How we unschool through prep - part 1 (from 4 - 7 years old)
Following on from our blog on '5 reasons not to send your preschooler to school' we have had questions about what you actually do when you keep a preschooler at home and are not ready to homeschool just yet! If you watched our talk at the online Australian Homeschooling Summit (you can still get the downloads of all of the talks! If you missed it) you will know that we follow an eclectic, somewhat unschooling approach to learning in our house.
Because unschoolers, natural learners and eclectic homeschoolers (those of us who do a little of this, and a little of that) still have to report to the education department in Australia, we try to keep daily or weekly records, and work backwards from what we are doing, and what our children are interested in. What works best for us is:
1. Having a routine
The idea of unschooling is highly subjective - for some it means not to do anything that is formal, sit-down learning, and for others it means not following a specific program or school-like course. For us, it means that our children are encouraged to find their passions and to explore those areas, while also studying maths, or doing some type of math-type activities, and a lot of reading and writing. They have complete freedom in choosing what they want to do in their 'study time' though our daily routine includes going out in the morning to do a fun / active activity, such as going to the library, museum, swimming or something else outdoors, then coming back home or to the library at lunch time, to do some reading, writing, and to 'study' or research whatever they are interested in.
' For us, it means that our children are encouraged to find their passions and to explore those areas...'
Like many unschoolers and natural learners, we started off with no routine. We encouraged our children to follow their passions all day every day, in whatever way they liked - and it just didn't work for us. The main reason being that we had a big family, and we had no time to do many of the things that were important to us. For example, in this scenario, we would have half of the house waking up at 5am to go to the beach, then waiting for younger (or older) members of the family to wake up several hours later, leaving half of the family irritated/ bored/ sitting down watching a movie or youtubing while waiting for the others to get ready, then ending up in arguments because by the time everyone was ready, there were other things that needed to be done!
'We encouraged our children to follow their passions all day every day, in whatever way they liked - and it just didn't work for us.'
We tried to do a 'morning shift' and an 'afternoon shift' where the early birds would leave the house for an early morning activity, then later, the late risers would go out when they were ready. The only problem being that with our mixed age groups, everyone needed Mum or Dad for transport, and once Mum was pregnant with our 5th child (right now! still pregnant!) it was just too tiring. Or we would organise a family activity and a child would be in the middle of a big, independent project, and would be really upset to have to leave it at an inopportune time! Our family time is very important to our family culture, so we needed to change something.
So we introduced a routine, with a schedule that we put up on the fridge, so that we have time for all of the things that are important to us. We all contribute to the schedule through a family meeting (including our preschool-aged daughter) and then decide what time of the day works best for us. Because we have a few very energetic children who won't sit in the mornings, we run around in the mornings, then have scheduled 'study time' in the afternoons, where everyone reads, does art, music practice, singing, or works on projects of their own.
2. Reading a lot
After we introduced study time, we also felt that television and internet gaming should be limited during this period (unless one of the older teens needed to look up something, or use the internet for something in particular to do with a project that they were working on). We put aside a big chunk of 4 hours for this quiet time, so our littlest utilises this time to be alone with Mum, and to curl up on the couch (on a good day!) and go through our extensive book collection. Being minimalists, there is very little that we have in the way of collections in our house, though the books are the last to go!
This week, I am 27 weeks in to my pregnancy, and we have a few pregnancy books around the house. Our 5 year old daughter set up her 'office' during study/ quiet time and announced 'I am in my office and I am working today!'. She then unexpectedly asked about the first few chapters of a science book on pregnancy, which had pictures of sperm under a microscope, which led to a discussion about sperm and eggs and how these people had managed to get photographs of the insides of people's bodies (eek! not usually what I would be expecting to explain at this age... but every child is different and this one is very curious and known for her intense investigative questioning!). The conversation ended in her expressing that she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up, because she wanted to dissect people and examine the insides of their bodies ( I have no words for that one...).
"When I grow up, I want to be a scientist so that I can dissect people's bodies and see what is inside there"
As unnerving as this was, she is in control of the questions that she asks, and the books that she comes across (albeit, the books that she can access in our house or the library) and all of a sudden we are skipping from 'prep' to year 8 biology...
The next day sees us back at the same book, this time after Miss 5 has walked in a few minutes of Mama and Grandma watching 'Love Child' on television - and a scene where a doctor is examining his own sperm under a microscope. Today she opens the book to the page about the sperm and the eggs, and explains that this is the same thing that was on that television show, with that doctor that was trying to have a baby. And ensues more interesting fertility discussion.
3. Explaining what is going on around her
We were moving house a little while back, and went for a month long drive between destinations. In our afternoon 'quiet time' the only place with chairs and tables was a communal room with a television in it. It was parliament question time, and our teenagers watched in ernest at the politicians savagely ravaging each other - keen to get a little drama in their day! Our 5 year old wasn't extremely interested, but we explained to her what was happening, and who these people were on the television. Her ears perked up when we introduced her to the Prime Minister, when it was his turn to talk, and explained that he had the head job of the country. Suddenly she is very interested in politics.
"When I grow up, I want to be the Prime Minister - I am going to be the boss of this country!"
A simple explanation of a 1 hour television segment and there is our first introduction to Australian politics...
4. Involving her in the life of our family and the people around her
We are a musical family (maybe you aren't - maybe you are a hiking family or a sporty family?) and music is part of our everyday life. Our 5 year old is never ushered out of rooms where music is being made or recorded, but is encouraged to sit and listen, or participate. In the car we play multiple genres of music, from those grungy Nirvana albums that we have kept since high school, to our son's hip hop and dance music, some heavy metal, a few opera recordings that her Nonna was practising with her big sister for their Italian choir, some Italian classical music that we bought at an Italian Festival a couple of years ago, festival folk music from a folk festival that we went to... and a multitude more. We listen together, explain the instruments, correct her when she sings the wrong lyrics, and all of a sudden she is a music aficionado
With interest, we find that she sings different genres of music that match up with the appropriate moods for different situations. We paint a mural in her bedroom and she hums 'The Doors' which is hilarious.
5. Working reading and writing in to everyday life
Being an active little person, our daughter is not keen on doing anything that looks like formal work. This is completely normal for this age group, and something that we understand! So when she suggests anything that has anything to do with reading and writing, we encourage her in that and play along with her 'games'. One day she is running a restaurant, and we write out menu's for her, and help her to write her own menu's. I am writing a schedule for myself and she grabs a little book to write her own schedule, to make sure that she can get in some time playing with her friends that week. She draws little pictures next to the days, to remind herself of what the writing means.
She is obsessed with playing memory, so we spend 3 days making our own sets of memory cards - some have letters on them, but others are more complex with names of people in our family on them. She very quickly memorises the names of 10 relatives in our house, plus her grandparents and her cousin. It is incredible how fast she remembers what those names look like when she wants to win the game of memory!
When it comes time to do her planning and reporting for the education department, it is much easier to write down what she wants to learn, and what she has learned, when we keep a daily diary of all of these little things that she is doing, learning, reading and living in her daily life - and we keep lots of pictures!
Up next week... How we unschool through prep (part 2) - how our 5 year old learned how to do mathematical problems without us knowing that she had!
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