Homeschooling preschoolers – a new year begins.

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One more homeschool cupboard has been cleaned out and set up ready for the new year. Our 3 1/2 year old little man has joined the ranks with his older brothers and sisters to do “school” after breakfast each morning.

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Now I know how important it is at this age to keep school relaxed and enjoyable and not to focus on too much bookwork. Plenty of time for creative, open-ended and active play is an absolute necessity, along with character training as a firm foundation for all other skills. However… there is a place for teaching little boys to sit and concentrate on a task for a good length of time. For some this is more difficult than others but it can be done and dare I say it, must be done. You are doing your sons no favours if you do not teach them the self-control necessary to sit still and achieve a task that is set by someone else. Think ahead to a work or classroom situation – hard as it may be, they need this skill.

This training ideally starts early, with sit time in the highchair, mat time while you prepare dinner, playpen time as babies and all the other parent-directed periods that are so vital to a balanced routine. If you have had all these in place since babyhood then starting some kindergarten activities at the table will be a breeze. If not; it’s not too late – start now! Start small and build on it until it is easy for your little one to sit for a while and finish an activity that you set for them to do.

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I use a workbox system for my younger students and find it works well. It takes a little time to set up but pretty much runs itself once you are going, with change-overs only necessary every couple of weeks as skills are mastered or interest wanes with particular activities over time. We do “school” at home four days a week so there are 4 shelves of 2 boxes per day. The first box holds the “work” that is done with my supervision and the second box holds independent activities that are completed with some choice once the set tasks are done.

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We have already been working on basic counting skills and our little man is familiar with the alphabet and knows most of the sounds. To build on this, his work for the day will be a Montessori style maths counting tray followed by an initial sounds worksheet involving a little bit of writing practice.

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The counting trays all follow the same principle to keep it simple; place the numbers in order, then count out the correct number of objects. Pasta dinosaurs will drink at the watering hole, flowers fill the love heart dishes, coloured bead “food” is served at the number restaurant and coloured tiles line up above the bottle tops. All made with household objects for almost no cost and with visual and tactile appeal to a small person who needs to practise the same skill over and over and still be interested in the task at hand. They are also self-checking in that there is exactly the right number of objects to count and in some, like the plates and watering holes, the items can be matched to the dots to check if the right number has been counted out. (Check out the “Workjobs and Montessori Activities” category on the left for many more ideas for hands-on tray activities.)

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These initial sounds worksheets are so quick and simple but give that bookwork feel that my little kids love because it makes them think they are doing real school just like the big kids. They have to review the letter name and sound then say the name of each object slowly to see if it starts with the right sound. They circle the ones that do and cross out the ones that don’t before tracing the large letter in the middle a couple of times in varying colours. Just a little bit of pencil work to practice but nothing too taxing.

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The fun boxes hold activities that can be done without help but still have educational value. Fine motor skills, problem solving, language development and more are included here on a rotational basis.

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Monday has magnetic dressing dolls, playdough and letter stamps and our “Day and Night” puzzle that requires the children to match the silhouette or picture in the direction cards.

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Tuesday has finger puppets, regular cardboard puzzle and lacing beads. The large wooden lacing stick makes it easier for little fingers to put the beads on.

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Thursday’s workbox has another puzzle, magnetic pictures and magnetic white board and number lacing beads.

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The Friday box includes a puzzle plus magnetic alphabet letters and and magnetic whiteboard, along with some paper, scissors, glue, texts and Star Wars wrapping paper (saved from the Christmas presents) to create with.

Our little man was already asking to have a go at bits and pieces as I was putting these together so that’s a good sign. Keeping school toys out of the general rotation means that these are almost like new and he can’t wait to start.

Next up; the 6 year old twin’s cupboards. Year 1 here we come!

 

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Preschool at our house: Workbox system for 5 year olds

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Here is the latest workbox style arrangement for our 5 year old preschoolers which will allow them to get the direct instruction from me that they need as they learn basic reading and writing skills, while at the same time having some degree of independence in their other work. I have always invested some time in one-on-one teaching at this age because helping each child to become a proficient reader is one of the keys to independent learning and self-educating later on (one of my goals for all my children.) The children have access to plenty of creative play opportunities and lots of great hands-on learning tools at other times in the day but this morning period is slightly more “bookish” as we step into more formalised learning.

