One of the most frequent questions I get is regarding how and when to start homeschooling a young child. Everyone is a little apprehensive the first time out of the gate, and we all want to get it right from the beginning. We don’t want to “mess our kids up.” We’ve been conditioned to think that kindergarten is an essential foundation year, setting the stage for the rest of our children’s formal education journey. If they don’t learn this-and-that in kindergarten, they won’t be able to succeed in first grade, etc. And most of us are also familiar with school “kindergarten readiness” tests, in which children have to know certain things before kindergarten in order to be accepted into the school’s kindergarten program.
Well, I have good news for you! If you’re homeschooling, you don’t really have to concern yourself with any of that! Nothing about your child’s education needs to be standardized (unless you have state homeschool standards and/or testing, but even then, homeschoolers are generally able to customize their child’s education much more than if the child attended school). You have the unique privilege of allowing your child to work at his or her own pace–whether that’s slower than the average child or faster. You also have the unique privilege of allowing your child to have a childhood! No sitting behind a desk for seven or hours a day at age 5 or 6. You can do some things at a desk or the family table, move to the couch for reading and singing, and/or go outside and sit in the grass among the flowers and birds. Your child has the opportunity to explore learning in his native atmosphere and awaken to the wonder of knowledge with you at his side. Then your child has the rest of the day to play and look at books and expand his imagination, which is just as much a part of learning as anything else!
For kindergarten at our house, we read a Bible story (I like Leading Little Ones to God and Catherine Vos’ The Child’s Story Bible), play letter and number games and puzzles, listen to and sing music, read stories aloud, and get outside in nature. That’s it!
Here’s what we used to accomplish this, plus a little more if your state requires it.
First of all, I think that with young children (under 6), phonics instruction should be more natural than formal. You can do this through you reading aloud (see the end of this paragraph) and through word and letter games. This series of blog posts has a multitude of tips and resources through which you can teach reading in a gentle and natural way. That said, for teaching phonics, I’ve used a variety of resources. More recently, I lean heavily toward beautiful resources. When I taught my older two to read years ago, I used The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading (simple; gets the job done but not particularly beautiful) and also All About Reading (fun but also a quite costly). 100 Gentle Lessons in Sight and Sound is the most beautiful that I’ve seen of late. I’ve also recently learned about Dash Into Learning, which looks like a lovely set of gradual phonics readers with beautiful illustrations and sweet little stories (also a bit costly). After initial phonics instruction, I enjoy using the Treadwell Readers and the Pathway Readers for improving fluency because they contain simplified folk tales (Treadwell) and sweet family tales (Pathway) rather than inane, disconnected sentences or twaddle. With younger than school aged children, however, I like to simply let my kids play with these Leap Frog fridge letters. Just don’t push formal reading instruction, and don’t get frustrated. Fluent reading will click when it clicks. One day, it will just happen. There’s no reason at all to push a 3-year-old to learn to read or be disappointed if he/she doesn’t get it. Even some 5-year-olds will still struggle, and that’s okay! God made every child different. If your little one desperately wants to learn to sound out words and read books like big brother or sister, that’s great! But please, please realize that a small child is not “behind” if he/she hasn’t mastered sounding out words by age 4 or 5. The average age of reading fluency is 6, so some children learn earlier and some later. Don’t spend so much time in front of a phonics curriculum that your little one misses playing and imagining. Phonics are important, but the best tool to help your child along in reading fluency is you reading aloud to them. Infrequently (so as not to interrupt the flow), sound out a simple word in the story you’re reading. They’ll get the idea. (And this helps them not only see and hear words, but it also develops their imagination and their love for reading, which is quite possibly the best educational gift you can give your child.) You may just have a child figure out how to read on his own if you read aloud enough! (I had one of those of my four.)
Handwriting Without Tears is a great handwriting program–especially if you have a leftie, like my oldest. I have also used Cursive First, which is an excellent alternative approach that you may want to check into. I’ve more recently been impressed by 100 Gentle Lessons in Handwriting from A Gentle Feast, which I think I will use with my next child. There’s not really a wrong handwriting program. Just slowly teach them to form their letters–whether that be print first or cursive first. Fine motor coordination often happens later than their ability to read, so rather than spend a whole year frustrating my child, I generally wait on this until age 6 when they can pick this up more quickly (think a year’s progress in several weeks if you wait), give it their full attention, and succeed. If you absolutely must teach handwriting in Kindergarten, try having them trace letters, color letters, and write letters in sand and in the air.
For music and art, listen and look and sing. We love the Classical Kids stories (Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Beethoven Lives Upstairs, etc.) and the Maestro Classics stories. Simply playing classical music around the house is another great way to introduce your child to excellent composers like Bach and Mozart. And, of course, music lessons are a wonderful way to develop all kinds of skills of excellence and appreciation for beauty. We love the Suzuki philosophy, which pairs well with homeschooling and can begin as early as ages 2 and 3, if you want to start that soon. We started our children on Suzuki strings at age 4 with a 15 minute lesson to which they could give their full attention. As a piano teacher, I find that the best piano progress is made after a child learns to read (unless you do Suzuki piano, which relies on ear training at first).
For singing, we’ve worked long and hard to produce this quality collection of conservative and beautiful hymns both ancient and modern, available for free download or as a beautiful hymnal. I’d recommend singing and memorizing especially the hymns that your church sings on a regular basis.
