In just under three weeks, we will celebrate Alexa’s third birthday.
In the last three years, I have watched her grow from a helpless infant—so helpless that she required a little assistance even to get enough oxygen into her lungs at first—into an active little girl. She loves running around, jumping on her bed (though only when she thinks I don’t know), going to the playground, and zooming around on her ride-on giraffe. She also loves being read books, especially Curious George books; looking at books on her own; and playing games on her Daddy’s iPad—including but not limited to the educational Curious George games that teach her phonics and all sorts of random facts about various animals.
Several times over the last few months, I’ve thought about what we need to do to encourage and develop the love of learning that Alexa, like so many other children her age, perceives as so natural. This past weekend, I finally thought about it at a time when I was with Jeff, so we could discuss it.
As I see it, we have three options: send her to preschool; continue as we have been with unstructured play at home, which often turns into me teaching Alexa informally or into Alexa playing educational iPad games or watching educational movies; or keep Alexa at home, but use a planned curriculum so that for part of the day, she “attends” preschool at home.
The most common option among Foreign Service families, and indeed among families in the United States in general so far as I can tell, is to send children of this age “out” for preschool. There definitely are benefits to this approach. For families in which both parents work outside the home, this option makes the most sense and often is the only option that even occurs to them—many daycares function as de facto preschools, as they start teaching, telling stories to, and singing with the kids well before the age of three. This option also provides the most opportunities for children to socialize with other children, and for Foreign Service families, it’s an easy way to expose children to the local language and the local culture—even if the instruction is provided in English (as it usually is for the preschools chosen by Foreign Service parents), it’s very common for most of the children to use the local language in their play. However, it’s also the most expensive option—a preschool that is used by many expatriates in Pristina has a flyer (from five years ago) which lists annual tuition and fees of over 2,400 euro, or over $3,000, which can be a strain on the budget when you’re a single-income family that is trying hard to save money for future needs (such as a house, a child’s college, retirement, replacement cars, and anticipated trips back home to the States). And for a child with high social anxiety, like Alexa, the many opportunities (or requirements) for social interaction may be more of a problem than a benefit.
The second most common option (I’m guessing, but I think I’m right) is to keep the child at home and allow things to continue as they have been until the child is old enough for “real” school. This option is the most budget-friendly and easiest for families in which one parent stays home full-time. And it’s really all that’s needed in regard to school preparation for most children who do not live in poverty and who have loving, attentive parents. Just by doing what we’ve been doing, with no concerted effort at education, Alexa has learned her numbers to 20 (though she often skips a number or two, most often “16” lately), most of her letters, and a lot of her shapes and colors (though she tends to confuse “black” and “brown”), as well as miscellaneous things like left or right and top or bottom. She also navigates the menus on her Daddy’s iPad at least as well as I do and knows how to play the games on there much better than I do. I’d say she’s pretty well prepared, in a purely academic or intellectual sense, if we wanted to start her into kindergarten next year. But there’s more to education than these facts that she’s picked up; although we’re doing well at preparing Alexa at home in an academic sense, we are not doing as well in other areas. I’ve not done a good job in teaching Alexa Bible stories, and we don’t have age-segregated Sunday school to help me. Alexa has not held a pair of scissors, a glue stick, or a bottle of liquid glue. Her experience with pens, pencils, and even crayons is a bit limited—she still wants me to “help” her draw rather than doing it herself, and her ability to draw a straight line, much less trace a letter, is suspect. And these are only the things I realize she hasn’t learned. I don’t want her to miss out on things she could and should learn because I don’t naturally do things with her that would teach her that information or those skills. Also, as Jeff pointed out, we never want to give Alexa the impression that she’s learned enough for her age or developmental level, that she can stop learning until she hits a new milestone, at which point she’s expected to learn more. But to constantly teach her age-appropriate skills and information … to never be at a loss for what to teach her next … to have to remember all on my own all those songs and stories and skills that children her age seem to pick up in preschool … well. It feels a bit overwhelming.
And that brings us to option number three, the least commonly chosen choice: the decision to homeschool a preschool curriculum. This choice is the compromise between the other two in many ways. It’s less expensive than sending a child “out” for preschool, and it can be free if you use online resources, have access to a good public library (we don’t), and are willing to put in a lot of work getting organized (I’d rather not). Opportunities and requirements for social interaction are determined by the parents much as they were before formal schoolwork started; church, playgroups, and other social activities continue to provide that. The parent continues to teach his or her own child, but there’s a plan in place—developed by the parents, or developed by someone else and chosen by the parents—to make sure the child learns what the parent believes is important. Drawbacks also are a combination of the other two choices: it can be expensive (though even the most expensive option I’ve seen costs significantly less than the international preschool here). If the parent doesn’t arrange social interactions with similarly aged children, they don’t happen. And the responsibility for educating the child still lies squarely with the parent, so it can feel a bit overwhelming. In some ways, the responsibility can feel more overwhelming, simply because there are so many choices of curriculum, so many things to consider. How many parents of preschoolers have thought through their educational philosophy? How many know the differences among various models of education? How many even feel competent to begin formally (or informally, depending on philosophy) educating their child?
As you’ve probably guessed by now, we chose option number three. It’s the option that is the most work for me, the stay-at-home parent. It’s the option that my naturally lazy self would just as soon avoid—honestly, the easiest for me would be to send her out to preschool, even with the adjustments that would be required in other areas of our budget. But that wouldn’t be best for her. Despite her acquisition of information and skills, Alexa is a young three (well, a young almost-three). She isn’t ready to be away from me all day, or even all morning. She isn’t ready to spend all morning with a group of other kids, required to interact with them, or with a stranger for a teacher and caregiver. I could make the case for why it would be good for her to force her into these social situations, but I don’t honestly believe it. I believe that forcing her to be more social than she’s ready to be would cause her more anxiety and make the problem worse in the long run. So I intend to take her to one or two playgroups a week, and take or send her to Sunday school (assuming she doesn’t fall asleep and nap during that time). And I’ll make an effort to find a friend or two near her age, or maybe a year older, with whom she can spend a little one-on-one time and maybe get comfortable. But I’m not going to force her into social situations without me being there to be her safe haven.
It also would not be best for her to continue as we have been, without any forethought or planning when it comes to her learning. She’s learned a lot this way, but that only reinforces my belief that I need to make more learning opportunities available for her. I often start to teach her something one day, then forget about it until she mentions it a day, week, or month later—even when I do realize that there’s something specific and age-appropriate that I can teach her, I’m not good at the follow-through without a plan. Her learning to this point has been almost entirely self-motivated, which is good, but a lot of it has happened because we had the appropriate tools available: an alphabet puzzle, Curious George Learns the Alphabet, several Leapfrog alphabet-oriented movies on Netflix, for example, and she enjoyed them and just learned her letters. But it’s been haphazard, and for much of what I want her to learn now, I don’t know what materials I can have in order to stimulate her interest. If I have a prepared curriculum that I can go through with her, and if she enjoys “school time” as much as I think she will, then I’ll have a guide in how to introduce and teach the lessons I want her to learn.
Combine both of those sets of reasons—her unreadiness to go “out” to school and our desire for her to have more planned learning activities—and there’s a good case for a homeschool preschool. Then add in our openness to the idea of homeschooling, which started for me before Alexa was born, and Jeff’s slowly-growing-over-the-years preference (not mere openness, but preference) for the idea of homeschooling over the idea of sending her out to school, and there you have it. This is the choice we’ve been heading toward for years. Then it was just time to pick or develop a curriculum … and that’s the subject of another blog post.