Lifestyle Parenting
Homeschooling Nahdezhda1906/iStock.com

February 26, 2016

How to homeschool a 4-year-old

Play-based learning, healthy weekly schedules and prioritizing what matters most

The following conversation happens multiple times a week. Sometimes, we are in the checkout line at the grocery store. Sometimes, we are playing at a local park. 

“How old is your son?” a friendly person inquires. 

“He’s 4,” I reply.

“Has he started school?”

“We homeschool,” I answer with a smile. 

Nine times out of 10, the response is positive. Our region’s public elementary schools are sadly notorious for poor outcomes, and private schools are expensive. Homeschooling represents a dynamic and increasingly popular alternative. 

“Good for you,” people often say.

As trained educators, there are many reasons why my husband and I believe that homeschooling our son, especially given his age, is in his best interest. In discussions with parents, I’m happy to share research about the benefits of our choice. However, more often than not, the confidence and joy I express when speaking about homeschooling elicits the following inquiry:

“I wish I could homeschool. How do you do it?” 

How do we homeschool our 4-year-old? This is the question I’m asked. Not, why we homeschool, but how.  

Discussion ensues. Which educational curriculum best guides preschool homeschooling endeavors? How to set up a weekly schedule? How do families make homeschooling work on a practical/financial level? These are central questions worthy of reflection should one choose to homeschool and do it well.  

The importance of a play-based learning curriculum

My son is 4. I don’t worry about structuring a homeschooling academic curriculum based upon an early mastery of reading, writing or arithmetic. While we read a great number of books together and occasionally sit down with a preschool workbook to study shapes, basic addition and practice penmanship, the vast majority of our time is spent in play.

Play. 

My son is a very active child. He loves to run, wrestle, get outside, play ball and dress up in his astronaut suit while pretending to be Neil Armstrong.

“I’m going to be the first person on Mars!” he declares. Then he flips a chair on its back so he can sit in it and look up at the ceiling. He’s preparing for blast off. 

We know that delaying kindergarten until the age of 7 has many benefits. Even if my husband and I didn’t plan to homeschool past the age of 7, which we do, we would still homeschool at this point in our son’s life. 

Far too often, parents conclude that they can’t homeschool because they doubt their ability to teach. How will their children meet hoped-for academic milestones? Yet, for parents of young children, the best way to support a child in meeting milestones, academic or otherwise, is through play. University of Cambridge education researcher David Whitebread asserts, “A number of longitudinal studies have demonstrated superior academic, motivational and well-being outcomes for children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes.” 

And homeschooling doesn’t mean one can’t plug into play-based programs outside the home. Often, people are surprised to realize how much of an open template homeschooling is. For example, I work from home as an educator and writer. I need time alone to focus sans my enthusiastic 4-year-old astronaut. So, I network with a local homeschooling mom who shares a similar attachment and evidence-based approach to parenting and education. Two to three times a week, my son spends the afternoon at her home and joins her three young children in making mud soup, building forts, mixing ingredients for homemade Play-Doh and diving into focused Lego construction. 

Homeschooling parents can provide each other with needed respite and support while fostering excellent small-group, play-based learning initiatives. In this sense, young homeschoolers can benefit from mirroring the experience of their northern European peers, who benefit from a play-based learning model wherein educators eschew the acquisition of reading skills until after kindergarten. In the U.S., far too often young children are saddled with the “crushing” expectation that they must sit still and focus for unnaturally long periods of time in order to “get ahead” academically. Yet, we know that delaying kindergarten until the age of 7 has many benefits. Even if my husband and I didn’t plan to homeschool past the age of 7, which we do, we would still homeschool at this point in our son’s life. 

By homeschooling, one can ensure that a child’s natural love for learning-through-play will not be quenched by good intentions absent of a basic knowledge of optimal child development. Why rein in a 4-year-old’s joyous energy to formally teach content that she or he will successfully master much more effectively when older? Even the weekly Aikido classes my son attends are structured to build a knowledge base of foundational concepts and moves through play. 

Crafting a weekly schedule

“What’s the plan today mama?” my little one asks.

We turn to the colorful weekly chart I’ve taped at his eye level on a wall in his bedroom. 

“Let’s see,” I reply, pointing to Wednesday. “Today the girls come over and we volunteer at the senior center.” 

“Great!”

