A Kindergarten Drop Out
My son is five years old.
He's never been to a preschool, and he dropped out of homeschool Kindergarten. So he hasn't had much by way of formal schooling yet. The Kindergarten curriculum I attempted with him earlier this school year was a very non-academic, gentle, Waldorfy type of curriculum. It consisted of things like music and movement, listening to a fairy tale, coloring a picture, doing a craft or two, engaging in a nature activity, and learning a letter of the alphabet in a hands-on way, like drawing it in the dirt with a stick. And those activities were spread out over the course of a week, not a day, so it wasn't time-consuming. Sounds fun, doesn't it? But it only lasted a few weeks because he started saying things like, "I don't want to do my school." He showed a lack of interest in and focus on the stories and crafts. I tried, at first, to cajole him into giving it more of a chance, but then he started saying, "I don't like school." So I dropped it. Entirely. I figured I could always give it another shot in a year, and the last thing I wanted to do was set my child up to not like school at age five by pushing the issue.
So now, instead, we're having another very informal, very relaxed year of "preschool." I didn't say a word to contradict him when he informed his sister, "I quit my school." I didn't bat an eyelash when he told me, "I'm never doing school." (He has since changed his mind and has acknowledged that he will "do school" in the future). We have no schedule, no curriculum, no coercion. What he still manages to learn, frequently all on his own, is amazing.
For example, any "math instruction" he's ever had has consisted of things like:
Counting together. Sometimes orally, sometimes with manipulatives.
Watching educational shows for preschoolers that sometimes focus on numbers.
Playing board games that require some knowledge of numbers, even if that just means recognizing numbers that come up on a spinner or knowing how many spaces to move.
Playing card games like "War."
Having conversations while waiting for food to arrive that consist of taking his packet of five restaurant-issued crayons and saying, "Hey, if you have three crayons, and I give you two more, how many do you have? If you have four crayons and I take one away, how many do you have? If I have two crayons and you have two crayons, how many do we have?"
Having conversations about how much things cost while shopping at the grocery store- by which I mean how much the candy costs while we're waiting at the check out line. But, still.
Answering him if he asks me what a number is. Which most often comes up in our routine travels when he wants to know what the temperature is (we can see it on a display in the car), how fast Daddy is driving ("You're going 70 fast, Daddy," he'll now say), how many miles we have left until our gas tank is empty, what exit number we have to go to.
Telling him, when asked, how much money he has and which one is the nickel.
Providing him with things like geoboards and pattern blocks and Perfection.
Seriously, that's about it. These are basically just things any parent of any toddler or preschooler or Kindergartener would do. And in my case, they are done pretty informally, sporadically and gradually. That's important to note.
Yet, recently, my son has initiated a series of conversations that absolutely boggle my mind.
The most recent one took place with his father while we were all on a long car ride together, and it went like this:
Ben: 50 plus 50 is 100.
Daddy: You're right!
Ben: Six 50's is 300.
Daddy: Yes! How do you know that?!
Ben: I just know.
Daddy: What's four 50's?
Daddy: Yes! Can you tell me what eight 50's is?
Ben, after thinking for a couple of minutes: 400.
Daddy: How do you know this??
Ben: I learned it from playing Plants vs. Zombies on Mommy's computer.
Okay, don't get hung up on the fact that I let my five year old son play a game called Plants vs. Zombies. That's beside the point (and for the record, he refuses to play "baby games.") The point is, HE COUNTED BY 50'S. IN HIS HEAD. BY HIMSELF. HAVING HAD NO FORMAL MATH INSTRUCTION, EVER! I haven't taught him multiplication. I haven't taught him to count by 50's. I haven't told him that 50 plus 50 is basically the same as 5 plus 5 with a zero at the end. He picked up on this because the video and computer games he loves to play require him to know how much money game items will cost him and how much he already has, or how many points he can accrue by taking a particular course of action, or what his score is, etc.
There have been other instances, too, where he's surprised me with some bit of knowledge. Where he's counted by fives or tens (I didn't formally teach him to do that either, by the way!) and randomly came to me to announce his findings: "Mommy, five plus five plus five is fifteen." ("Yes, Ben, it is! Good job!"). Or where he's come to me and asked, "Five plus three is eight, right?" And when I say, "Yes!" and start posing other simple problems, he does them in his head (okay, maybe partially on his fingers, too)... and gets it right. He can even do more than one step, like "What's three plus three minus one?"
A couple of weeks ago at a restaurant he started looking at his children's menu and commented: "That says one dollar and twenty five cents. This one says two dollars and ninety-five cents. One dollar and seventy-five cents. Three dollars and fifty cents."
He's learned to count backwards by counting down days to events he is looking forward to. ("Five days til we go to Chuck E. Cheese," I might tell him, to which he will respond, "Then four, then three, then two, then one, then Chuck E. Cheese day!").
