I see posts all of the time asking, “What curriculum should I use for my preschooler?” And overwhelmingly the answers are, “None. Just play.”
Studies are showing that young children need play. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has dedicated a lot of their research to play-based learning and how important that is. And we have all heard how Scandinavian countries are promoting play-based learning over academic learning until the age of 7. See this article in the Atlantic about Finland’s Kindergarten: The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland. I certainly can’t deny that my kids do some of their best learning when they are playing, exploring, experimenting, and just being a curious kid.
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But some people need regimen. Some kids are truly ready to be more academic at an earlier age. One thing I’ve learned over my 23 years as a mom is all kids do not fit into one box. There’s no one size fits all in educational philosophies. I was one of those parents looking for more academic opportunities for my preschooler. Keep in mind that the Princess was fluently reading by age 3. To her, reading chapter books and writing math problems WAS playing. So to all of those moms looking for something more academic for your preschooler, I hear you. And I agree with you that “Just play” isn’t an answer.
Just like for older students there are many different curriculum options out there. There is no one right choice. What’s right for me may not be right for you. But you want advice, so I’m going to lay out for you what I’ve tried and why I did or didn’t like it. I suggest reading my post on my 2016-2017 School Plan where you can find other great curriculum recommendations and academic suggestions.
Read, Read, Read
My first advice is to rethink you idea of “curriculum” for the preschooler. Boxed curriculum that we might buy for our older students can be overwhelming for a preschooler. I hope we can all agree that no preschooler should be sitting at a desk doing schoolwork for hours on end. Instead, I have found that the Charlotte Mason approach works really well. Mrs. Dee, my beloved homeschool mentor, told me when I started homeschooling that all I really needed to do was “Read, Read, Read” for the first few years.
As a kind of very simplistic explanation: Charlotte Mason’s approach was to consume quality living books and also keep a nature journal from lots of exploration in nature.
Personally, I love the plans for both Ambleside Online and Sonlight History as Charlotte Mason guides. Both of these include a variety of books from historical fiction to biographies, science, etc. The books are quality reading material. Most of them you can find at your local library or pick up for cheap at your local used book store. Sonlight has an amazing reading list for ages 4-5 that are read in small sections so even your youngest, most inattentive students can handle. Ambleside, on the other hand does not start until Year 1 or 1st grade and may be a bit much for smaller kiddos, but if your 3-4 year old will sit through a chapter, the books are fabulous. Plus, I really love that Ambleside provides topics for Geography, Science, and Math that should be covered in the first year.
Secular Homeschoolers Beware: Both Ambleside and Sonlight are Christian based. It’s easy enough to skip the Bible sections, but some of the books (and I stress that it’s really only a few) are Christian fiction, so you should read the summaries before starting the books. Typically, for me, I read the summary as I get to the book in the list and if it feels right, I read it. To date I have only skipped a mere handful of the books from the Sonlight lists we’ve done and only skipped the Science and Bible parts of Ambleside.
Ok, maybe you want something more than just reading books. Here are the things I have used with my kids:
ABC Mouse: I signed up for ABC Mouse when Little Man was 3 and set up accounts for him and the baby. They really only played on it sporadically, but I love that you can use it on tablets and my phone. Mobile education is VERY important when you travel a lot. I think they could have learned from ABC Mouse, but they spent more time “buying” clothes and accessories for their avitar and playing dress up.
Reading Eggs and Math Seeds: I signed up for Reading Eggs and Math Seeds for Little Man when he was 4. The cost is reasonable, especially if you can get in on the deals through Homeschool Buyers Co-op. The Baby was always trying to play big brother’s games so I eventually got her an account of her own. These programs have been pretty amazing for helping the kids learn reading and math, but I confess that they preferred the math over the reading usually. Little Man enjoyed playing, but quickly learned how to cheat the system so I had to switch him to another program.
Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons: This is one of those curriculum that people either really LOVE or really HATE. It’s very scripted and if your child is having trouble with letter sounds, it can be really painful to get through. For us, it worked great. It’s very step-by-step, builds on each lesson with a variety of activities, and best of all we could usually get through one lesson in about 10 minutes. I admit that I did skip over activities within a lesson once it was clear the kids got it. And I have yet to actually finish the book because by about lesson 80 my kids were pretty fluent readers and it just seemed redundant to continue.
