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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Looking Back: What I Wish I’d Known About Homeschooling in the Early Years

    August 15, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    We all have our regrets, right? (If you’re new to homeschooling, just give yourself a day or two. Then, you will have regrets, too.) Preschool is only the beginning of things we give our children to talk about with their therapists when they are grown.

    Let me start by sharing with you the truth: the number one regret I have heard homeschool moms mention is getting too academic too soon with their children.

    Thinking through what many homeschool moms regret. Plus: seven aspects of the ideal core curriculum for preschoolers and kindergarteners.

    It’s easy to do. Once you know you’re going to homeschool, you get itching to start. It gets even worse if you’re under pressure from well-meaning family and friends to prove yourself, or you’ve been over-exposed (one exposure is one too many) to those silly books about teaching your baby to read using flashcards. It is often the firstborn, or the first couple of children, who suffer from the mother’s eagerness.

    For me, early academics came as a way of killing time. It started when my oldest (who is in high school) was two-years-old, and I was on bedrest. There isn’t much I can change about that part, which I think is why it gets my heart aching every single time. So many of my memories from that time consist of me laying on the couch, trying to keep my pregnancy (and also my lunch), with him so patiently hoping for something to do together.

    It wasn’t horrible. He’s naturally a schoolish sort of person, so it could have been worse. But still: if I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently.

    We spent a lot of time on numbers and colors and letters — the “important facts” of early childhood. Admittedly, I was so green with nausea that reading aloud wasn’t possible a lot of the time.

    But still.

    I never asked the question of what early childhood is for or whether there were better things to do with him, better ways to have him spend his time. The trend I started when he was two continued through all of his preschool and kindergarten years while I continued to get pregnant, have babies, nurse babies, and so on.

    Today, I’m going to tell you what I’d do, knowing what I know now, with my preschoolers and kindergartners if I were starting all over again (something like what my younger children actually experienced). Other than giving them plenty of time to play, here are seven aspects of my “core curriculum” for littles.

    Important thing to remember: kindergarten is still little. Don’t rush it.

    1.  Go outside.

    My little guy didn’t really like going outside, and I didn’t have the energy and stamina to fight with him about it. But if I could do it over, I’d figure it out. I’d ask for help from my husband or family or friends. Going outside while on bedrest can be complicated, of course, but I’m sure I could have borrowed some sort of reclining outside chair from a family member to make it possible to be outside and lie on my side at the same time.

    Simple things like a bird feeder or hummingbird feeder might have attracted creatures worth knowing about, worth knowing the names of. A little spade and a bucket might have made him quite happy, especially if I had been nearby. Bugs would have been available, as well as the occasional cloud. With a hose, he could have made mud — though cleaning him up might have been a challenge.

    If I hadn’t been on bedrest, a whole world would have opened up to us. I could have taken him to the park, where we could have learned the names of all the trees. We could have learned about north and south, the direction the sun moves, where it rises and sets, and a million other things. All of this could have been learned through conversation, just him and me, discussing the world.

    Being outside hours and hours a day is so important for children. I hadn’t yet been introduced to Charlotte Mason, but her chapters on outdoor life in Home Education are priceless resources for the early years. They are what helped me transition to more outdoor time.

    2. Listen to music.

    I like things quiet, especially when I am overwhelmed (which was basically all of my first seven years of motherhood), meaning we weren’t listening to much of anything. Plus, smart phones with applications that play music were still a number of years away from being invented. Music, you see, wasn’t quite as easy to come by. Still, I think I had some CDs from a music history class I had taken in college, and I even remember that my son liked them. I should have done much more with them. In the early years, we moms always want to start introducing the things that feel important, like writing and math.

    But music. This we forget. My older wiser self would tell my younger self to start with the music. Tiny children are not yet ready for the three-r’s, but their souls are in tune with the good, true, and beautiful — they are always ready for music.

    A curriculum like AmblesideOnline, with the scheduled rotation of composers is just perfect. At these young ages, not much is necessary other than listening. Maybe just a simple sentence such as, “Let’s listen to our Bach music.”