Sometimes, he'll call out to me from bed while he's supposed to be going to sleep: “Mommy, can I tell you a math problem? 3 plus 3 plus 3 plus 1 is probably 10, right?”
He's only just started doing some Funnix Beginning Reading Lessons- we do this sporadically, as he wants to, and he will sometimes enjoy it because it's on the computer. He's really into the computer, as you can probably tell. Sometimes I worry that he spends too much time on it, especially at his age. Other times I'm in awe of how much it teaches him. And how good he is at navigating it. I downloaded Funnix because it was offered for free at one point and figured we may as well give it a try. We haven't done many lessons yet. We're not doing them on any strict schedule. He doesn't even recognize every single letter of the alphabet yet. Many, but not all. Yet, he recognizes some words because they come up frequently on the computer games he likes to play. He has to know what to click on, for example...what says "quit" and what says "save" and what says "next" and what says "start over" or "yes" or "no" or "back" or "play again." He's got his own "folder" of websites he can visit and he's able to find his name and then navigate to the game he wants to play.
Other than that, I provide lots of books and read to him when he will tolerate it, which is not on a daily basis. If he tells me to point at the words while I'm reading them, I do. If he doesn't want me to, I don't.
I answer him when he wants to know what something says, whether something rhymes, whether something is an opposite, what something means, how to spell something. I showed him how to write his first name. I put on Leapfrog learning shows for him such as "Letter Factory" or "The Amazing Alphabet Amusement Park." We occasionally talk about letter sounds.
I am confident that he will eventually learn to read and that it does not have to be when he's five. Or six. Or at any particular proscribed time. I won't be surprised if he just gets there on his own before I get to the point of really trying to formally teach him, just like he's doing when it comes to simple math.
I try to do crafts with him and drawings and paintings and so on, but he's just not that into those things. He very quickly loses interest in crafts, and my ten year old daughter and I end up doing them instead. He rarely wants to color, and when he does, it's more likely than not just a scribble. What preschooler (with no sensory issues) can resist fingerpainting? Mine can. Water color painting? Ditto. So I stopped trying to "direct" these things. I make them available instead. Sometimes I will cover the kitchen table in something like butcher paper, lay out some stampers and markers and crayons and just let him do his own thing as he eats breakfast.
So what other kinds of things do we do? Well, I let him participate to the extent he's willing and able in household chores and daily errands. He likes to try to help vacuum. He loves folding dish towels. He sometimes wants to help cook or bake something.
I converse with him, answer his questions, play games with him, get him outside, take him on many, many outings and "field trips." I enjoy watching his logic skills develop:
"Hey, Ben, can a pineapple tree really grow in your stomach?"
"I don't eat the seeds."
"Ben, you just poked me in the eye! I think you blinded me!"
"If you're blind, you can get a guide dog."
"I guess I could."
Putting his face close to mine: "Can you see me?"
"Then you don't need a guide dog."
I make various educational toys, games and manipulatives available to him. I sign him up for activities here and there when I think he'll have an interest- an indoor soccer league at the Y, a homeschool bowling league, teeball, swimming lessons. We talk about right and left, the day of the week, the month, the season, the weather. We talk about good manners, being healthy, helping others. We watch ants crawl on the ground, we wish on stars. Largely, I follow his lead, and I let him do his own thing.
And the truth is, I can see that he is learning all the time, whether I "try" to make it happen or not.
So, what I'm trying to say is, you don't need a formal curriculum or schedule for your preschooler. I know a lot of new parents or homeschoolers worry that they do. But you don't. You don't need an academic Kindergarten either, really. You don't need to sit down and do desk work or worksheets in order for your young child to learn. Childhood is so fleeting, and kids have so many years ahead of them for formal instruction/formal learning. When your kids are little, just love them. Be with them. Talk to them. Interact with them. Follow their lead. Give them plenty of time to play, imagine, create, pretend, think, ask, explore whatever it is they are interested in. People learn best when they are learning something they have an interest in, something they are truly engaged in, and young children are no exception.
If you've found yourself wondering if you "should" start a formal curriculum in preschool, or whether you are pushing too much too soon, or whether you are doing enough, or whether it's "okay" to be more relaxed, or to delay formal instruction, or to go with a more laid back Kindergarten program, etc., ask yourself this:
"Am I more likely to look back years from now and wish I'd pushed more math, handwriting, etc when he was four or five? Wish I'd started school sooner? Or am I more likely to look back and wish I'd waited on that stuff, that we'd just played more, enjoyed each other more, had more fun?"
Think about that, then...relax. Don't think so much about "teaching." Just continue parenting. Believe me, they are learning!
Update, May 2013: Ben and I did go on the following school year to have a much more enjoyable Kindergarten experience, and we are now wrapping up 1st grade. He is reading well, and our school days go smoothly these days. It's all worked out. :)