world, grow the attention span and learn vocabulary,” she says. Additionally, preschoolers need plenty of time for creative play, art and exploration — all things parents can easily provide.

Ready, set, grow

For some families, home preschool is a temporary stopover en route to traditional school. For others, the preschool years present a perfect opportunity to dip a toe into the homeschool waters. Currently, only eight U.S. states (Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia), along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, require compulsory education to begin at age 5. Age 6 or 7 is the norm, with North Carolina requiring schooling at age 7. Until then, families are free to preschool at home without red tape, paperwork or testing, and postpone decisions about grade school for later.

Because no federal or state guidelines regulate pre-kindergarten education, academic approaches are as unique as preschoolers themselves. Many states publish early learning benchmarks to guide educators and parents, and homeschool communities and the Web are abuzz with home preschool materials and counsel. Free preschool lesson plans are available at the click of a mouse.

While some organization and guidance is helpful, experts warn against leaning too heavily on a structured curriculum. Karen L. Peterson, professor and director of Washington State University Vancouver’s Child Development Program, says preschool educators — including parents — can overemphasize learning metrics such as counting and reading.

Preschool activities should focus less on skills like addition or memorizing state names and more on general concepts like numerical order and the relationships between people and places. “The goal for preschool should be exposure to concepts, not proficiency,” Peterson says.

Amy Prestia let her son’s interests guide his preschool learning. “Preschoolers are naturally curious about the world,” she says. “What better time to let them follow their current passion, whether it’s bugs or ships?”

Play to learn

Home-based academics aren’t hampered by classroom management, so lessons typically take less time than in a room full of energetic kids. This opens up the day for preschoolers’ most important task: play. “Play is the cornerstone of preschool,” Peterson says. “It’s the primary way that children under 7 process information.”

“Kids retain what they learn if they’re having fun,” says Tara Ruf. Piper, 4, learned about colors, insects and the miracle of life by reading Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and creating tissue-paper butterflies.

Social creatures

Play nurtures the social growth essential for preschoolers. A study published in Mathematics Teaching suggests social and emotional development pave the way for all other learning, and social competence is predictive of future academic success.

According to Peterson, an important social milestone for preschool-age children is the development of positive “entry behaviors,” or the ability to effectively approach and join a group of peers. Home-schoolers can provide opportunities for children to practice these skills at play groups, story times and other social activities.

Classes are popular for the preschool set, but they don’t always provide a well-rounded social experience. “Motor-skills classes like gymnastics and swimming often focus on the development of individual skills instead of social skills,” Peterson says. She recommends semi-organized settings like library story times and small group activities with other parents and children to help develop communication and cooperation skills.

A happy home

Kids aren’t the only beneficiaries of home-based preschool. My sister-in-law, Rebecca, credits home preschool with improving family harmony. “Jillian gets the one-on-one attention that she needs, and I get to see her thrive,” she says. “It’s brought more happiness to our home.”

Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mom of two.

Categories: Baby, Baby Health, BT Early Leaning, Early Education, Health and Development, New Parent, Preschool Development, Preschool Early Learning, Preschoolers