    3. Look at beautiful pictures.

    I saw a mom on Facebook whose little one-year-old already has a tiny store of beautiful pictures in her mind. She carries around a tiny copy of a Cassatt painting and shows it to her dolls. Truly, this mom has chosen the better way, I thought to myself. While my toddler was staring at geometric shapes — garishly colored triangles and octagons (“ah-gah-gon” he would say at age 2), hers is seeing actual beauty.

    I didn’t know any better, so there is nothing I can do about the past, but I can warn those who come after me. If you have to make a choice, choose paintings. Choose art. Choose beauty.

    Again, I refer you to AmblesideOnline. The artist study page has so many choices. You can choose what is scheduled, or you can select something you think is particularly fitting for your child. Picture study with little ones is oh so simple. We don’t make demands upon them, because they are so young. We simply hold out the painting. “What do you see?” “What do you love?”

    4. Read aloud, especially nursery rhymes.

    Reading aloud in general is great, yes. Read those picture books over and over until they fall apart, yes. But one thing that wasn’t on my radar at the time was nursery rhymes. I should have owned an Original Mother Goose, and I should have read a poem or two every day after we read our Bible story. Not only are nursery rhymes (and other poetry) so nourishing to young minds, but they develop the aesthetic sense — it is an early way of learning about rhyme and rhythm.

    5. Don’t start reading lessons until they are ready, and then make them very, very short.

    Someday I will explain the full story as to why I developed the Teaching Reading with Bob Books Printable Phonics Lessons. For now, let me say that the most important aspect of my program is that it is designed to naturally limit reading lessons to only 10-15 minutes per day.

    My oldest child mostly taught himself to read, it’s true. But sometimes, as he was figuring things out, he would need lessons. And I, naturally, thought that if five minutes was good, thirty was even better. I almost made this sweet, natural reader of mine hate reading!

    Reading lessons do not have to be complicated, and they do not need to take a lot of time to be effective. Reading lessons should never take longer than necessary.

    When I couldn’t find a program out there that was designed to be this simple — that respected the fact that reading lessons should be a very small part of an otherwise richly lived life, I made one.

    But let’s say you’re not using my program. Fine. I still beg you not to go on and on with the reading lessons.

    As far as when to start lessons, that is an easy one: the rule of thumb with Teaching Reading with Bob Books is to start at age six, or when they start begging, whichever comes first. It is okay to teach reading in kindergarten, or even preschool, if the child is demanding it. But if not, please wait. It is okay to wait and start reading in first grade. The secret is that they usually learn much faster when you wait until they are older.

    6. Play math rather than drill math.

    If you need a book on this, try Kate Snow’s Preschool Math at Home. Once you get a sense for what she’s doing in the book, you should be able to incorporate simple activities, such as counting, into the day-to-day.

    You’re at the grocery store, shopping for apples. Have your preschooler hold the bag and count out the apples as you put them inside. Grocery stores are wonderful places for learning to count, learning a bit about weight, and more.

    7. Work hard together.

    In the preschool and kindergarten years, chores are oft overlooked. Personally, I think they ought to be part of the core curriculum! Not only do well-trained children make “real” homeschooling (first grade and up) so much easier, but these younger years are when children are excited to learn. It can slow you down, it’s true. But the time invested when children are little pays off later and makes it oh so worth it.

    Let them do laundry. Let them do dishes. Let them help you cook and clean. Give them every little job you can think of, and let them work alongside you. Children love to feel big and helpful.

    The days are long, but the years are short. In no time, your children will be ready to start formal lessons. Learn from the regrets of so many others and protect these young years from academic pressures. You’ll be so glad you did.

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  • Reply Priscilla van Ballegooy July 31, 2021 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks Brandy, this is a beautiful reminder of how lovely the preschool years can (and should) be. As a Christian, I’d add two more things to the list: singing hymns together (self explanatory), and saying scripture verses. My 3 year old loves to repeat Bible passages and verses after me, in a totally relaxed fashion…no pressure to memorize. I say it, she parrots. In fact, as a 1 year old trying to get her to sleep (she was a terrible sleeper), I’d recite Psalm 23 (and other Psalms) in a whisper and soon she would complete the lines for me.
    Children appreciate the rhythm and beauty of language of the Psalms, particularly. And how good for an anxious child to know that they do not need to fear, because the Lord is with them?
    And I’m with you on the eldest pushed into academics too early. I have regrets too from my eldest 3 children. Trying to do things differently with my younger 3!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 2, 2021 at 9:58 am

      Oh that is a good add! When my husband was hospitalized and almost died our first year of homeschooling, I was so glad the children already knew some hymns we could sing together.

