For one thing, kindergarten seems to be getting more competitive. My sister recently told me that where she lives (a very wealthy, educated, high-tech region), kids are basically expected to come to kindergarten already knowing how to read. And there was the recent outpouring of concern on one side and rage on the other about the state of Oregon testing incoming kindergartners and finding them wanting. I find the trend of demanding more from young kids to be very sad, when it already feels that kids don't have enough time to be kids anymore. And as someone who loves and values reading, I find it troubling when I read research that kids who start formal literacy training at age 4 or 5 have the same reading outcomes but don't enjoy reading as much as those who start at 6 or 7.
Just a few days ago in the supermarket, a woman in her sixties or so asked me if my son, who was perusing the kids' birthday card display, was reading yet.
"No, he's only 3," I clarified, as he is tall for his age and often gets mistaken for a 4-year-old.
"Oh, well, you can still teach him at that age! I'm an old schoolteacher," she replied.
I really couldn't do anything but give her a strained smile in return. To what end and purpose should I try to make my 3-year-old learn to read? How exactly would his 3-year-old's life be improved by knowing how to read right now?
In defense of preschool, I know there are some wonderful preschools that let kids be kids and learn the way kids learn - through play, and lots of it. And if I didn't work from home and I had to deal with childcare anyway, I'm sure I would find a good play-based preschool. But for a number of reasons, we are doing preschool at home with my son. We didn't realize this was such a "thing," either. Sometimes people assume we plan to homeschool, which we don't, but for our situation, home preschool was a no-brainer.
And of course, even for the home preschool set, there are workbooks and videos and curricula galore. We have one such workbook that was given to us by a well-meaning relative, and though my son begs me to read the instructions and pretends to do the work, honestly, I feel like he will have to spend enough of his life filling in bubbles, if schooling continues on its current trajectory.
So then, what are we doing? Lately, I've been envisioning an unschooling / Waldorf approach, with good doses of:
- Outdoor free play time, every day if weather permits. This will be in our backyard, which has a variety of plants, a soon-to-be vegetable garden (I hope), a sandbox, lots of cozy hiding spots, and plenty of critters, or at any of our local playgrounds.
- Indoor free play, using open-ended toys made of (mostly) natural materials for optimum sensory experience and lots of imagination.
- Art, art, art: painting, drawing,collage, dough and eventually clay, nature and seasonal crafts, and crayoning (This is a fancy Waldorf way of saying "drawing with crayons." I feel fancy just saying it).
- Stories, both library books and stories we make up.
- Nursery rhymes and songs with hand motions.
- Helping around the house. He helps in the kitchen, so he is learning hands-on about measuring, cutting and peeling vegetables, following a recipe, and all of the various chemical and physical processes that go into making bread rise or water boil, not to mention all the math involved in cooking. He has a child-size broom and dustpan, and there are child-accessible rags for cleaning up after spills.
- Child-directed learning. I don't know what this will look like just yet, but I love the idea of unschooling, and this is basically what this is - looking for learning opportunities everywhere, following the child's leading. When my son shows a new interest in something, I try to follow his lead by finding library books on the subject, telling stories about it, or finding other ways to explore it. Lately, he has been interested in bugs, especially spiders. We've read spider books (there are a lot!), looked for spiders around the house (there are a lot!), drawn webs together, and made a "web" out of rope.
You'll notice that this looks a lot like everyday life with little kids, and it absolutely is. We're combining these experiences with a bit of more structured time out of the house around other kids, such as library story time and the local children's museum. I don't know yet exactly what these years will look like, but I am feeling so blessed and excited to have this special time of learning with him.