How do I homeschool a preschooler?
November 7, 2012 6:57 AM   Subscribe

My 3 1/2-year-old nephew was recently taken out of preschool because his parents can no longer afford it. I’m unemployed (and job hunting) and I’ve become the de facto nanny/babysitter. He’s a bright, active little boy who knows his shapes, colors, letters, numbers, how to spell his name, etc. He was learning how to write and I want to continue with that but I'm not sure how. (I have no kids and until him haven't spent much time with small children.)

So, how do I continue his education until his parents can afford preschool again? I’m concerned about him falling behind his classmates and I want him to be intellectually challenged. I adore this little boy and we read a couple of books every day but I’m finding that he’s spending almost the entire day watching TV and playing with his toys. He watches PBS (Caillou, Maya & Miguel, Curious George) and shows like Dora the Explorer. I’d like to find more educational things for him to do.

We spend some time working on his writing but I don’t really know how to teach a child how to write. Do we work on capital letters first, capital and lowercase together? Do I even use the term “capital” or is “big” better for someone his age?

Right now, we take lots of walks (I have a dog) and while I live in a safe area, it’s boring - no parks or fun things to see or do. He used to come home with fun artwork, e.g. a guitar made from a shoebox, a turkey made from a pine cone, a butterfly made from footprints. We don’t have money for museums but we do sometimes have access to a car. I’m looking for suggestions for activities and free online resources. We're in Houston, if that matters.

So, how and what do I teach my nephew so his day isn’t filled with TV. He’s an only child and plays well by himself and I’d like some things he can do independently so I can conduct my job search.

In addition, I’m a little concerned about his speech. He has trouble saying words that begin with “s” or that contain an “l” or “f”; he can say sandwich but not snack and yellow becomes “yewo.” His school said his speech was normal for his age, but in my very limited view, most of the other children talk better than him. I’ve mentioned having him evaluated by a speech pathologist but his mother seems hesitant since the school says he’s fine. He may very well be fine but this is another area where I’d like to help him but I’m not sure how to do so. Right now, I have him look at my lips when I say certain words and repeat after me but I don’t know what I’m doing.
posted by shoesietart to Education (32 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Is he eligible for Head Start?
posted by brujita at 7:01 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

We used this book with both our kids. They were both reading by age 4. YMMV.

But mostly, kids that age learn by playing. So get him out of the house. Go to the park, children's museum, feed the ducks at a pond, etc. Libraries usually have all sorts of free programs going on for kids. Kids that age, or really at any age, just need to experience as much "stuff" as possible.
posted by COD at 7:07 AM on November 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

First, remember that he is learning things behind the scenes just because he is 3 1/2. The cliche that kids are sponges has a lot behind it. COD is spot on that they learn by playing, existing, doing things.

Less TV. Just because something is on PBS doesn't mean it's of a whole lot of value. But of course the TV shows with the most value are also on PBS

Kids can't say "L" or "R" until they are much older. I have had students who were 7 and can't use those letters all that well.

Read lots and lots of books with him. It goes a long, long, long way.
posted by TinWhistle at 7:18 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get him to talk to people. A friend of mine used to take his twins over to the local coffee shop off of the bike path, where they became known as the "bike path twins." They gained so much language and confidence just from being around people, particularly people who didn't know them that well but were happy to see them again.

Find playgroups -- or make one. There are bound to be other people in your family's situation. Adding one more kid a few hours a week on your end could mean having them reciprocate, thereby giving you a few hours to do your search.

When you read books to him and with him, have him explain what is going on. Same with drawing things. Sometimes he might tell you exactly what is on the page (down to the letters -- because you know kids memorize!) and sometimes he might come up with some great ideas of his own.
posted by Madamina at 7:21 AM on November 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

My brother and his wife are expecting a baby girl next year and I'm seriously considering teaching her the soroban (Japanese Abacus) once she's old enough after reading this fpp some days ago. The soroban seems really fun to use and makes arithmetic easy and incredibly fast, especially once you move towards using a mental soroban (i.e. flash anban).