  • Reply Leisa September 9, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    What fantastic timing! I was just considering what to do with my 3 yo boy. We have several hours in the afternoons and I was considering what and how I should be teaching him. Thank you!

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  • Reply Abby August 22, 2016 at 12:47 am

    Don’t be too upset over how that time was spent with your son! He was in a loving home, with a loving mother, who was doing the best she could while on bedrest. I think we are all a little too hard on ourselves at times. Your circumstances were hard, and you were still trying to teach him things and spend time with him! I think that was awesome!

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  • Reply Mary August 17, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Tara, I know your question was directed to Brandy, but I hope you don’t mind if I jump in and share my experience 🙂

    I first started reading Mother Goose and other nursery rhymes to my son about a year ago, when he was 2. Like you, I thought many were very strange (and sometimes violent). I would pick and choose whatever looked the least odd. But my son liked them, and after awhile I was surprised to realize that I really enjoyed reading them. And even more surprising, some of my favorites are the ones that make the least sense! I’ve come to realize that the beauty of nursery rhymes is that they don’t have to make sense. They are silly, whimsical, and strange. I’ve learned to enjoy the whimsy and nonsense, and I even feel like my appreciation for poetry in general has grown.

    My son regularly asks to read “our poems,” and I hear him reciting them during playtime. I explain words occasionally, but the language doesn’t seem to phase him. (He’s 3 and a half now.) One of his favorites is “Old Mother Hubbard.” It makes no sense, but he thinks it’s hilarious. Of course, every child is different, but I would encourage you to just start reading and see what happens!

    And I can’t help giving a plug for my very favorite book of nursery rhymes: Volume 1 of the orange Childcraft books (mine is from 1954). Volume 2 has longer poems and it’s also excellent.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 8:18 am

      Mary, I am just now seeing your reply — and I LOVE it! ♥

    • Reply Tara August 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Hi Mary, I don’t mind at all! I welcome the input. Thanks for taking time to reply to me. I completely agree with you that the silly, nonsensical rhymes are great, and my son does learn them quickly (without effort) and recite them during playtime. We also sing them (some of them are available as songs on Amazon Prime, for instance), and we also create our own silly rhymes. He’s totally interested in rhyming right now, so he makes rhyming sounds (many of which aren’t actual words). So I do agree that there is value in silly, whimsical, fun rhyming.

      I think my main concern is more about the ones that are strange or violent, or about death. I think some might even reference slavery. I don’t have the books at the moment, as I returned them to the library a while ago, but I recall references to these things. My son is NOT one who just goes along with the reading even if he doesn’t understand it. He needs to know what it means and why. He also isn’t comfortable with hearing about someone dying, drowning, etc. So personally I chose to skip over those, rather than explaining those things — which, at least for my son, would have distracted from the enjoyment of the reading and ended in a million “why” questions.

      We do read other poetry as well, which is sometimes silly also. Sometimes he wants to know what things mean, and I admit, “Uh, I think that one’s just a silly rhyme!” And he laughs and agrees, “that’s a silly rhyme!” No harm in those, in my opinion.

      Thanks for the recommendation for the book you particularly like. I’ll look for it. Thanks again for commenting!

      • Reply Mary August 31, 2016 at 4:08 pm

        Tara, it sounds like your approach is perfect for your son! It also sounds like my book of nursery rhymes is more tame than the ones you found 🙂

        I try not to filter things just because they sound a bit violent to me (for example, Three Blind Mice), but if something upset him then I would definitely skip it. There are plenty of fun poems out there to choose from!

        Take care!