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My older girls (7 and 9) both work from a written schedule for several reasons; they know exactly what to do, when to do it and how much they need to do before they are done for the day. My 11 year old son also works from a schedule, but is free to decide the “when” for himself, having shown responsibility in managing his time in the past. The twins (5 years) have a pictorial schedule to gently ease them into a more independent role in the future but don’t really need it because their boxes are numbered and they are under my direction anyway. (It’s more so that I can keep track of what they are supposed to be doing!)

I researched workbox homeschooling several years ago and most of the examples I found on the web involved nightly or at least weekly changing of the contents. I knew that wasn’t going to work for me so I devised a simple system that only needed to be changed out about once a month. (See details here.) There will be some items in the boxes that needs to be updated more regularly (Sight words as they are learnt for example) but this will require minimal effort as the sets of words etc. that I need are all ready to go.

Some advice that I always give beginner homeschoolers, especially those with a large family, is to set their homeschool up so that  it will continue to run without them as much as is possible. Life intrudes; an unexpected visitor, an unscheduled phone call, the baby is sick and on and on. Set things up so that you are not required to be “teaching” directly all the time or the pace may be too hard to keep up. With only one or two children you may be able to do it but not with the number of blessings we have!

So.. what’s in the boxes?

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Daily diary writing (See full explanation here.)

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Bob Books and a file folder game to practise sight words. As the child chooses a word it is read and fed to Mugs the dog through the hole in his mouth. (See this post for how to teach children to read and this one for some info on beginner readers.)

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Segmenting words game based on All About Spelling level 1. I am using this programme as a rough guide at this stage. We will get into it more next year but for now our activities are loosely base around the progression in this book which is very thorough. We are using the flip boxes to review the single sounds we already know before moving on to more complex phonograms.

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Montessori style counting activity tray. Developing one-to-one correspondence is crucial before any real maths skills can be developed and these simple counting activities give heaps of practise while also working on fine motor skills. In the top activity the expresso cups are set out with the numbers in order from 6 to 10 and the child uses the tongs to add the correct number of sugar lumps to each cup. In the second activity the small tongs are used to transfer the correct number of marbles to the suckers on these soap holding shapes – the kind that suction onto your sink to stop the soap slipping away.

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We use Math-u-see for the first couple of years and Primer is the first book in the series. I cover all of the concepts with  hands-on tray activities first and once they are well mastered the children can work through the book as a bridge to the bookwork they will be doing the following year. We also have the Dive CD’s which have videos for each lesson in the student books so some added “teacher” instruction is given as well to help fill any small gaps that may still be there.

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Tracing letters and numbers. I try to supervise handwriting practise to ensure that the correct letter formations are being made. There are heaps of free worksheets on the net. Look for some in your preferred font and laminate them if you choose for repeat practise. For children who find fine motor control difficult, the channel writing (bubble letter style) are the best because it allows more leeway than dotted letters for wobbly pencil paths. It can be very discouraging for children who try so hard and yet cannot stay on that dotted line. The “fat” letters to keep inside are somewhat more forgiving.

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The last workbox contains a selection from some free printable worksheets to go with the Bob Books that I have found online, mainly for my daughter who finishes all her school work in nanoseconds and wants to know what else there is to do. She loves to do “real” school work like her older siblings so the more books and worksheets I supply her with the happier she is. My son will do them if he wants to which will translate to not doing any at all except possibly using the bingo dotters to follow the word paths simply because he wants to randomly dot paint everywhere 🙂

 

Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers

Twin's tot school activities

Whether you like to call them Montessori tray activities, tot school, preschool, workboxes, workjobs, shoebox tasks or Ziploc bag activities, providing younger siblings with engaging, educational and worthwhile tasks to do while you homeschool older siblings is vital for a smooth day with well occupied children.

While you can get some schooling done while little ones are napping, I prefer to get the bulk of our formal schooling completed as early in the day as possible when the children (and I) are freshest. Last year we had around an hour while the younger ones were in room time (playpen time for littlies) and we could also use mat time (or blanket time.) Now that we have older children though, this is not long enough to complete all of their workload and the twins are turning 3 so a new era has dawned!