I've only begun understanding the soroban and I found these resources particularly useful:
Short TV feature on soroban and flash anban
The Visual Soroban Project has a really pedagogical video series on using the soroban
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:22 AM on November 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Well, you have a lot packed into this question! Let me address your concerns as best I can (IANYSLP, though!)

There was another AskMe where the OP asked for research based ways to teach his children language and reading skills. You might want to look there for some ideas. Some of my suggestions will be repeats from my reply there.

Firstly, engaging him in play activities is great: kids learn through play, especially at that age. It wouldn't be appropriate to expect him to do academic type things for a few years yet. Kids that age are great, because you can make just about anything fun: your walks are a great start. I love that you make things from found objects (e.g. the guitar, pinecone turkey, etc.) You can have themes for the week and do many things related to those themes. For example, you can have a "snow" theme (or beach, or forest, or insects, whatever...) and do activities focused on that (you can have backyard hunts for animals that are out during the winter, talk about different kids of snow, get some ice and play with it with plastic polar animals, etc.) Those are all things kids do in school, too. Pinterest is a treasure trove of activity ideas for young children. Overall, follow his lead, and don't worry too much about him falling behind classmates. You're already focusing on good pre-academic skills, and if he already knows colors, shapes, and some letters, he's got a good start.

While engaging your nephew, describe to him how things look, how they feel, what colors they are. Don't be afraid to ask him questions. I often wish adults would spend more time doing this, because most kids are geniuses and see things we don't. Ask him, "What do you think?" "What are your ideas?" "What else can we do with this?" "What will happen next?" "Why do you think that happened?" Be positive towards his guesses, even if they're wrong (my catch phrases are, "That's good thinking," or "Hmmm I see why you would think that. I think...") I find it a good way to teach that people have different opinions, and that it's okay for that to be so, and that people can respectfully disagree on things (but not bedtimes, of course! :D)

Encouraging him to "write" is a good thing to do, but don't expect him to be able to create the letters with fidelity (I gladly defer to an occupational therapist for further discussion of fine-motor skills of 3.5 year olds.) You might show him how to form letters by having him trace yours. You can lay the foundation for reading skills by focusing on phonological awareness. When looking at or writing letters, or when reading books, ask him how many "bumps" (syllables") in a word. Ask him to clap them out, show him how to do it if he doesn't understand. Ask him what sounds are in words, what sounds are at the beginning, and try to do some rhyming. Ask him what words you might get when you switch out sounds (e.g. "If I say "cat", but I change the "kh" to "bh", what word do I get?" and try not to say "kuh" for the sound of the letter "k", but just the "kh" sound.) These are crucial skills that help kids become readers.

As for the speech sounds issue, I agree that he's not expected to say those sounds yet; developmentally they come later. I'm not sure what you mean by the fact that he can say "sandwich" but not "snack" -- do you mean he can pronounce /s/ in sandwich and not in snack? Either way, I will refrain from armchair diagnosis, but say that if he has /s/ in some places but not others, that's developmentally appropriate. I encourage you to poke around Caroline Bowen's website for more developmental norms for English speaking children.

Your nephew is lucky to have you as a caregiver!
posted by absquatulate at 7:23 AM on November 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

As absquatulate says, ask a lot of questions. This is less a specific activity and more a way to build critical thinking skills and get him engaged in the world. "How do you think the bus works? What makes it go faster? How does it stop? Where do you think all of these people are going?" "What would happen if we put more flour in this cupcake mix? Would you like to measure some? How does measuring work?" "Look at this frog? Can you move like a frog? Why do you think the frog is green?" etc.
posted by judith at 7:28 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Library story times are great. See if your local library does them.

Going to a park with a playground would be very good for him because it's very important for him to interact with other children on a regular basis. Is there public transportation to a park?

