How old are your kids when you start homeschooling?
If you have young children, and you know you want to homeschool from day one, when do you get started? Do you start young — with your 1 or 2 year old? Do you homeschool toddlers? Or do you wait until they’re older?
Should you homeschool toddlers?
The studies are all over the place with early exposure to academics. While experts tell us that children benefit immensely from early childhood education, there is also research that shows that those benefits may not be long term. There’s a lot of factors to consider, and it can be hard to get a good picture of the pros and cons of starting early.
It’s easy to see the value of starting early. Young children are like sponges when it comes to learning. For example, Harvard University researchers showed that children who begin to learn a 2nd language around age 3 enhances their ability to be creative, think critically and be flexible — and the benefits are life-long. It’s said that 50% of our ability to learn is developed by age 4!
At the same time, we don’t want to push and suck all the joy of learning out of our kids. So walking that fine line between encouraging and enriching — and pushing too hard — can be tricky.
Eager parents with inquisitive kids need to follow their child’s lead.
Homeschooling a toddler doesn’t require you do anything differently in your parenting than you have been all along. When your child showed you they were ready to walk, you encouraged them by getting them the tools to support them (ie push toys), and holding their hands to walk around. When they demonstrated that they were capable of using the toilet, you began the process of teaching them how.
As parents, we do this all the time. From tying shoes to bike riding, we watch for those signs our kids are ready, we listen for the indications they are interested, and then we get the tools and begin the process of teaching them.
Teaching your child to read and add is no different than teaching your child to walk and talk.
There’s no need for a fancy, rigorous academic curriculum at age 18 months — unless your child loves that kind of thing. But chances are, you didn’t need a structured program to teach your child to talk, and you don’t need one to teach your child the alphabet.
Young children learn best through playing.
The best way for your homeschool toddlers to learn is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to play. You can have both directed play and free play times, and you can offer enrichment through tools (toys) and direct instruction.
Most (good) preschools will do this. They use a combination of toy-based educational material with games, stories and teacher-directed play to teach kids the skills they need to succeed with later learning.
What skills do they need?
There are a few things you can focus on developing in teaching your toddler.
First, encourage their natural curiosity.
Scientific exploration starts with the natural world, so encourage your kids to explore and ask questions. They probably won’t need that much encouragement, but give them lots of opportunity! Daily outside time is a key element of teaching toddlers, weather permitting. Let your kids go outside and get messy and take risks. Then watch them learn!
Second, support their physical development.
Young children’s gross and fine motor skills are still developing, so provide that support and opportunity to practice.
Gross motor skills refers to the full body or “big movement” skills, such as walking, running, jumping, kicking, climbing, balancing and reaching.
Fine motor skills are those that are related to the hands, particularly, such as picking up and sorting small things, hand-and-eye coordination, writing/drawing/coloring, pinching, moving the fingers independently and anything else your hands and wrists can do.
Most kids will get lots of time to practice their big skills, but sometimes we don’t always practice the small ones. This is where busy bags can be so useful.
Offering snacks that require your child to pick up small food items (like cereal or fruit) is also an awesome way to develop those skills. And of course, this is where coloring, tracing and doing paper-based crafts can help.
Caution: fine motor skills require muscle development. So if your child is complaining their hands hurt, or is super resistant to finishing their coloring, you may want to back off. Their muscles just might not be ready yet.
Third, read lots.
We all know reading to our kids has an huge effect on their ability to learn later on. Developing that love of reading starts at birth, with exposure to stories. Reading supports language development, preliteracy skills, critical thinking skills, communication skills and overall academic success.
You can’t read to your child too much!!
Read around them, read to them, read in front of them, read when they aren’t there. The more you read, and the more books you have in your home — even if they aren’t reading them — the more likely it is that your child will be a lifelong reader. The habit of reading is one that is modeled best.
Fourth, along with reading, sing songs.
Another way you can support your homeschool toddler’s emergent literacy skills is with nursery rhymes. Mem Fox, children’s author and educational literacy specialist, once said that if a child knows 8 nursery rhymes by age 4, they’ll be one of the top readers by age 8. So dust off your singing skills and sing Row-Row-Row-your-Boat, Twinkle-Twinkle-Little-Star, and 5-Little-Monkeys to your kids.. repeatedly. (At least they’re more interesting than “Baby Shark”!)
Fifth, look for patterns.
Patterns are everywhere, and little kids adore patterning. There’s just something about alternating steps, putting things in a line, playing with colors or shapes and finding the same/differences that appeals to small children. So use it to help your child develop their critical thinking and mathematical reasoning skills.
Look for the patterns on your walks, in your books, and throughout your day. Point out the patterns to your kids. Ask them about things that are the same, or things that are different. Play “I spy” and “hidden picture” games. Let them play with patterns using stickers, stamps, and markers. It’s a huge boost to their learning development.
Sixth, count everything.
It can start with counting their hands and feet as you put on their pajamas, as young as 6 months old. Count the steps as you go up the stairs. Count the pictures on the wall, or the birds out the window, or the number of bowls you set on the table for breakfast.
The more you count, the more your child will pick up on numbers. Counting is more than just the order we say numbers, but it’s about learning that one means one thing, and two means two things. It’s knowing that three cookies are more than two cookies, and ten cents is more than five cents.