The twins will be “starting school” with the big kids. They will now be included in our morning circle time, followed by table activities before they go off to room time. The list of possible table activity ideas is almost endless but our “school” trays will be more Montessori in style.

As I have done in the past, I have chosen a list of categories for each tray and put one example of each category out on the shelf. When it comes time to update the trays in a couple of weeks as interest declines, I will simply swap out the materials but keep the type of activity the same. (See starting out.) This term our trays are gluing, cutting, stickers and drawing, tong transfer, spooning/teddy play, scooping/teddy play, threading. Duplo copying and water pouring. 

The best thing about this year’s preparation is that in the past I have taken photographs of all our tray activities along the way. This meant that I could simply hand the older children a couple each and ask them to go and get everything in the photo and assemble the activity. I pointed out that this was an opportunity to bless their little brother and sister. They quite enjoyed doing it, especially as I gave them latitude to change the activities a little with different pretty pots and equipment to suit their own tastes. In about an hour we had a whole term worth of trays set up and ready to go. (Plus the extra half hour to put away all the mess that the children created as they were collecting the gear but I wont mention that!)

Learning letter names and sounds

Whether you are homeschooling or have a young child at school, most of us will at some stage be helping our children learn their letter names and sounds. There are many different ways to do this, from rote learning with flash cards to games and hands on workjob style activities.

I use quite a few different methods depending on the child, their rate of learning and preferred learning style and the time I have available to teach them. One of the more hands-on approaches I have employed is an alphabet chart. Again, this is something I made way back in my Uni teacher training days that has been useful through 7 years of teaching and now has made it’s way to the third child in our family.

I do not introduce the letters for the first time using the chart – there are too many all at once and it is too overwhelming. We go through the alphabet one letter at a time, adding more as the child is ready. (I’ll post about this another time.) Once the child knows quite a few letter names and most sounds I introduce the pocket chart. It can be used in many different ways. Here are just a couple:

  • Matching lowercase letters to uppercase letters.
  • lucky dipping letter cards from a pillowslip, naming them, saying their sound and then sliding them into the correct pocket.
  • sorting small objects by their initial sound (first sound you hear when you say the word) into the correct pocket.
  • setting up a word bank system with picture and word cards that begin with each letter “filed” in each pocket for children to use during creative writing.
  • find the hidden toy games where the child checks the pockets for a hidden items and must name the letter and sound to be able to keep the item. (Just for the duration of the game though, although you could include a little treat surprise every now and then.)

These objects are one set I use for initial sound sorting.

A second set of objects for initial sound sorting.

To begin with, all alphabet chart work is done one-on-one with me, however once the child begins to grasp the concept of initial sounds, I give them a bag or box of objects to sort into the correct pocket as an independent activity. It is self-checking because there is never more than one object for each pocket so if they find one already there, they know they have made an error and can self correct.

If you are not able to sew a chart, you could make one using cardboard and add Velcro spots to attach the letter cards or large sturdy envelopes to act as pockets for the items. If you plan to use it for any length of time or with more than one sibling it would be worth taking the time to sew one up. It might be a nice project for Grandma perhaps??

Homeschooling with toddlers: Duplo copy and build

Here’s another fun yet educational activity for your toddlers or pre-schoolers to do while you homeschool the older children (or just get some dinner cooked!) It works as a Montessori style tray activity, table activity, playpen activity or mat time (blanket time) activity and can be adapted in difficulty to suit a wide range of ages.

Assuming you own Duplo (or any other suitable construction toy) and a digital camera, it costs almost nothing to make and is simple to put together. Older children could be enlisted to make the models required.

Simply make a selection of small models, photograph them individually and put only the pieces needed to construct each one into separate containers. Print the photos (laminate if you want them to last) and put them with the corresponding model and that’s it! The child simply uses the blocks supplied to copy the photo. The activity is self-checking in that there will be no spare blocks left at the end if they have copied correctly.

The easiest model for a 2 year old to copy might simple be a stack of 3 or 4 square Duplo blocks. Each set given from then on can increase in difficulty by adding more blocks and changing the complexity of the designs. It may need some teaching at first for the very young children to grasp the concept, but once they understand what to do they will be off and running. After each model is created children can play with the little set of bricks and try to make something different with it. Little boys in particular love to build, however my girls have enjoyed the challenge of making the colours and shapes of the blocks match exactly.

