A Semi-Cynical Guide To Homeschooling Preschoolers

by Mathangi Subramanian
Originally Published: 
A Semi-Cynical Guide To Homeschooling Preschoolers
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All over the interwebs, parents are losing it about homeschooling their toddlers and preschoolers. Believe me, I get it. Not only am I there now, I’ve been there before. For the first three years of my daughter’s life, we lived in New Delhi, India, where the pollution was so bad that we couldn’t let her out of the house for about five months of the year. Back then, I had a lot of help – including a nanny – but it was still overwhelming, exhausting, and, at times, mind-numbingly boring.

But I figured it out. You can too. Here are some tips and tricks that I hope will help you as much as they help me.

First of all: take a deep breath. This isn’t about teaching and learning. Your child has plenty of time to get ready for kindergarten. The goal here is not lesson planning. The goal is keeping them busy.

On that note, here are a few principles to remember when homeschooling five-and-unders:

They are learning all the time.

Little kids are new to the world, which means that they don’t know anything. You literally have to do just push them out into the world and they will learn. Are they playing pretend? Doing art? Talking to you while you do chores? Figuring out how to put on their pants? Trying (and failing) to eat spaghetti with a fork? Congratulations. They are learning. Don’t stress about teaching them their ABCs. (Trust me, they won’t learn their ABCs during alock down. Don’t worry about it. They’ll learn them in school, just like every other kid, assuming schools reopen anytime ever.)

They have basically no attention span.

My four-year-old has maybe a 30-minute attention span — and that’s after years of preschool, and on a really good day. Right now, we do 30 minutes of academic stuff a day, usually in 15-minute chunks. The other stuff we do is designed purely to to keep her busy and excited about the world.

Your mental well-being is paramount.

Learn to say no. I absolutely cannot stand playing family with my daughter. So when she asks me, I say no. Instead, I offer to do art with her, to have a dance party, or to play store (but only if I get to be the stuffed animal clients, who I inevitably make into weirdos with impossible-to-fill requests, something I find oddly gratifying). Likewise, you can stop an activity in the middle if it’s stressing you out, if it’s making a mess, or if it’s just not working. Your kid can play by themselves for a minute while you recover. They will not feel unloved. They will not be damaged. Instead, they will learn that other people have feelings too.

Keep your expectations low

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I don’t know who these geniuses are who not only get their kids to do what they want them to do, but also take perfectly posed pictures of them for Pinterest. Needless to say, I am not one of these geniuses. I basically come up with an activity, put out the materials, and let my daughter do whatever she wants. My child never does what she’s supposed to, but she still discovers new things and, when I’m lucky, she gets totally absorbed — which is really all we’re looking for at this age. Remember, the goal is to keep them busy, not to create something for the gram.

As much as you can, follow your child’s lead.

My MO is to spend one to two hours (hahahaha I know, who has that kind of continuous time?!) looking at Pinterest (don’t hate!) and finding activities that my kid and I will both like, and that we have the materials for at home. I keep a list on my phone, then I start with one, and, depending on where things go, I pull other things out of my hat.

Here’s a recent example: my kid wanted to do watercolor resist painting, where we put stickers on a piece of paper, paint over them, and then pull the stickers off, creating a pattern (it’s super cool — try it). We did our resist paintings in the shape of a bunny and a chick. My daughter named them Bonk and Chonk. She told a story about them and then wanted to put it in a book. I stapled some construction paper together and asked her to draw the pictures. After each picture, she dictated the words to the story, which I then wrote down. She started reading the book to her stuffed animal, who got hungry. So we made banana smush (frozen bananas blended with yummy stuff), ate it, wrote down the recipe (her idea — she dictated it, I wrote), and then she took the paper that we wrote it on to her play kitchen and made pretend smush for her animal. Two hours gone — bam! — and she took the lead after the first activity.

Enjoy your kid, but don’t feel bad if you don’t.

My child is a delight, but I am an introvert, and I can’t be with her all the time. When I get sick of projects, I sit in her room and read while she plays. It’s fine to not pay attention to your kids all the time. They will be fine if you ignore them while keeping them safe.

Okay, great. Now what do I do with my child?

Here’s a whole list of activities that we do together, and that we’ve been doing together since she was around two years old. Remember the principles above: if you’re doing a craft, don’t worry about it looking good. If you’re doing a lesson, don’t worry about achieving the learning goal. Put out the materials and let your child go bonkers.