You could also try making friends with him in the neighborhood. Introduce yourself to parents of young children, get to know people.

Is there a nearby YMCA or something similar? They will often give scholarships to people who need them: he could have swimming lessons!

Don't worry about the writing and reading and pronunciation. Talk with him a lot, don't correct him, read to him a lot, ask him to "read" to you or tell you the story in his books.

Lots of free early childhood lesson plans can be found here.

And yes, do check out Head Start!
posted by mareli at 7:32 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kids that age really don't need very structured, school-style instruction-- in fact, imho it can be counterproductive. You might just start out by focusing on getting as much learning as you can from your immediate surroundings.

You've got a daily walk-- is there nature of any kind? Trees, flowers, birds you can learn the names of? Encourage the kid to pick a leaf from a tree. What does it look like? What are those veins for? Why is it green, and are leaves ever any other color? How is it different from other tree's leaves? Should we go home and look up the tree's name on the internet, and on tomorrow's walk we can count how many of that particular kind of tree we can spot?

Likewise, there's a kitchen in the house, presumably-- infinite possibilities for fun sciency-cooking learning there. Teach the kid to crack eggs, to make sandwiches, to drop cookies. Get him to count and measure through recipes with you. Make some ooblek out of cornstarch and let him play with it, or dye macaroni together and string necklaces. Make homemade playdough from scratch, dye it, create some play food, have a tea party with it. Etc., etc. At this age, fun is learning, pretty much, so just concentrate on having a good time in a constructive way, and let yourself be guided by the kid's reactions.

You asked for resources-- there are tons of parenting blogs out there that share creative activities for homeschooled toddlers. Pinterest, I find, is a great way of finding aggregated links to various useful blogs.

Also, while the activities themselves don't have to be structured, having some structure for your time is going to be useful to keep things on track and keep the kid interested. Maybe think about developing a set routine for the day (first breakfast, then 4 stories, then walk, then we set out the things we collected on the walk and talk about them, then we make lunch...) . Do, especially, set boundaries for TV-watching, like allowing only two shows at specified times-- otherwise, it'll be too easy to fall back into the habit. Good luck-- your nephew is lucky to have you!
posted by Bardolph at 7:32 AM on November 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your instinct to get him off watching TV is a good one.

School readiness is not about reading and writing. Schools can teach that. If you want to help him prepare for school, he needs to practice independence in toileting, dressing, and eating, listening, following instructions, sharing, and manners.

There's no worksheet you can give him on any of this to complete while you look for work. If you want to help him learn, you have to participate.

Social skills are a big part of what's missing when he is out of school. Are there any kids nearby that he could play with? Could you swap kids with the other caregiver from time to time?

Other easy experiences for kids that age include cooking, cleaning (seriously,.teach responsibility young), pet care (eg brush dog). read, read, and read some more. Art projects are nice but it's fine to get crayons, scissors, white glue, and paper and let him have at it. Music and dancing are other good activities, you can teach pop songs or kids songs, doesn't matter.

Skip structured learning techniques and just try to have fun. If he has enough activity, he'll respond.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:36 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Specifically for writing (although hand muscles are still pretty underdeveloped at that age), you can do sort of dotted-line versions of simple letter sequences or words from his daily life and let him trace them -- it helps with muscle memory, internalizing the letter shapes, etc. My daughter went through a period of loving these (I made a bunch of one-word strips of paper), and later another round when she started wanting to write numbers and felt she couldn't.