  • Reply Tara August 16, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Brandy, I have to ask about the nursery rhymes! We recently got some Mother Goose books from the library; I’ve seen so many recommendations for this (it’s on Ambleside’s Year 0 list also, right?). Some of the rhymes were very familiar, of course (Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary; Hey Diddle Diddle, etc); but some of them were downright strange and I couldn’t bring myself to read them to my 4-yr-old. And some that were familiar from my own childhood were actually more lengthy than I had realized; I’d only ever heard the commonly-known beginning, rather than all the extra stanzas — and the parts that I *hadn’t* ever learned were rather strange (thus why we didn’t learn them, I guess!). When you are reading Mother Goose to a preschooler, do you pick and choose, or read them all? I also felt that some of them would require alot of explanation, given that these rhymes were written in a different time and use words like sixpence and ale that he’s never heard. I felt pulled between the CM idea of not explaining or interpreting the reading for a child, and the reality that my little one simply doesn’t yet have the life experience or knowledge to know what in the world these things mean. What do you do? Similarly, I clicked over to view the AO artist schedule, and I’m wondering when you get to a painting like Allegory of Justice, do you use that one for a preschooler, or stick to the ones that are simpler?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 8:17 am

      You know, I just read them. My children who did get nursery rhymes (so my younger two) liked to rattle them off, even though they didn’t know all of what it mean. (Of course, when the dish runs away with the spoon, we all stop knowing! Ha.) On the rare occasion when they asked about a word, I told them (if I knew) or we looked it up.

      With my oldest child, I really did choose simpler pictures, yes. But as time went on, I was just including my younger children in what I was doing with my older, and so they got some of the less obvious pictures when they were quite young. What I noticed was that while they didn’t know what it all meant, they loved the paintings for their beauty. So in retrospect, I’m not sure it matters, unless a painting is scary (I’m thinking battle scenes or a couple weird ones from Durer, for example).

      • Reply Tara August 20, 2016 at 2:16 pm

        Thanks, Brandy. I just replied to Mary, so I won’t repeat all of it again here. I think maybe the main issue is that my son isn’t one who’s okay with not knowing what it means. Even for the silly, nonsensical ones, he wants to know what it means and I say it’s just a funny, silly rhyme. So then for the ones that are more strange or violent or about death, I skip them rather than trying to explain, especially since those topics are likely to upset him. I’m cool with the dish running away with the spoon, but it’s the ones that are more blatantly odd that concerned me. 🙂 I think there was one about somebody being shot in the head, people dying, etc. That is very different than the silly dish running away with the spoon, in my mind.

  • Reply Ginger August 15, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Thank you for these wise words! I have been feeling bad about the last couple years as I have been sick. But your article encouraged my heart as these are the things we have been doing! The academics have been less rigorous than I had planned. But maybe that was just God protecting me from my geeky academic self. Lol I needed to read this as I start the new year wanting to make this our “best year yet!” I need to remember they are all still little and there are important things that are not necessarily reflected on a report card. Thank you!!!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 8:12 am

      I am so sorry you have been sick! But yes — sometimes God really does protect us from ourselves. I have definitely found that in my energy struggles — that He is almost forcing me to prioritize.

      And yes on the reports cards — there is so much in what you said, and it is so true. ♥

  • Reply Missy August 15, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    YEAH! This is really my heart right now – encouraging moms to enjoy the moment. I didn’t do it and regret it. My oldest is constantly complaining because the younger ones don’t have to do as much academic work as he did – sorry buddy – you were my guinea pig. Great words of advice here. I will send young, stressed out moms I know here frequently. My older 6 yo is finally getting reading in large part because we waited and he is LOVING the Bob books. He feels so successful. Thanks for helping me figure out how to do it with your great work.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 8:09 am

      Oh, Missy! Thank you so much for saying this. I love hearing how the Bob Books are working for the students! ♥

  • Reply Erin August 15, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Agree on 100%!!

  • Reply Sarah August 15, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Oh my goodness, Brandy, you are speaking my language — especially the temptations to be overly academic as a fall back when you’re pregnant or nursing or dealing with toddler. My oldest is 4 and a half, and we are embarking on our first adventures in homeschool preschool next month, so this was just the reminder I needed. Thank you!