Watercolors, washable tempera paint, food coloring –- all of these are pure gold. If you have really young ones and are worried about them eating stuff, I used to mix equal parts corn starch and nontoxic bath soap with a drop of food coloring. It’s nontoxic and washes right off. You can also drop water color into shaving cream, lotion, even baby oil, and let them experiment. And don’t feel like you need to use paintbrushes: my daughter spent years mixing paint with spoons. I was stressed about it, until I realized it was a dumb thing to stress about. Now she paints just like a normal preschooler and everyone is fine.

Sensory bins.

Fill up a pan with flour, rice, pasta, beans — whatever age appropriate thing you have. (Skip beans for the little ones – they’re a choking hazard.) Hide things in it, like toys or cotton balls. If you have glitter lying around, sprinkle it liberally. Give the kids scoops or spoons or cups. Then let them go crazy. This works as they age – -now my daughter likes to trace letters and numbers in pans of flour, but when she was two, she would spoon water and rice into a bowl for 45 minutes at a time.

Draw on weird stuff.

Your kid is sick of drawing? Give them something besides paper. Using markers on tin foil is super cool. Wax paper and crayons is also awesome. Even things like straws, paper plates, paper towels, coffee filters, or napkins can be exciting. Also, bonus: letting kids experiment with different mediums is a great foundation for future art work.

Homemade books.

Staple a bunch of sheets of paper together and ask your kid to tell you a story. Write down the words and let them draw the pictures. If you have a printer, take a bunch of pictures of your kid, print them out, staple them together and ask them to tell you what’s going on. As they get older, you can get more sophisticated, like doing an alphabet book where you write the letter and they have to draw or collage pictures that go with that letter (apple for A, ball for B, etc.), or a number book where they have to put the right number of stickers on each page.

Glue stuff.

Cut up a bunch of pieces of paper and make a mosaic. Cut up a magazine and make a collage. If you’re worried about mess, use double-sided tape or glue sticks.

Cut stuff.

Starting at age two, kids can start using safety scissors. Give them scrap paper and let them cut. Don’t worry about shapes or exact measurements. Two-year-olds also love to tear, which is great for fine motor skills. My daughter used to tear up paper, take it to her toy kitchen and “cook” meals for us. Let them use their imagination and take over.

Bead stuff.

Don’t have beads? No problem. I have given my daughter cut up paper towel roads to bead. Yesterday we used cut up straws and string to make a bracelet that she’s still wearing today. (She cut the straws and colored them, which added some time to the activity.)

Practice dressing skills.

Give your kid a shirt and ask them to do the buttons. Or give them a jacket and ask them to zip it. Or give them a (clean) shoe and ask them to lace it. Kids love this stuff, and it’s really challenging for them. Plus they need to learn it eventually.


Seriously though. This is so fun and takes up lots of time. You can also do activities based on a book. In Perfect Square, for example, a square gets hole punched, torn, cut, and shredded, and then made into a new collage. A perfect activity to do with kids.


Hand a child a butter knife and a banana and ask them to cut it into slices for breakfast. Give them a spoon and peanut butter (or sunflower butter if anyone has nut allergies) and a slice of bread and ask them to make a sandwich. Give them a bunch of onion skins and tell them to pretend to make something.


Use blankets to make a fort. Use pillows to make a castle. Give your child paper towel tubes, boxes, and tape or glue and see what they make. Don’t get attached to what you think they should make. Let them do what they want.


Put on some music and move. (It’s good for you too!) If you want to get ambitious, fill some bottles with beans or rice and shake them. Make drums out of Tupperware or empty boxes. Expose them to lots of different types of music.

Look at photo albums.

Show your kid pictures of their family. Teach them about where they came from. Kids are super into their personal histories. If they’re old enough, do a family tree.

Do a daily calendar routine.

Since shelter in place started, we’ve done a weather sticker on the calendar every day. It helps keep track of the days inside, and it’s at least one academic activity for the day.

For heaven’s sake, get on Pinterest.

Don’t laugh! Pinterest is the greatest gift to parents locked inside with their kids. Just look up preschool activities, toddler activities, process art, or indoor games for kids, and you’ll end up with a ton of suggestions. Pick activities that you like doing, not just ones that your kid will like or that you think will be “good” for them.

When choosing an activity, think of yourself and your needs too. My kid and I paint constantly because I find painting soothing. My husband and my kid build things, because that’s something they both love. Remember, playing is fun for everyone, and you deserve a break.

Last but not least: you’ve got this. Parenting is hard, and parenting full time is harder. But trust me, you are not going to screw up your child. In fact, they’re probably thrilled to be spending this much time with you.

Good luck, fam, and hang in there. We’ll all get through this together.

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