But count me as a +1 for not worrying about "instruction" too much -- most of what kids get out of preschool is group socialization, how to follow directions, really simple conflict resolution. So either don't worry about it, or find some playgroups around town (maybe "mommy and me" style) or local kids that you can get yours together with, set up some simple games that are about listening carefully (Simon Says is about listening and also about impulse suppression), occasionally delay fulfilling some request to work his patience limits. Beyond that, just paying attention to what he's "working on" at any point and trying to follow and support it will get you everyplace you need to go.
posted by acm at 7:38 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I found some craft/art ideas that you could do with him:
21 quick kid's craft ideas (wouldn't it be fun to do the beach one with leaves or sticks or rocks from one of your walks?) and this thread about craft projects for 3 year olds.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:42 AM on November 7, 2012

My son was evaluated for speech at about that age and was determined to have a bit of a speech delay/difficulty. Therefor, he qualified for FREE preschool. So, perhaps look into that.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:43 AM on November 7, 2012

Here's a link to Head Start for Houston. They offer a variety of services and can, if necessary, evaluate your nephew's speech. But, as others have said, he's most likely just fine in that area. Oh, and your local public library may provide free tickets for admission to zoo, museums, etc.
posted by mareli at 7:46 AM on November 7, 2012

You might find reading up on Maria Montessori interesting. There are many activities that can be done with items found around the house.
posted by oceano at 7:50 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to add that on days when you haven't got time for a lot of planning, a really excellent, very reliable educational stock activity for kids of that age is jointly acting out whatever favorite story you've just read. Doesn't require any extra preparation-- half the fun is scrounging ad-hoc costumes and props from around the house-- and promotes engagement with the story, plus develops language skills, emotional intelligence, memory, and so forth. Bonus: you're giving the kid a set of scripts for imaginative play of his own, should he ever need to spend a half-hour amusing himself while you get work done.
posted by Bardolph at 7:58 AM on November 7, 2012

I really like this blog:
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 8:07 AM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: More important than learning to write, work on his motor skills. So many elementary school teachers are frustrated because kids need to reach certain markers much earlier than before (reading, etc), without learning basic things like how to hold scissors.
Let him interact with as many people as possible. The more variety of people you are exposed to as a child, the better equipped you are to handle social interaction as an adult.

I like the library reading time suggestion. Oh god, did I love going to those as a child!

Great job on going on walks with him. Keep him moving!

And GREAT job on stepping up to the plate. Way to be an awesome auntie/uncle (don't know your gender)! *tips hat*
posted by Neekee at 8:13 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Take him to the library at least once a week. My family wasn't very rich and couldn't afford to buy many books when I was young, so my mom would frequently bring us to the library. I can tell you that being around so many books definitely encouraged me to read a lot more. I also learned the concept of "borrowing," and that objects that are not my property must be kept with care.

Libraries often host reading time or activities for preschoolers, so definitely check out your local library for a schedule of events.
posted by nikkorizz at 8:25 AM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: Btw: this looks like a great resource: Little Learner's Lounge.
posted by absquatulate at 8:45 AM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: Early learners in my area use this book. I also think the accompanying CD might be helpful, especially for homeschooling at the preschool level-- your voice isn't the only one, and he could get some passive learning / language modeling in during downtime.

Best of all, both book and CD are just over $20 total. There are some other great resources on the site as well.

For the fun craft projects, the internet is crawling with them (here's one site with tons of ideas, there are others with more detailed plans and pictures). Bonus: they're a great way to sneak in motor skills.

If you haven't already, join Pinterest and start cruising around the pre-k / homeschool / teacher areas.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:09 AM on November 7, 2012

Some great tips for how to engage kids in pretend play, which is very important, here.
posted by freezer cake at 9:20 AM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: Kids learn to read and write at different times, so don't worry about him being behind. But your desire to keep him intellectually stimulated and keep him off TV is right. Here's a list of things you can do with him:

