What to Teach Preschoolers: It’s Not What You Think!

We think we know what to teach preschoolers, but what if we’re wrong?

Even in homeschooling, many preschool curriculums and learning resources focus on early reading skills. These include learning the alphabet and letter sounds. Some include basic math activities such as counting to 100 and single digit addition up to 10. Ideas for what to teach preschoolers often have weekly themes that center on the alphabet letters or a selected age-appropriate book. What if none of these activities are actually necessary or developmentally appropriate? What do preschoolers really need?

Most ideas of what to teach preschoolers center around giving children an advantage when there is none.

While I was in college, I worked at two different preschools.  I assisted in all the different age-segregated rooms from newborns up to age 5. What I saw happening in these preschools greatly influenced our later decision not to send our children to preschool. Ultimately, it also led to homeschooling, too. By choosing to keep our children at home, we avoid many of the emotional and behavioral issues created by sending our children to formal preschools. However, many of us still believe the lie that early formal learning gives our children an edge later. Unfortunately, we also forget that the ability to read, write, and calculate are developmental skills and children develop at different rates.

Early reading does not affect overall literacy rates

Because early reading has become such a hot topic, I will focus primarily on that. We believe the lie that early reading instruction = head start = long term learning benefits. However, the statistics do not bear this out. Early reading does not result in higher literacy rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of adults with below-basic literacy remained at 14 percent. Those with the highest literacy levels also remained stable at 13 percent. And, that 13 percent is low compared to the American Colonial rate of 20 percent (and at that time, children learned to read around age 6, not age 4). I know this study is 15 years old and may seem irrelevant. However, the push for early reading and academic preschools began before that and the study demonstrates no long-term effect on overall literacy. And, as David Elkind writes in his books about what preschoolers need, may even do serious harm.

Age for reading instruction varies

Across countries

Taking a look at what how other countries educate their children offers some interesting insights. For example, any internet search about school in Finland will bring up results raving about their school system. Some key takeaways about their school program are: formal schooling begins at age 7 (including reading instruction), children enjoy lots of recess and physical activity, and children aged 8 and younger have a shortened school day. Interestingly, Finnish high school youth scored 6th in the world in a 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States didn’t even score in the top 20. Maybe we’re missing something when it comes to what to teach preschoolers (and even older children for that matter).

Across philosophies and even generations

Even across different educational philosophies in the United States, opinions vary. Waldorf schools typically start reading instruction at age 7. Montessori and Reggio Emilia preschools also offer a more relaxed, child-led approach to learning to read. Even as recently as the late 1970’s, many children came to school with no prior formal learning. They learned the alphabet and letter sounds in Kindergarten. Children did not need two years of preschool instruction in order to learn to read. In fact, it only takes about 30 contact hours to teach children to read.

some ideas for what to teach preschoolers are scattered Legos, colored pencils, and stuffed animal on a wood table with white paper in the center

Some ideas of what to teach preschoolers instead

As homeschoolers, we have many options and can choose activities that are developmentally appropriate. Preschoolers learn best through play, but they also need:

  • An unhurried, predictable routine.
  • Lots of sensory experiences.
  • Lots of time outdoors exploring and moving their bodies.
  • Consistent discipline.

And the most important need of all is to hear YES!

Say Yes Whenever Possible

Very young children are navigating the milestone of learning initiative. They want to do things “all by myself.” They often try to help with tasks such as cooking and cleaning, but they make innocent mistakes (such as using your new blouse that was lying on the floor to clean up their dirty boot tracks). They need you to be okay with their messes and very patient and forgiving of their mistakes. It is important to give them opportunities to try things and succeed so they develop confidence, not guilt and shame.

I struggled with this myself. With four small children, it was hard to say, “YES.” Cleaning with a four-year-old takes twice as long and, with a toddler and baby, well, I’m sure you can relate to how I felt. I didn’t say YES as often as I wanted to, not as often as I probably should have. But, I did find ways for them to do meaningful things, and I know I did a better job of this with my younger two than with my older two. After all, there weren’t any more babies after them!

