Monday, February 13, 2012

Unschooling for Preschoolers, Part 2

Our friend who recently emailed us with some questions about homeschool methods also asked for ideas about how to pick good books at the library in the 5 minutes she might have there before her 3-year-old starting randomly pulling books off the shelves and her newborn started crying.  Our friend knows how important books are but was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books available (and especially concerned, as am I, to avoid the licensed character quasi-book-products such as Dora or Thomas merch).  How do you choose?  I wrote this reply:

I definitely understand the library situation; one solution might be to allow [3-year-old daughter] to pick one book herself, and you could come prepared with a set list of additional books you want to get (some libraries even let you put them on hold online to pickup when you get there).  I've compiled a list of book lists and book blogs that I've found to be reliable guides here: .  I like to browse them and write down titles.  Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook is a good resource.  The Charlotte Mason perspective is that less is more and there's nothing wrong with rereading the favorite books over and over rather than looking for new picture books. 
Our friend asked about the Five-In-A-Row method, so I responded to that question and also shared some further thoughts on curriculum and unschool for preschoolers:

As for Five-In-A-Row, I would definitely print out the book lists and use them; they are good, quality books!  I personally wouldn't want to follow the curriculum because I don't think you need a curriculum for pre-school, but I can totally understand wanting to feel like you are "doing something" and I could see FIAR meeting this need effectively and simply.  In other words, if you have to use a curriculum, that seems like a reasonable one to use, and not too time consuming or too academic.  A blog that has a lot of pre-school-age easy home activities that build numeracy and letter familiarity is "What Do We Do All Day."  I notice she just put up a good post about how to find good children's books too!

I do feel strongly, however, that pre-school kids need most of all lots of unstructured play time.  I think the best investments are not in curriculum but in open-ended play toys: dress-up clothes (from thrift stores rather than pre-fab costumes), blocks, dolls, etc.  Lots of outside time.  The hardest thing I thought about being an adult in a small child's world is that we want to accomplish tangible things with our days, but kids accomplish what they need developmentally through what sometimes looks like doing nothing at all.  Big blocks of unstructured time can be hard for the parent but I think they are really good for kids, developing their long attention spans even more and helping them learn how to draw on their own resources and interests.

A neat approach that is related to this idea is "project-based" or Reggio Emilia schooling, in which your kids pick a topic they want to explore and every day spend a little bit of time on it.  Say, butterflies.  You'd pick books together from the library about butterflies and read them.  You'd ask your daughter for her ideas for butterfly related projects: a dance, drawings, making up a story, etc.  In some ways we do this (though not explicitly) in the sense that we are always looking for ways to build on N.'s love of trains and buildings. 
I was especially impressed with our friend's awareness of how her own personality and training inform her thoughts about homeschool.  As an engineer, she's a problem-solver.  How will that help or hinder her as a homeschooling parent?  In developing the approach we take (which is of course ever evolving), we don't only consider what works for N. (although that is a crucial priority), but also what works for Tim (and to a lesser extent, for me).  For example, I like the idea of the "project-based" approach but it's not Tim's style.  And I've written before about the failure of my attempt to impose a structured form of record-keeping; we had to adopt something more organic to Tim and N.'s days.  Learning at home is a collaborative process that requires awareness of both parent and child's temperaments and learning styles.  Furthermore our approach to learning at home is always subject to modification and adaptation as we get inspired by a method or material, as life conditions change, as we build on what works and jettison what doesn't.  I call this blog "Unschool Academy" to capture this sense of hybridity, that we are inspired by unschool principles but that our days are often more structured than perhaps those of others who identify as unschoolers.  And I always point to Melissa Wiley's "tidal homeschooling" concept which so aptly captures the true ebb and flow of homeschool that many curricula and methods can't accommodate.  You can pick a method, but in real life it seems that many people make use of bits of many different approaches.

More important than choosing a method or curriculum, then, is to identify the temperamental requirements of both you and your child(ren), to identify the principles that have led you to homeschool, to identify a few broad goals (for example, for us for a preschool-aged child, these would include daily reading aloud, daily unstructured play), and to practice regular reflection and analysis to determine if your homeschool days are fulfilling all of the above.  One of the things I love about homeschooling is this process, this continual engagement in thinking about the why and how of learning.


Megan D. Neal said...

Wonderful post, again!

My suggestion would be to find the books you want to get via the online hold feature through your library, so that the actual time you spend revolves around a good experience with your child, sitting reading various books together, and then when you check out, you just have to pick up your holds. When you do that a few times, it becomes a mental "This is what we do in a library" thing for the child, and they'll start looking at books on their own, too.

I used that method all the time when my girls were younger. Now that my youngest is four and has a better grasp on things, library-wise, we're able to do more browsing. But I still order the bulk of our books via the hold feature.