- Go to the library and read there and at home (MeMail me if you need specific book suggestions)
- Go to the park
- Find parent groups on Meetup (and from his former preschool) for socialization opportunities
- Play board and card games
- Do puzzles
- Watch nature documentaries (you can probably borrow them from the library)
- Play ball sports, building games, and racing games with him
- Take him to the local animal shelter (if he's not allergic to dogs and cats) and dog parks
- Take him to stores, the mall, etc. and show him cool stuff
- Take him to a movie at the movie theater
- Take him to a nature center or other natural outdoors location
- Take him swimming (YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, or whatever)
- Do origami
- Draw pictures with him
- Play thumb wrestling and hand slapping games
- Build cushion and blanket forts
- Take him to an airport to watch airplanes
- Take him on a bus and on a train
posted by Dansaman at 9:22 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree (as a layperson without kids!) that you need to get him out of the house more. Your profile says you're in SF, did you know that the Zoo has free admission on the first wednesday of each month (including Today!)? So does the Exploratorium. Check out the Family-Friendly and Kids & Families tags on Fun Cheap SF for more affordable stuff to do. The library is a great suggestion, and I'm sure that they have read-alouds and other events. Plus just taking him to the playground (hopefully when there are other kids to play with) will be good for him.
posted by radioamy at 10:06 AM on November 7, 2012

Well, the TV problem is easy. Don't turn on the TV. At all. Maybe even unplug it. The only thing that the TV is doing is filling up time, and since you seem to be motivated to spend time in creative ways, you don't need that.

Don't worry too much about if he is learning enough to keep up, as long as you guys are reading plenty than he is going to keep up. Spend time having him point out what the letters are, have him count things in the pictures, stuff like that.

For art projects, get a bucket of crayons and some large paper and just go to town. Maybe some safety scissors and some construction paper, you can cut out shapes and glue them together.

If you're willing to put in a bit of time, try this: Spend one day with some paints, and paint all over a bunch of construction paper. Paint different shades of green over the green paper, blue over the blue, etc. The goal is to have a swirly wash of color, it doesn't have to look good at all. Let that dry.

Next, have him tell you a story. you can help him make it up, or it can be a tale of something that happened. It should be something short and simple.

Now, take the scissors and cut out the construction paper into shapes to make a picture of the story. So, if it's about him flying a space ship, than cut out grey paper for the space ship, maybe some red for a space suit, etc. Since you painted all over the paper ahead of time, each of the pieces you cut out will have a neat pattern on it. This is how Eric Carle does his childrens books (although he uses tissue paper). You'll end up with something that took a good deal of time, but will be really fun when finished, and will use a lot of different parts of his brain.

If you have libraries near you, go there during the childrens story time. We go several times a week, and it is amazing. You'll learn all sorts of games, songs, and stories.

Don't over think things in terms of being as intellectually stimulating as you think you possibly can, kids that age are still learning with almost everything they do, and several hours of quality play time each day will teach them a great deal.
posted by markblasco at 10:22 AM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: While I agree with all the suggestions to do active/play/outside things, I think it's also important to have at least a few minutes each day of a quiet intellectual activity. My kids at that age loved to play school and do homework. It was only for 5-15 minutes at a time, so not a big 6-hour sit still all day thing.

The one thing they loved the best were homemade worksheets, especially matching sheets. If your theme is shapes, then choose 3-5 shapes (circle, square, triangle, rectangle, octagon (stop sign)) and draw them down the left side of the paper. Then draw the same shapes down the right side of the paper but in a different order. The child's task is the draw a line from the shape on the left to the same shape on the right. You can use colors, facial expressions, letters, numbers. For more advanced sheets, put the capital letter on one side and the lower case on the other. I could not believe how much my kids loved this.

If your nephew needs help writing the letters, use sidewalk chalk and make them very big. Large motor skills are developed sooner than small ones like writing on paper.

