Wacky World of "Unpreschooling"
“Your child’s friends are all either already in preschool or will be there very soon. You feel confused, isolated, and lost between the cracks....”
Actually, the picture is a little more complicated. Much of this has to do with the circumstances surrounding unpreschoolers and their parents. To state the obvious, unpreschooled children are very, very young. They require a lot more regular supervision and maintenance than school-aged children. Unpreschoolers are known for very rapid growth and development. This is accompanied by upheavals and growing pains of various sorts. Also, unpreschoolers often come accompanied by younger brothers and sisters, who usually require even more care and supervision.
Needless to say, the parents of unpreschoolers are pretty exhausted and overwhelmed much of the time. Most of them are also rather new to parenting, and may lack the long-term perspective of veteran homeschoolers. Home educating children of any age requires leaps of faith, but unpreschooling may require even greater leaps. It can be hard to imagine a two-year-old ever being able to read, write, count, share toys, pay attention, or use the toilet without divine intervention – or formal instruction. It can be equally hard for unpreschooling parents to imagine having time to themselves ever, ever again.
To make matters worse, the preschool decision tends to come at a point in time when mothers at home often find their social network disintegrating. Long-established playgroups often disband between the children’s second and third birthdays. One by one, old friends disappear as the children go to preschool and the mothers return to jobs or other interests. If the playgroups continue, the talk is often of nothing but preschool: how wonderful it is, how many new things the children are learning, and how much more time the mothers have. The family who chooses not to take this route can feel isolated, confused, and adrift.
Basically, unpreschooling families need the same things as any other home educating family: information, support, and encouragement. The difference is in the details.
Doubting One’s Ability
Prospective home educating parents often doubt their ability to help their own children learn. Unpreschooling parents often share these doubts with a greater intensity because they have less experience watching their children grow and learn. They may think that abstract concepts such as colors, letters, numbers, and shapes can only be acquired through formal instruction. They may not be aware of how many educational toys, tools, and experiences they already have right in their own homes. Veteran home educators can help by sharing their own experiences with their very young children (including how they overcame their early doubts and fears), and by sharing resources especially designed for facilitating learning in the early years.
“Prospective home educating parents often doubt their ability to help their own children learn. Unpreschooling parents often share these doubts with a greater intensity because they have less experience watching their children grow and learn.”
Like most beginning home educators, unpreschooling parents are concerned about “socialization.” Unpreschooling parents worry about whether their children will acquire social skills without formal instruction. To complicate matters, very young children are often prone to anti-social behaviors (tantrums, disobedience, not sharing, inability to participate in groups, not following directions, hitting, biting, etc., etc.), which may seem to have no end in sight. Veteran home educators can help by sharing their own experiences about how their children gradually learned social skills over time with plenty of loving guidance from their families. Support groups may want to consider adding their favorite books on toddler issues to their group libraries.
Unpreschooled children rely on their parents to find them playmates and friends. Unfortunately, many families with very young children find it difficult to find playmates who are neither in daycare, preschool, or both. Organized recreation center classes and their ilk are often unsuitable for this age group, since many children under age five are not yet ready to separate from their parents or to participate in a structured group experience. The mixed-age gatherings typical of many homeschooling support groups can be beneficial for very young children, but sometimes the unpreschoolers get lost between the cracks, being too old to sit quietly in mom’s arms and too young to keep up with the school-aged kids.
Often, what the parents of unpreschoolers really crave is a support group or playgroup just for families with similarly-aged children. Parents of very young children sometimes are not familiar with their community’s resources, and may not know how to network with other families at home. Veteran home educators can help by directing families to appropriate support groups when they exist, or by helping interested families to start their own groups. A successful unpreschooling group needn't be complicated or fancy – three or four families meeting weekly at a home or park to play, talk, and possibly do a short project together, can be all that is required.
“Burnout” is a common concern for home educating families. Parents of very young children are especially prone to burnout, since their children’s needs are so intense. “Finding time for myself” can be almost impossible in a home filled with babies, toddlers, or preschoolers – or all three. Veteran home educators can share creative and resourceful ideas and strategies for how to run a household, run errands, pursue a favorite hobby or pastime, get exercise, or just relax with young children in tow.
Often, unpreschooling parents may have unrealistic expectations about their child’s knowledge or behavior, which can lead to conflicts and stress in the home. Conflict can arise over trying to impose too much structure on young children. Parents of young children may find it helpful to read books and listen to experienced parents discussing the range of “normal” child development and appropriate expectations for children of a specific age.
When the Unpreschooler has an Older Sibling
For most home educating families, life is a continual balancing act, trying to meet the needs of two or more children simultaneously. This can be especially challenging when trying to meet the needs of a school-aged child (or children) and an unpreschooler at the same time. Very young children can be very demanding, and usually are not known for their patience. Also, little brothers and sisters often want to participate in their siblings’ activities in less than ideal ways. They may enjoy such questionable activities as scribbling in textbooks, spilling math manipulatives all over the floor, knocking over the science projects, and screaming during story time.
“Whatever their motivation, philosophy, or long-term goals, unpreschoolers and their parents deserve respect, empathy, and answers to their questions.”
Experienced home educators can share their personal coping strategies for dealing with younger siblings while helping older ones learn. While there are many popular ways to handle this problem, each family must choose the strategies which best fit their family’s needs, and tailor them to fit their own unique situation. Some families adapt their activities to meet the needs of all their children simultaneously, using unit studies or child-initiated learning. Other families make liberal use of classes and activities outside the home during the years when their children are younger. Some parents have found that the younger child will behave better while mom is working with older children if they give the little one a special toy or activity, or if they spend quality time with the child before and after spending time with the older children. Other possible courses of action include saving certain activities for younger children’s nap times, using a baby-sitter (which could be another family member), or even sending the youngest child to a regular “Mom’s day out.”
Life after Unpreschooling
For many families, unpreschooling is a stepping stone on the way to full-fledged official home education in a few years. For others, unpreschooling is merely a temporary state until their children are mature enough for school. Over time, many of these families may choose to unschool beyond their original goals – or they may decide to send their child to school far earlier than they had originally planned.
When working with unpreschoolers, experienced home educators need to keep in mind that every family has its own unique needs and dynamics, which may differ from their own. Whatever their motivation, philosophy, or long-term goals, unpreschoolers and their parents deserve respect, empathy, and answers to their questions.
Working with prospective home educating families with very young children can be exhausting and frustrating at times. At the same time, it can be gratifying to watch these young children grow and mature without schooling, while their parents build confidence in their own and their children’s abilities. And who knows? Before too long, they too may be participating in that heated debate at your next support group meeting!
Celeste Land homeschooled her two children in Vienna, Virginia from preschool through high school. For 15 years, Celeste counseled numerous prospective homeschooling parents in her various roles with state and local homeschool organizations. This article was first published in the now-defunct Home Education Magazine and we are pleased to make it available once again.