Workboxes – homeschooling multiple ages

With many children in the family, juggling different levels of homeschooling can at times be a challenge. One of my long-term goals is for each child to become a completely independent learner, to be able to educate themselves in any way necessary to equip them for their future careers and life. Once each child is an independent reader, this becomes much easier and it is therefore the children in the 4 to 6-ish bracket that receive the most one-on-one parent directed teaching as they learn their basic phonics, reading and mathematic skills. As they progress through the next couple of years or so and become proficient readers, they begin to work more and more independently.

Workboxes are one method of encouraging independence and organising several different learners at different stages. They can take different forms; some families have a system of drawers whereby the child starts at the top drawer, completes the set task in it, moves on to the drawer below and so on until their daily responsibilities are completed. This allows them to see their progress and gives even non-readers a very clear indicator of what they are to do next. There is no wandering around collecting or organising supplies as everything necessary for the activity is in the drawer (other than a caddy or pencil-case of stationary items that is collected with the first drawer work.)

This kind of system is great for all children and is particularly helpful for those who like to know what is coming next, those who tend to argue or complain about what they do or do not have to do for the day and those who waste a lot of time finding books and supplies instead of working. Everything is black and white and dictated by the drawers. You are not finished until the last drawer is done. They can even include music practice, computer time, chores or any other kind of task a child is responsible for in a day.

I love the idea of workboxes set out in this way but didn’t want to have to swap out activities on a nightly basis. While the year one child for example does reading and phonics every day, they do not do exactly the same activity so the drawer system would require me swapping out the phonics drawer every night. The same applies for maths which is a daily activity, however the form that it takes changes daily.

Miss 3 1/2 year old’s cupboard – 1 workbox and 1 tray per day.

Miss 6 year old’s shelf – 1 workbox per day.

In the end I took the basic idea of the workbox (that is every piece of equipment necessary and every activity needing to be completed throughout the day is in the box) and tweaked it to fit our family. Our workboxes are simply a plastic crate containing every activity that must be completed throughout the day for each child within the one box (or in some cases a box and a tray for each day.) There is a box for each day of the week, apart from Wednesdays when our eldest son attends a homeschooling co-op and the girls have a more relaxed day of craft and cooking etc.

I set them up at the beginning of the term and only need to change them when content such as reading books need to be updated, rather than on a daily or weekly basis.

For those of you who are interested, here is what’s in the boxes.

Miss 3 1/2:

Monday: counting workjob, starter styles (Pre-number at the moment) and peg board. (She is learning the alphabet letter names and sounds but we do them everyday so they sit separately on the top shelf, rather than in any one box.)

Tuesday: Letterland phonics, counting workjob, puzzle and colouring in.

Thursday: Montessori style tong activity, book, counting workjob, pattern blocks and puzzle cards.

Friday: counting workjob, Montessori style spooning activity, diary writing and puzzles.

Miss 6’s work boxes:

Monday: Reading, 3 letter words spelling book, addition workjob, phonics & spelling starter styles and Montessori sight words picture match.

Tuesday: reading, handwriting, Montessori sight words picture match, phonics digraphs, number starter styles and subtraction workjob.

Thursday: Diary writing, Montessori sight words picture match, number starter styles, reading and geoboard activities.

Friday: Reading, calculations starter styles, Montessori sight words picture match, sight words activity book and base 10 activities.

Master 8 yr old’s school work is not in workboxes. He has his own desk with drawers and keeps his school book sorted into those. He does do some hands on work; however the morning session (which is when we use the workboxes) is when he does his book work. He has a weekly schedule to follow which tells him which subject to do on what day and  he works through this in order; a kind of “workbox on paper.”

He uses a mixture of Saxon Maths and Maths-U-See, Mystery of History, Exploring Creation, copywork, lapbook activities, Color the Classics and English for the Thoughtful Child.

We all have circle time together, with the focus on bible reading, character training, scripture memorization, catechism and prayer. I spend time with Miss 3 1/2 while Master 8 and Miss 6 work independently, then one-on-one with Miss 6 while the others work independently and finally time with Master 8 while both girls finish off their activities and head outside.

This is what is working for us at the moment, although as life changes and new challenges appear (such as the twins dropping their morning nap sometime soon!), everything changes again. But that’s life with little ones!