Preschool Curriculum: Structure and Wonder

By Diane Lilleberg

Sometimes it is a phone call. What curriculum do you have for preschool? Sometimes it is a letter. Please send us your preschool curriculum. I consider these requests from two perspectives.

As a parent, I admire the request for preschool curriculum. I remember preschool! I remember vividly enough to wonder how anyone with preschoolers can be asking for anything more to do. As a teacher, I appreciate the request for preschool curriculum. I know it comes from a sincere desire to prepare children adequately to do well in school and to meet upcoming life experiences.

Philosophy of Curriculum

But what is “curriculum?” In my graduate work in curriculum, defining it was the first order of business. And everyone defines it differently. For the preschool curriculum outlined in this article, curriculum is defined as “making the most of every opportunity.”

The “teaching” role of parenting preschool children isn’t just about formal structure and right and wrong ways of doing things. The world is full of wonder for your little ones, and rightfully so. We should consider their wonder before we impose our structure.

Curriculum is too often thought of in terms of skills, but it is so much more. Skills such as reading and computation are important to bringing order and meaning to the world. Skills give us the ability to effectively share that order and meaning with one another. My philosophy of education includes the belief that the order and meaning should point children to God through:

As you consider the last one, remember that even the youngest child gives to us by refreshing our “wonder-view” of the world. Children benefit from knowing that they are special and can “give back” to us. They deserve to understand that and to hear our gratitude expressed.

Philosophy in Practice

The above is background, the philosophy of curriculum. When you are busy, never quite able to get ahead, and find school to be approaching at an alarming pace, philosophy can feel empty without practical application.

So this “curriculum outline” includes ideas adapted from a parent workshop I used to do on preparing children for formal kindergarten in the U.S. I have tried for a balanced approach from both a parent’s perspective (wanting to prepare my child) and a teacher’s perspective (noticing what really is effective preparation). I have also tried to consider the range of settings in which you readers find yourselves. I hope the following will both inspire (I can do that!) and reassure (I am doing a lot of things RIGHT without formal, structured help!) I also hope that the encouragement toward structure is balanced with the encouragement of wonder.

1. Expand vocabulary while your children are underfoot.

Talk about everything you do. Think about the limitless possibilities as your toddler “helps” you make the bed. Together you can experience sheet, blanket, pillow, tuck, fold, pull, wrinkle, smooth, top, bottom, head, foot, side . . . and on and on. I love the expression, “bathe them in language.”

2. Learn to ask your preschool children questions that demand more than one word answers.

Don’t fall into the “Did you have fun?” habit. Instead ask, “What did you do outside?” Or, “Tell me about something you saw today that you never noticed before.” Then listen! Perhaps you can prove you are listening by restating in a slightly different manner what your children say. For instance, if they mention seeing something “different,” you can respond that it was indeed “unusual.” Or if they tell you the flower is “pretty,” you can agree that it is “beautiful.”

3. Make every trip a field trip.

When you go on errands, talk to your children about what you are doing and what happens in the places you go. Compare what happens in your current location, other locations your children remember, and those they might not remember but need to know.

As you stamp a letter, talk about why you need a stamp, where you get a stamp, what happens to the money you pay for it, where you want the letter to go, and how it might get there. If you aren’t sure about all of it, say so. It is wonderful for children to discover that adults need to learn, too!

You can even compare ways you might have to line up or queue at a post office. One of my most memorable “parenting preschooler” moments came when my son at age two first saw a post office line in the U.S. He demanded (with volume!) to know why the grown-ups wanted to play choo-choo train. His question instilled wonder that balanced the structure being imposed on some twenty people during the pre-Christmas rush!

4. Fill empty “waiting minutes.”

Use times when your hands are busy (those high “potential-to-whine” times) by encouraging recall of general knowledge. Help your child learn body parts, colors, those most-important position words (left, right, over, under, etc.), counting, their full name, their birth date, some way of naming places they live, etc. A game sometimes helps. Ask them to bring you a red car. Then have them put it under a chair, on a chair, “zoom” it around the chair, etc.

5. Learn to show rather than tell on initial learning experiences.

After all the emphasis on talking, I now encourage you to not talk so much. After you have told your child to look “under” something for the fifth time and he still hasn’t found it, take the time to show him under. Then see how many other unders he can find. And while you are at it, review over and save a lot of voice! Anything you seem to nag about should trigger the question, “Have I ever shown them?” Have you demonstrated how to shut a door without slamming it? How to put the books on the shelf? An example from my family was discovering that my children needed a demonstration on how to pet a dog! An earlier two-minute demo would have eliminated many “Don’t bug the dog” commands and frustration for all . . . especially the dog! What seems obvious to us may not be at all obvious to a child!

6. Teach your child to listen!

Listening implies more then just hearing. It involves actively and consciously attending for the purpose of gaining meaning. Insist on attention and culturally appropriate body language (i.e. eye and head position) when you are giving directions.