Immersive sensory experiences form the core of what to teach preschoolers

Little children learn holistically, through experiences. They generally do not learn from worksheets or screens. I know it often seems they are learning, but the “learning” rarely transfers to real life. Digital learning cannot replace sensory learning and is, in fact, inferior. (And technology is cited as one possible reason for decreasing IQ in developed countries!) Sensory learning is key and the more of their senses we involve, the better. And, their emotions drive their memories of those experiences. For example, they may not remember what they received for Christmas last year, but they will remember grandma scolding them for touching the cookies. Your child may not remember every story you ever read him, but he will remember how he felt while listening to you read. This is why pressuring young children to read, write, and calculate can backfire.

It’s true that some little children will beg to learn to read and they will learn easily. We shouldn’t hold these preschoolers back. Many others, however, will struggle to learn reading skills and feel very anxious (and maybe even start thinking of themselves as dumb) because they know they can’t meet our expectations. These children associate feelings of anxiety, frustration, and self-doubt with formal learning tasks. These emotions further hinder their ability to learn these skills, even when they are older.

One of the best ways to provide immersive experiences is by strewing lots of great learning items all over the house. Check out 100 Strewing Ideas to help.

Sensory experience ideas

Here’s a list of fun sensory experiences to do with your child aged 3-5:

  • Water play. Fill the tub and see what floats and what doesn’t.
  • Play dough. Buy some or make your own salt dough with 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt, and up to 1 cup water. Sometimes adding a little oil is nice, too. Make people, animals, shapes, and more.
  • Sandbox or bin. This could also be something like Moon Sand that’s less messy and kind of magical. Never dries out, allows a child to dig roads, make caves and castles, small pools, embankments, and whatever s/he can imagine!
  • Finger paint. Hey, it’s washable!
  • Hiking in the woods.
  • Cooking together.
  • Lots and lots of pretend play!

And, don’t forget a small table sized just for them. I especially like this lap desk/breakfast table from Emerging Green because it feels nice. It’s made of natural materials, so no toxic paint or varnish to make little people sick and it lets my little granddaughter sit on the comfy rug while she plays. Notice that she’s playing with open-ended toys such as stuffed animals and wood blocks, not electronics.

And don’t forget story time, sing along children’s music (including multicultural), and playground climbing equipment. Remember, phones and iPads are NOT multi-sensory. They may actually make your preschooler dumber, not smarter, in the long-run.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rachel Volzer

    This all sounds wonderful! I have gone back and forth on teaching reading to my son (4.5yrd old) ultimately I laid it aside when he lost interest. I do want to ask, my son seems to be extroverted and loves playing pretend but always wants me to play with him. I have a 1 yr old as well who need attention (climbing /getting into things and generally clingy). I struggle to enjoy to pretend play as well. I used to love it as a kid but now would rather work on my todo list. I would love to see him pretend play more on his own, but we have struggled to find a balance l, he always prefers me and says he needs someone to play the other roll. Any thoughts? He does pretend play with some of his friends, but that doesn’t seem to fill his bucket the way me playing with him does. I end up feeling like I am saying no or not right now, more than I would like…

  2. Julie Polanco

    It is hard when the oldest child’s siblings aren’t really old enough to play yet. He is old enough to help you with some tasks and you can make a game of it. I might also suggest a pet, such as a guinea pig, rat, or even a kitten (NOT a hamster or gerbil), that he could play with while you get some things done. Obviously, this would depend on your assessment of his ability to be gentle and a bit responsible. Instill a “quiet time” during which he can listen to a children’s podcast or an audio storytelling CD or lie in bed with his stuffed animal friends. But, teach him to stay there for about an hour. Tell him that everyone needs a bit of quiet time. While he “relaxes” in his bed, you get some time to yourself to do grown-up things. It is a hard time, but in a few months, the baby will be older and more able to play, too, and can be kind of included. You can all play in the same area at least. Hang in there! This, too, shall pass and the younger one will be old enough to be a true playmate, especially if you show your son how to include the baby while still giving him the attention he needs.

Leave a Reply