And counting is the basis for all other arithmetic. So count it all learning!
Seventh, expose your child to art and music.
This does not mean you have to go to the art gallery and symphony, although those are fantastic places to take small children. (Check for special exhibits or performances for preschoolers in your local area!). This can be as simple as stopping to look at the calendar photograph on the wall, or pointing out the art at the doctor’s office. Put on music in the car, and play a variety of styles. Maybe consider a Kindermusik or similar class?
Art and music aren’t limited to paintings and songs. Try dancing, poetry, or rhythm exploration. Pull out the kitchen pots and pans and let your homeschool toddlers drum away. And get out the playdoh, clay or sand, for an artistic experience they can feel as well as see.
And that leads to number eight – sensory exploration.
In case you haven’t noticed, little kids like to get messy. Toddler learning is a full body experience. They go all-in. Hands on, shoulder deep, touching, looking, listening, smelling and tasting.
So capitalize and offer complete sensory exploration opportunities.
Yes it’s messy, but it’s worth it.
Try a water table for fun (and bathtime). Or use dry rice, beans, pasta or other dry food (but not flour!!) in a bin to play with, as a cheap alternative to sand. Offer cups, scoops, and other measuring/pouring tools to help them.
Artistically, playdoh and clay are awesome sensory tools. Finger-painting and stamping are also great ways to get sensory and creative.
So in all this learning, what is the point?
Well, beyond just occupying your child and keeping them busy, being a little more deliberate about teaching your child will result in the following:
- Longer attention spans – your child will learn, with help, to focus on what they’re learning. Paying attention is like exercising a muscle. The more you do it, the stronger you get.
- Fine & gross motor skill development — being deliberate about teaching your toddler means strengthening those muscles and skills physically.
- Preliteracy skills — those communication skills related to listening, comprehension, story development, and sounds/phenomes are crucial for learning to read. And reading is the foundation skill for almost all other learning.
- Prenumeracy skills — critical thinking, patterning, counting, measuring and sorting skills are essential to learning mathematics later on. The easier it is for your child to pick up on patterns now, the easier math will be later.
- Life skills and social development — this is one of the biggest arguments for formal early childhood education. Children who learn how to follow directions, understand instructions, handle conflict, and the give-and-take of conversation have better emotional development later on. And that helps with lifelong learning!
- Cultural values & beliefs — little kids internalize their parents’ and caregivers’ values at young ages. So it’s during these early years when you want to be deliberate about fostering those social values, such as being a good citizen, respecting differences, and consideration for others. Manners, respect, diversity and heritage are all important for learning at the preschool level.
- Love of learning — the attitude towards learning is set before age 4. So protecting a child’s natural curiosity without overstimulation is so important. It’s like stoking a fire. You want to provide fuel at the appropriate times and in the appropriate amounts. Too little, and the fire will die out. Too much and you’ll stifle it. But just enough, at just the right time, and you’ll have a controlled fire you can enjoy for days.
How long does toddler homeschooling take?
Homeschooling in general doesn’t have to take long. In the toddler & preschool years, you’ll want to make sure you pay attention to your child’s cues.
Toddler homeschooling usually will be multiple sessions in a day, and probably no more than 5-10 minutes at a time, if that. It will require one-on-one attention, and they’ll probably need hand-over-hand guidance, but homeschooling toddlers is really not much different than parenting toddlers.
If you simply pay attention to your young child, you can’t help but teach them something.
What do you need to homeschool toddlers?
Save your money. You do NOT need any fancy, packaged up curriculum or even anything special. Homeschooling your toddler requires no more than a few simple tools, that you probably already have.
- Story books
- Coloring books or pages
- Educational videos
- Children’s songs or nursery rhymes (especially the ones with actions)
- Mazes, Dot-to-dots, Do-a-dots, Tracing
- Simple paper-based crafts — stick glue, safety scissors, stickers, finger paint, thick crayons.
- Simple science experiments — water based, cooking
- Access to Nature
Still need a guide to “Tot school”?
If you feel like you still want to follow a plan, I have a few options that I’ve used with my children.
My absolute favorite curriculum for “Tot School” is from Brightly Beaming. Katrina wrote this curriculum while her own children were in these ages, and the simplicity is perfect for the toddler and preschool ages. It’s also easy on the wallet, because the only extra resources are storybooks, which are readily found in just about every public library.
Another tested favorite is from Confessions of a Homeschooler. Erica is a homeschooling parent of 7, and she created her preschool and kindergarten curricula for her own children. I’ve used her preschool curriculum with my 2-3 year olds, and her kindergarten curriculum was perfect for my 3-4 year olds. It’s digital printable, and if you have the time, you can go through her site to download each piece free. Or you can spend $20 and get it all at once!
Teaching your toddler doesn’t have to be a big deal.
Homeschooling your toddler isn’t a sign of an over-eager pushy parent, or the mark of a gifted kid. We all teach our kids, from birth. And you don’t have to follow a curriculum or do anything special to prepare your child for learning readiness, because they’re already ready. If you choose to do nothing but answer their questions and follow their lead, your toddler will easily learn everything they need to know and more.
Will you be doing “tot school” or preschool this year?
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