Twice a week, I mentor two homeschooling girls ages 9 and 10. Together with the girls, we regularly volunteer at a local senior center as well as an organic garden. Building meaningful relationships with elders, one of whom is 104 years old, and tending to beautiful gardens bring much joy. We integrate community service as well as a great deal of time spent outdoors into a well-rounded and rich homeschooling schedule. 

NoneAmy Wright Glenn/for PhillyVoice

The author's son and his homeschooling friends volunteer at an organic garden.

The tired stereotype that homeschooling children are weird or awkward due to social isolation is finally being laid to rest. It takes only a cursory look at the schedule of today’s homeschoolers to see how fully involved many of them are in their community and peer networks. For example, within a 30-mile radius of our home, there are several local homeschooling groups that network to support each other. These active cooperatives sponsor sporting events and organize plays, choirs and field trips. I could easily fill up our week by joining just a fraction of the offerings regularly posted on my social media feed. As noted in the recent Tech Insider article “There’s a new path to Harvard and it’s not in a classroom,” creative homeschooling parents can craft exceptional and individualized educational experiences, schedules and frameworks that surpass what even the best private schools offer. 

When mapping out our homeschooling week, I ensure that our afternoon adventures or “big” activities allow for a restful start to our mornings and are followed by ample downtime in the evenings. I also keep one weekday fully open, free of any regular plans, allowing for spontaneous energy to flow. Sometimes, my husband, who is also self-employed, can unplug for a weekday and take our son on an 8-to-10-hour outdoor excursion. Sometimes, we use our open day to stay home in our PJs and play trucks. 

Given the inordinate amount of time most Americans spend in front of screens, I encourage parents of young children to minimize or eliminate screen time from “school days.” Yes, young children delight in being exposed to classic films like "Mary Poppins" or well-crafted children’s programs like the original "Sesame Street." My son enjoys watching Elmo talk with firefighters as much as the next 4-year-old. Yet, we’ve chosen to focus his modest, weekly screen time exposure to a 30-minute block of time on Saturdays. Screen time can too easily replace play-based learning with passive engagement, and the countless hours spent in front of a variety of electronic devices expose children to a wide variety of ill effects.  

It’s important to craft a homeschooling schedule that includes the repeating rhythm of meaningful activities bracketed by needed, unstructured (ideally screen-free) downtime for child-initiated play. Balancing rest, work, play, ample time outdoors and community engagement serve as a foundation for a healthy life. In the intensely frenetic pace of modern life, consciously integrating rhythm and rest are essential for a child’s natural creativity and curiosity to flower.

Making homeschooling work 

For many years prior to parenthood, my husband and I lived on two full-time incomes. We went out to dinner frequently and enjoyed memberships at local theaters and museums. While by no means wealthy, we traveled the world (Australia, Germany, Iran, Turkey, etc.), owned a small plane and lived an adventuresome, intellectually enriching and comfortable life. 

However, when our son was born, a significant shift in our economic status unfolded, by choice. The profound love that motherhood evoked in me inspired a joyful letting go of the full-time academic load I once embraced. Nurturing what my little one and I both truly desired -- simply ample time to be together --took precedence. 

Shifting from two full-time incomes to one wasn’t easy. I experienced my share of sleepless nights in crafting a successful work-from-home venture. We’ve downsized and simplified, significantly. Yet, by placing the quality of our relationships, secure attachments and heartfelt connections first, we nurtured true happiness. Such happiness is found in the prioritization of what matters most, not in the acquisition of things. 

Our family’s choice to homeschool is built upon this happiness. Homeschooling is a natural continuation of the fact that we love spending time together and exploring the world together. We also celebrate the choice to craft our own schedules based upon healthy daily rhythms and the values we cherish. 

I realize that the choice to homeschool can appear to be centered upon one’s economic privilege. For single parents struggling to get by each month, navigating work life plus homeschooling is a significant challenge. (Yet there are those who do it.) Families with two full-time working parents may wonder if it is possible for adults to nurture careers while homeschooling children. (The answer is yes). I’ve met some very determined and creative parents who homeschool despite the naysayers and the odds. For example, the parents of the two girls I mentor both work full time and have created an exceptional homeschooling program tailored to each of their girls' athletic and academic interests/needs. 

As parents, it behooves us to rethink commonly held assumptions regarding schooling, custodial care of children and work life. It is possible to homeschool a 4-year-old. By emphasizing play-based learning (for young children), structuring a healthy weekly schedule and prioritizing what matters most, many parents can make the shift and homeschool well. In an age of public school failings and soaring private school expenses, this is very much a good thing.


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