Additionally, look at masterworks of art in books, and fill your children’s imagination with the best, rather than the silly cartoonish pictures that abound in young children’s literature and products. Look for children’s books featuring great artworks from places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Touch the Art board books, Mini Masters board books, and others. And choose picture books with excellent illustrations.
If your state requires kindergarten math, you may choose to use any number of good math programs available to homeschoolers. I have friends who have used Singapore Essential Math Kindergarten A and B, Saxon Math K or 1 (some people skip the K level), BJU Press Math K5, Math-U-See Primer level, and Life of Fred Apples. My hands down favorite math program is the Charlotte Mason Elementary Arithmetic series, but these are intended to begin at age six. Don’t stress too much over math curriculum at this age. Look at samples online and choose one that you think you will enjoy teaching. I find that Saxon and BJUP have more “fun” activities and, therefore, also take more time to teach; Singapore and Math-U-See are more straightforward and short. BJUP and Singapore are colorful; Saxon and Math-U-See are black and white. Math-U-See and BJUP have video instruction available; Math-U-See videos/streaming come with the program, and BJUP videos/streaming are a separate purchase. Life of Fred is funny and approachable, and Charlotte Mason Arithmetic is beautiful and natural. If your state doesn’t have a kindergarten math requirement, I encourage you to simply learn counting and shapes and such in everyday life–helping Mom cook, playing hopscotch, doing puzzles, setting the table,
sitting in time out (in case you were wondering how my kids learned to count to 100)… Again, don’t get stressed about this.
Science and Social Studies (History) and Literature:
If your state requires these things in kindergarten, I recommend two words: read aloud (and I’m suggesting you do that anyway, so it should be easy to incorporate some non-fiction books). Incorporate both well-written non-fiction and fiction picture books (including folk tales) into your day.
Here is a wonderful list of excellent books to read with Kindergarten aged children.
Fifty Famous Stories Retold, a collection of historical hero tales, would be a good choice to read aloud for kindergarten history, if you’re looking for one book.
Thornton Burgess has written wonderful nature story books that are great read alouds for young children. For science, you can also take walks and hikes and observe nature–or just sit in your yard and observe nature–and record what you see. What birds and trees and flowers and insects are native to you? How do they change throughout the year? Learn their names. Trace a leaf. Draw a flower. Copy bird calls. Get to know the beauty of God’s world around you. If you want some hand-holding, Exploring Nature with Children is a gentle and thorough guide to observing the natural world through eyes of wonder. It comes complete with book lists and more to pair with your explorations.
And for state required PE, take a walk or a hike! Learn to ride a bike. Get outside!
Other (foreign language, skills, habit training):
Sing or listen to songs in another language. Say the names of everyday objects in another language–not requiring memorization (and not using flashcards!) but rather just breeding familiarity with the sounds of the words as a natural part of life. Say short phrases or give simple directions in another language in regular conversation. (For example, “thank you,” “let us pray,” “close the door please,” eat your food,” “go to sleep,” “good morning,” “I love you,” etc.) This will obviously be difficult if you yourself don’t know a foreign language, so, if you’d like to do this with your child, get a good phrasebook and do a little self education one short phrase at a time.
Teach skills of hand-eye coordination through playful activities. Color, cut, play ball, etc.
Teach helpfulness and responsibility. Give your young child tasks for which he alone is responsible, and teach thoroughness. Let a job well done (with your words of praise and gratitude) be its own reward.
Perhaps one of the most important things of all at these young ages: Begin habit training, especially the habits of immediate obedience and full attention. This will lay a foundation for all future educational endeavors. Obedience is a more obvious task of parents (hint: parents need to practice the habit of full attention in order to teach immediate obedience consistently). The habit of full attention is sometimes overlooked, but it’s vital. Begin small. Choose a time to have your child sit still for just a minute or two without talking or fidgeting, perhaps at the end of a meal (not when they’re hungry) or during your reading of a short book, or, if you have older children, have your little ones sit still for a gradually increasing part of your morning time or morning worship in your homeschool. Evening family worship is another good time to teach the habit of attention. But, again, begin gradually and work up to a longer time as each set period gets easier for the child to sit still and quiet. This takes time to train, but it will pay off in spades in church, doctor’s offices, restaurants, and future formal schooling. One more tip: If you as the parent don’t model the habit of full attention, you will make it that much more difficult for your child to master. So get off your phone or computer when someone is speaking to you! Look up from your book or task. If you expect full attention from your child, give them the courtesy of your full attention. Show by example that this is important, that they are important.
For Further Reading:
Finally, here are three articles on homeschooling the early years, like kindergarten:
Brandy at Afterthoughts writes “Looking Back: What I Wish I’d Known About Homeschooling in the Early Years”
Sarah at Read-Aloud Revival writes “6 Ways to Early Years You Won’t Regret”
Cindy at CiRCE writes “38 Books from My First Year of Homeschooling”
Resources Pictured at the Top:
Leading Little Ones to God
USA Floor Puzzle (similar)
Magnetic Letters and Numbers
Wooden Pattern Blocks
Maestro Classics CDs
Exploring Nature with Children
Fairy Tale Books: vintage
My Book House: vintage
Sand Tray: handmade by my dad; similar here