And it's ok to use "capital" vs "big". I still remember my daughter in first grade took piano lessons and learned the words "whole notes", "quarter notes", etc, then went to music class in school where they called them "walking notes" and "running notes". How babyish!!
posted by CathyG at 11:04 AM on November 7, 2012

It sounds like you are very caring and concerned about doing a good job with your nephew; if you have the time, you might want to do some reading on child development to identify appropriate, realistic expectations for different ages and stages. For example, the current research around children's literacy indicates that although some kids do learn to read earlier, most are not developmentally ready until they're between 5 and 7. So don't worry about "teaching" your nephew to read or write before he hits kindergarten. It's great if he does, but you don't need to do formal lessons with him. If you point out letters and numbers in authentic settings (e.g. reading street signs, billboards, posters, etc.) and provide him with opportunities to practice writing or tracing letters, that will be great for his development.

Kids also develop literacy readiness when they see adults reading for pleasure. Definitely read out loud with him, but also have some time where you read your own books around him. You can have quiet time where he plays or reads or draws near you, and you are reading your own book/magazine/newspaper, or doing some writing of your own. (Bonus: this allows you to get some work done too.)

Remember that you're not just teaching him content at this age; you're also helping shape his attitude toward learning--it's best if he thinks it's pleasurable and interesting, because down the road he'll be more likely to develop intrinsic motivation to learn and succeed in school.

Good luck, and have fun! Your nephew and his parents are lucky to have you!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:12 PM on November 7, 2012

Often Libraries have free passes for area attractions. Also libraries are awesome. There is normally some type of play area for kids and it'll be nice for your nephew to get to hang with other kids.

There are often recycling centers that have lots of free stuff for crafts. Make a craft box with lots of stuff and pull it out a few times a week.

Science! We like to make stuff. Look up "cloud dough", goop (just corn starch and water) and flubber (you'll need glue and borax).

Music. You can go to the library and get lots of music. Make a few instruments (bottle with beans, etc) and try to have a couple dance parties a week.

Bath time. It will be nice for his parents to not have to do it and lots of plastic cups makes for a fun bath.

Get a local parenting magazine and they will probably have a schedule of events.
posted by beccaj at 12:16 PM on November 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the all the links and suggestions. We actually went to the library today and got him a library card. We read what seemed like a million books while there and checked out four. They also have a preschool story time every week and we'll attend the next one.

And thanks for the activity links. I'm totally lacking in creativity and can't really afford art supplies but a lot of the links used things that are found around the house. I'm also looking into free days at the various museums.

I don't think he's eligible for Headstart but I'll check the links provided. His mother thought she earned too much even though it's not enough to pay for preschool right now. He misses school and his friends there and asks to go each day. I want to make sure he's doing fun stuff and learning new things even though he can't be at school.

And I'm turning the TV off.
posted by shoesietart at 1:02 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the craft things I do with my three year old is give her a bundle of junk (catalogues, containers, papers, whatever), a pair of scissors, glue and bigger sheets of paper and let her go wild. She's digging origami stuff at the moment (it's really just random folds until it sort of resembles what she's thinking of, then it's stapled/glued/taped and drawn on) that she then does a small play with (one of the things chases/scares the other, or they make 'funny sounds').

As far as language and other kids go, it's a really really hard way to get a feel for things. Even when my daughter goes to kindy, there are kids twelve months older than she is and there is no discernible difference in size, only ability. It can be really misleading, particularly if you don't have experience with kids, but even if you do.

Talk to the library people about other activities and see if they have favourites for activities - I know I did back when I did children's services and I always directed parents to those ones because they were cheap, easy and developmentally appropriate.

Can you set up playdates with his old friends? Kids learn together really well, and the parents can probably help you out too.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:15 PM on November 7, 2012

Maybe look into a different preschool. Cooperative preschools require that you participate in the instruction, but typically the costs are much lower.
posted by markblasco at 3:52 PM on November 7, 2012

About the only thing that hasn't been massively covered here is socialising with other kids his own age. Now a lot of kids aren't really in the space yet to actually play together very well, but he way they learn is by exposure. I wonder what opportunities he has to make some friends and spend time with them? Not knowing how US society works in this way, I can't offer advice.
posted by wilful at 5:36 PM on November 7, 2012

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