Do not get in the habit of repeating directions. This encourages lazy listening. Ask first, “What did I just say that you remember?” And BE a good listening model. Provide opportunities for modeling through a family activity, perhaps around the table at the evening meal. Ask what the best part of the day was for each. Then ask one child what someone else said. Be sure you know as well!

7. As children mature, increase the directions you give for chores, first to two-step, then to three.

They don’t all have to be related to the chore, especially at first. You might say, “Empty the water out of this pail. Put it back under the window when you are done. Make a funny face in the window before you come back.” Children who do not have a strong inclination towards talking may benefit from repeating the directions before they start. On the other hand, you might ask a child who continually talks to try to remember to do everything without repeating it aloud. In either case, when they return ask them what they did.

8. Recognize the value of play!

It is indeed a child’s “work.” Children learn who they are, vent their feelings, and experiment with relationships and ideas through play. Encourage creativity in play. Creativity is valued in schooling, but the very nature of school demands conformity soon enough. Share what you remember from your play at their age. Give them room and suggestions to help them develop their imagination while they have time and such a natural and comfortable ability-to-wonder!

9. Establish appropriate literacy orientation.

(i.e. top to bottom, left to right) and a sense of words during cuddly, comfortable story time. I am assuming that you read regularly to your children. If you do not, developing a regular habit of sharing a reading experience is a necessary first step. As you read, tracing your finger under the words (smoothly rather than word by word) will help your children develop directional orientation. It will also help them realize that you are getting meaning from the printed words.

When you turn the page, have your child tell you which page you should read next, the left or the right. Remember the obvious not always being obvious? In a similar vein, when your child is first attempting to write, do not be overly concerned about letter reversals. As you know, orientation in print is learned and becomes habit with use. Even older children with a strong literacy orientation will reverse when they are tired.

10. Encourage counting, classifying, and ordering throughout your daily activities.

Children need to work with actual objects before requiring them to use numerals to represent number. Setting the table, pairing socks, sorting colors, and many games all give natural opportunities to prepare them for the world of numbers.

11. Give children lots of hands-on experience with school tools.

Children are almost always familiar with crayons, pencils, and paper, but benefit from more experience with scissors, glue, and paint. They need to experiment with how much glue is enough and how much is too much. They can learn brush painting with water on almost any hard surface (Look, Dad, it disappears into thin air!) or finger painting with shaving cream on the table (Look Mom, my hands are cleaner than when I started!).

Adults are often frustrated cutting with the scissors typically provided for children. Invest in a pair of excellent quality children’s scissors that will work for either left or right hands. Cutting a piece of your hair is a good test, but since children are natural mimes I don’t recommend trying this in front of them! Don’t require any frustrating tasks with any of these tools. Just make them familiar friends.

12. Introduce your children to independent work habits.

Ask them to follow a direction for an activity, and encourage them to wait for approval until the task is completed. Be careful what you require during this time. It should be age-appropriate and, as a parent, your concern should be with effort and attitude rather than perfection.

13. Provide safety to risk learning something new.

Teach your child that mistakes are acceptable and are a way to learn. Try to believe it yourself and honestly share your mistakes and what you have learned from them. This safety to risk, along with your own vulnerability in not being perfect, may have an invaluable carry-over into school if you plan to teach your children yourself. Growth involves honest and purposeful effort to learn and to continue learning. The natural tendency to reward perfect products diminishes the kind of safe environment that supports growth.

14. Prepare your children to stand for values and behaviors your family considers important.

Every family has its own culture and value system, and it is too easy to communicate different as bad. As your children grow and have opportunities for experiences outside your family system, they are apt to bump into some conflicts. How you model a response to those differences and how you help your children deal with such conflicts deserves careful thought.

15. Consider your own journey, and talk about it with your children.

Take time to “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds . . . .” Then start early “talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6). It won’t get easier with “a better ability to understand.” It is easier to form habits before there are other opposing habits that restrict you.

16. Celebrate!

Celebrate much more than learning skills or reaching developmental milestones. Celebrate learning and wonder. Celebrate how your children endear themselves to you, how they contribute to your ministry, the fresh perspective they give on what is important in the world, and their examples of faith.

Celebration doesn’t require anything fancy. Ask your little ones to help with ideas! And record your celebrations. Don’t let them lapse with the baby book. I am so grateful that I wrote notes on the calendar to remind me, that I had reason and opportunity to expand those notes as I wrote letters to extended family, and that those letters were saved and now available. Both the celebrations and the record help children identify and celebrate who they are when that becomes important to them.

If you choose to follow this preschool curriculum, remember we are told to look to a child as an example of faith. Let your young children be full of wonder. Learn from them as well as teaching them about your own wonder and structure. Remember that relationship involves both giving and receiving. Make the most of every opportunity. Give to your children who you are becoming and receive with celebration who they are becoming. Don’t let anyone’s curriculum—including this one—impose a structure that limits the wonder of the possibilities open to you as you build your relationship with your preschool children and prepare them for more “formal” schooling.

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.