  • Reply Rebekah August 15, 2016 at 9:40 am

    I have agonized over this. My oldest child is 5, he has a late birthday so technically he should start kindergarten this fall, but I’m starting AO year1. He is ready to read, eager to learn, and I am ready for the structure (also have 4, 3, and 1-year-olds). I have always been of the “better late than early” mindset, but we’re doing it anyway! I hope I don’t look back in ten years and regret it…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 8:07 am

      You know, I really thought about starting my oldest on AO Y1 at age 5 because he started reading so young that he seemed ready for more. I totally get it! I ended up *not* doing that because everyone told me not to. 🙂 I am glad, because I’m happy he is only in Y9 at age 14 — it gets pretty heavy later on. But with that said, there are other ways to slow it down later. Y1 is very gentle, so I think what you have to guard against is expecting too much in the later years. I guess what I would suggest is to always keep in mind that your child is a year younger, and so make lots of adjustments as needed along the way. 🙂

      • Reply Lynette August 20, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        I am so thankful for how you laid it all out in this article. I constantly feel berated for doing school with my children when they’re not old enough yet, but as I read your list, I realized I’ve pretty much done it as you laid it out – except for the fact that I live in a northern climate and we had 100 year record winters when I had 3 children 3 and under – and it gets dark before 4pm. It seems we’ve always spent more time reading and doing Bob books in the winter. It preserved sanity. My daughter stopped and started again many times as we worked through the 5 sets. When I hear people tell me I shouldn’t be teaching them to read because they need to be outside more, I think, “How is our 5 min of Bob books on the days we do it ruining them?” especially when we literally can’t go outside. Anyways, now my 5 year old who will be 6 in 2 months has started Ambleside Year 1 with me. Because she’s more than ready. And I know there’s a year 3.5 in there. And actually we’re 2 weeks in and so many of our relationship challenges and behavioral issues are ironing themselves out for the moment. We needed this.

  • Reply Stacey August 15, 2016 at 9:32 am

    I have a 15 month old and have been trying to work out what a CM education will look like in the early years in our home. This article was so helpful! Thank you for sharing your ideas!

  • Reply Jessica August 15, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Brandy, I LOVE this! I find your blog very helpful and encouraging! I have a 7, 4, and 18 month old (who won’t nap unless she is being held?)…any suggestions for me regarding what my focus with my 7 year old should be? She is already reading. I don’t won’t to set us up for failure by over-loading but at the same time I want to accomplish things as well.
    Thanks so much!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 8:03 am

      I really think that academics start at 6 or 7, depending on the child, but yes! We still have to be careful not to overload and overwhelm. So around those ages, adding a simple math curriculum and working on it for 20 minutes or so is good. History tales and fairy tales are good — I think of it as giving them things to admire and things to think about. I also start teaching them proper letter formation — so a tiny bit of writing each day. Last year our youngest turned 7 and he spent 1-2 hours on “real” school (which includes our Bible reading or listening to good music or whatever) and then the rest of the time he was still outside having adventures with his puppy. 🙂

  • Reply Cyn August 15, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Thank you for sharing your pearls of wisdom! As a mum of three kids under 5 with the prospective desire to homeschool, it helps to hear from ‘been there and done that’ stage mothers what is truly essential. I shall be incorporating your suggestions.

    Thank you!

  • Reply Katrina August 15, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Every year I read AO Year 0 and try to figure out how to make it happen… This year I am determined to get my older girls out every day for Nature Studyso my 4 yr old can be outside more. I am still working on how to spend hours outside, but I pared down the time we spend on each subject and left us free afternoons so I am going to see what I can do to encourage the kids to spend more time outside.
    I also have committed to including the 4 yr old in our artist and composer study. I figure if he is focused on for the first few minutes, I won’t mind if he wanders off and then we can go more in-depth if necessary. I have high hopes for this year and I just keep reminding myself to persevere! To get up every day and do the work. As someone I admire once said… ?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 20, 2016 at 7:55 am

      Ha! I did say that, didn’t I?

      You know, one thing we did this week was lessons outside at our patio table. I wonder if that would help. I vaguely remember doing that when all of my children were little — lessons with the oldest while the others ran around outside.

  • Reply Tasmanian August 15, 2016 at 12:52 am

    Hooray for God’s timing. I have a lovely friend getting started and I have been fretting for a few days wondering which blog post would be the best to send her. Thank you SO MUCH Brandy. I look forward to sending this post multiple times to multiple starting-out homeschoolers (and people I might be trying to encourage!)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 15, 2016 at 6:46 am

      ♥ It is always amazing to hear how the Lord works in these things. I’m glad I could be a help. 🙂

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