All About Reading: This is another early reader program that I tried briefly at the recommendation of a couple of friends. I think it could be really successful for a parent with more patience to sit down with their early reader and go through it. It’s great for teaching phonics concepts, spelling, and reading comprehension. But it is time-consuming and frankly, I have the attention span of a cocker spaniel… about 10 minutes is my maximum attention span to anything involving sitting down to teach the kids.
Handwriting Without Tears: If you’re looking for a complete language arts program for young children, look no further. HWOT teaches reading, handwriting, spelling, and phonics. They even have a collection of songs that you can find on YouTube to go with the curriculum. I happened to have the songs on CD (yeah, I’m old school like that) long before I was even thinking about the education of my youngest 3 so we already had some of the songs memorized. I don’t know how much they help, but they certainly make writing more fun.
Explode The Code: This is another complete language arts program for young children. We have enjoyed ETC because the pictures are fun, but sometimes the pictures aren’t exactly clear as to what they are trying to correspond to. For example they have a picture of a person and the word is a name (see example below). But I love that the kiddos can do 1-3 pages relatively quickly and learn so much. Plus, for the kiddos that want a little extra, you can have them color all of the little pictures to fine-tune those fine motor skills.
Saxon Math: I have mixed feelings about Saxon. This was the first math curriculum I tried with The Princess, recommended to me by several friends. On the one hand, it was a really good curriculum spiraling through the topics in a very logical way. I liked that Saxon used manipulatives, but I didn’t have to buy anything, just use things around the house. It was scripted which, for my first year was actually good because I liked the direction. After a few months I could go off-script comfortably, but it was good to start off with it. I didn’t like that the pages were so dull to look at. No frills. Also, I’m not sure if I just bought the wrong year for us or what, but we worked our way through the entire 1st grade in 4 months because I started skipping things.
Abeka Math: Abeka is a tried and true workbook style curriculum, but if you are strictly secular, it is definitely not for you. While I am secular in most of my curriculum choices, the reality is that Abeka is a good program, and (for me anyway) adding 2 of Jesus’ disciples is no different than adding 2 of Bob’s friends. Plus, I love how colorful and sweet Abeka is. And really, the math is pretty inexpensive. I don’t usually buy the teacher’s manuals at this level, although I have heard they have extra activities. I’m perfectly capable of supplementing activities so the only reason I would buy the teacher’s manual at this level is ease in grading. It’s much quicker when I don’t have to work each problem out.
Right Start Math: Right Start Math is completely secular, but it’s also pricey and time consuming between the planning and the actual activities. As I said above, I just don’t have the attention for teaching my kids in long teaching sessions, and for my kids, they really just wanted to play with the manipulatives as toys, so as soon as any were brought out I’d lose the kids for the lesson. With those negatives being said, it really is an excellent curriculum and anyone that has more attention and patience than me should look into it. It’s one of the best I’ve seen for building a solid foundation for math. Join a Right Start Math Facebook group and you can usually get the curriculum and manipulatives for far less than buying new.
Another option that I didn’t explore enough, but I know several families that have are the education sections at Dollar Tree or the books sections at Walmart or Sam’s Club or other discount retailers. They have some pretty good workbooks and don’t discount the coloring/activity books. I know when we think “curriculum” we have something more prestigious in mind than the Spider Man activity book, but you’d be surprised how great these are for early learners. Not only do they include a lot of your basic motor skills like drawing lines and coloring, they also cover letter and number recognition, early reading, simple math from shapes to adding single digit numbers. Plus they are often made using characters your kids already love like Spider Man and Bubble Guppies and Mickey Mouse and Disney Princesses. Plus, they are often very inexpensive so you’ll have plenty of money left over for a lot of field trips to the museums and science centers to really fill your little ones’ minds.
Here it is. This is all of my suggestions for what I have used with my kiddos. I caution you to be sure your child is ready, and not just that you are excited to embark on this great journey. I strongly encourage you, if you have money to spend on curriculum, consider putting that money toward taking advantage of hands-on learning opportunities like classes at local museums or parks instead. While “just play” is tired and unhelpful advice, remember too that these are just children. They only get to be children for a short time, so enjoy all of the time you can NOT buckling down to academics. Remember that children learn when they are ready so if you are ready for them to be doing academic work and they aren’t picking it up like you expected or they are giving you a lot of push-back, take a break and come back to it later.
Most of all, remember that you are doing this for your child. Listen to your heart and recognize in your child the ready learner. You know your child best, and if he/she is ready…. Go for it!