There’s No Place Like Home: One Mother’s DIY Preschool

One mom of a wait-listed tot is taking matters into her own hands, designing a preschool program from the comfort of her living room

There's No Place Like Home: One Mother's DIY PreschoolOne Brisk morning last October, I strolled my 11-month-old son to the nearby co-op preschool to join the wait-list for the next fall, when he would turn two. I had just decided not to return to my job as a senior web editor for a women’s magazine so I could care for Cillian and do some freelance writing on the side.

My spirits were high as I manoeuvred the Peg-Pérego around great piles of golden leaves. I should have manoeuvred a bit faster, though, because 12 moms clutching application forms beat me to the front door of the nursery school.

Surrendering my filled-out form in the cubby room, I count about 40 coat hooks at tyke height. Forty spots. I stink at math, but juxtaposing the lineup against the low student turnover and the fact that junior siblings get first dibs, I quickly calculate the chances of Cillian getting into this nursery school. It doesn’t look good. Walking home, my ebullient mood turns harrumph-y. Fine, I mutter. I’ll do this preschool thing myself. I just have to figure out how.

Wait-lists aside, the spate of laid-off parents and recession-driven belt-tightening suggests that I won’t be the lone home-preschooler. For half-day programming one nursery school near me costs $4,700 a year, another, $6,500. Even the co-op, which relies on parents doing weekday shifts, deep cleaning, fundraising and snack schlepping, charges nearly $3,000.

“I agree that there is a home-preschooling trend,” says Toronto “mompreneur” Christy Cook, who has developed a learning kit for parents who want a DIY preschool experience. “It’s why my product has taken off this year,” she says.

With its foam puzzles, posters, books and flash cards, I’m hoping Cook’s Teach My Toddler kit (teachmy.com), which retails for $50, will make home-schooling a snap. (Plus, it would be nice to have some low-tech alphanumeric representation among the battery-run toys that colonize my living room.)

But now that I’ve figured out the “gear” part of my program, another thought comes to mind: What about socialization with other kids?

“Learning social skills has long been one of the most important goals for children in early childhood programs,” says Janice J. Beaty in the textbook Skills for Preschool Teachers (Pearson). “As children grow older, they need to develop into social beings who can get along with others outside their homes,” she warns.

Learning ABCs and 123s is not part of most nursery school curricula. The emphasis is on play, getting along and “learning how to trust someone who is not your parent,” one nursery school teacher told me. Many preschools follow an emergent curriculum, which means they build on each child’s interests and learning proclivities.

This I need to see. I arrange a little field trip, as an interested parent, to another preschool nearby. When we get inside, Cillian immediately squiggles out of my arms to commandeer a toy pram. A girl is twirling in a floaty costume, a boy is painting at an easel and a group of kids is concentrating intently on puzzles. At this moment there is no fighting or screaming, only contented play and chatter. Socialization!

My heart fills with desire for my little guy to attend this nursery school, filled as it is with sunbeams and kids’ artwork and little hands busy with the work of play. I decide to apply, even though the fees are steep. And, gulp, there’s a long wait-list.
In the meantime, I delve into various preschool styles. I’m keen to incorporate some aspects of the nature-loving Waldorf Method, created in the early 20th century by artist and scientist Rudolf Steiner. I’m also drawn to the Montessori approach, which draws on the methodology of 19th-century educator Maria Montessori’s “teach me to do it myself” approach.

I reached out to Gormley, Ont., mom of four, Melanie Andersen, who set up a Montessori home school when her daughter Haifa, now 9, was a toddler.

“I was attracted to Montessori’s ideas about the spiritual growth of the child and feeding their innate desire for beauty, order, doing good work, being helpful and taking care of themselves,” she says.

Online, I check out Andersen’s set-up. One image shows a child-height wash basin with soap; white shelves carefully stocked with special Montessori puzzles; and a little toddler-height food table with cereal, a glass water jug and ceramic dishware.

The idea is the child does it all: pours, eats and cleans. It’s lovely. However, I’m pretty sure the endless tidying and reminding to tidy would make me tear out my hair.
“Forget the meticulous approach,” counsels Andersen. “Initially, the extreme order of the method attracted me, but now I focus more on the general philosophy of Montessori,” she says.

Andersen, who home-schools all of her kids, teaches through modelling behaviour. “When a toddler is playing with blocks, I just sit there watching,” she explains. “If I put the blocks back in the basket, I’ll count. I’m modelling cleanliness and putting things away, and I’m teaching counting,” she says. “Though the child might not be looking, continuing to throw blocks around, he or she is absorbing my actions, learning from them and hearing the counting.”

Another method gaining ground in the United States is called Tools of the Mind. Despite the cultish-sounding name, it’s a well-regarded new curriculum developed in recent years by Russian and American educators. The idea here is that preschoolers understand and regulate their impulses — which some research suggests is a key indicator of future academic success — through the use of dramatic play.

In a Tools of the Mind school kids learn not to hit and how to share through role-playing. Apparently this is a better way of internalizing skills than just being told by an adult. Tell four-year-olds “Stand still, please” and they do it for less than a minute, one study shows. Tell them to pretend they’re guards at a factory and they can do it for more than four minutes. I read this in a recent New York Times Magazine article.

Teaching through pretend play appeals to me, though children younger than three are generally not ready for it. I zip through The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World (New Press), a lauded book by childhood expert Susan Linn, who promotes puppet play for kids. Stoked about including make-believe in my mommy’s preschool, I immediately get a sock and affix googly eyes, a bit of yarn hair and pull it onto my hand to show Cillian. He stares at the vaguely insane-looking puppet, yanks it off my hand and whips it onto the floor.

No matter. In the meantime, my Teach My Toddler kit arrives. I click open the blue accordion briefcase and Cillian and I play with the puzzles and posters. After a few days Cillian understands the word for star, touching the correct yellow puzzle piece. Yay! Preschool is in session.

All said, I have a well-rounded set of tools to draw from: Tools of the Mind will inform me as will the modelling ethos, if not the orderliness, of Montessori. From the Waldorf Method we can draw reverence from the natural world. I’ll incorporate the tips I’ve amassed from other home-schooling parents, and I’ll use the Teach My Toddler kit to round it all out. It’s all going into the pot.

Helen Racanelli is knee-deep in her preschooling experiment — although a tiny part of her still hopes her son gets into the nursery school with the sunbeams.

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