Megan D. Neal said...

P.S. I too love Melissa concept of Tidal Homeschooling, because it fits the ebb and flow of life.

Alice@Supratentorial said...

Another excellent post!

I totally agree that the method of teaching has at least as much to do with the teacher as the child. Yes, we want to be sensitive to our children's needs and personalties but if it isn't working for the teacher, we probably aren't going to teach well. I also agree that things change as we get into it. I'm someone who needs more structure but over the past 4 years I've become much more comfortable with a more loose approach.

I use Five in a Row, I actually think it's a great preschool curriculum because it can be very flexible. For me, as someone who needs structure,it helped to give order to our weeks. We use it very differently than perhaps it was intended but it is a way for me to loosely plan out what topics we'll be thinking/reading about. It's also a good way of planning out library lists.

My suggestion for your friend and the library is to have times when you go alone and get the majority of the books then and times when you go with the kids and are more laid back. I go roughly every 3-4 weeks with a big list and spend about an hour or so getting the main books we need for the next 3-4 weeks. We do have a great system that allows me to put a lot of books on hold so that helps. Then we go maybe weekly as a family. But I'm not worried about getting books then so I can just let the kids browse, read to the toddler and leave when they get antsy.

Another library rule I have is to never say no to checking out books. A personal pet peeve of mine is when I hear parents saying "only three books" or "you won't like that book". I let them get whatever they want. Sometime if there is something I really didn't want in there it might quickly disappear from the book basket and get returned, but usually I let them explore.

Sorry to hijack your comments! You inspired me. :)

Fanny Harville said...

Alice, You make a great point about the problem of saying no to books from the library. I find this a hard call. My son finds the children's section quite overwhelming (and our library children's section is poorly designed for kid browsing), so Tim generally chooses the picture books but N. chooses the architecture or other non-fiction books from the adult section that they check out.

Megan D. Neal said...

Alice, you won't like me, 'cause i'm one who sets a limit as to the number of books my girls get. ;) I don't limit what they get, just how many.
I think book limits teach priority and self-discipline. And since we go weekly, I don't think I'm causing too much damage. :)
In all seriousness, if we weren't paying for our library services (our library is in the next county over and we have to pay $80 per card), I wouldn't be so stringent with the book number, but since we all have to share a library card, limits become important.

Mom and Kiddo said...

Another great preschool post and I'm flattered you mentioned me. Though, I must admit I've been doing fewer preschool activities with New Kid than I did with Kiddo. Hmmm, maybe I should write a post about it!

Adrienne Pilon ("A") said...

Great post!

I'm going to disagree with poster Megan on this one: I love going to a library to visually browse. Picking up books, looking at covers, reading the blurbs, wandering in the stacks have all been productive. The kids and I have found books and magazines that we would never have noticed had we just looked online. The random find, the noodling around seems in keeping with the philosophy of letting kids find their own interests. I also often pick up giant stacks of books that they might like and let them choose what they might want to chekc out.
And, of course, I will direct them to certain sections. My boys now know where the graphic novels, comics and non-fiction books on animals are located. They also know where some of their favorite fiction resides.
But why, oh why are the Winston-Salem libraries so weirdly organized??

Holly said...

In my life as a 'tidal blogger,' it's nice to come back to your blog and see that you're still posting great, thoughtful writing! I haven't had a preschooler in a while, but this post brought back great memories of the big, bright, airy children's room of the library in our old town. There was a nice, comfy sofa there, and Lucia and I spent a lot of time sitting and reading together. We'd take turns picking out the next book to read. Like Adrienne, the visual browsing, the tactile, whole body experience of being in the library (even the olfactory experience of that many books in one place) was very important to us and added to the feeling that the library was a special place that we associate with a certain mental state - focused, calm, curious, enchanted... I did suffer through some of the McBooks (Dora, Elmo, etc.) - but I was never comfortable censoring her choices. My feeling was always that if she was exposed to a wide variety of books that also included the beautiful and poignant, then she would develop a critical eye and make her own informed decisions. Taking turns picking books was a good way to insure a broad spectrum. Lucia is 11 now, and she's really into fantasy and sic-fi fiction like the Hunger Games series. But she also just finished reading Chaim Potok's The Chosen, which she absolutely loved. She recognizes that some books are mostly for entertainment while others also ask important questions and help us see the world in new ways, and she finds value in both.

Fanny Harville said...

Lovely to see you back here, Holly! Your library approach sounds ideal. Unfortunately our city library is architecturally grim and not designed for pleasant browsing and reading. We hope this will change in a few years with a remodel or rebuild... In the mean time, I'm hoping we'll become better patrons (in all senses) of our library, despite its limitations.