How to Nurture Your Preschooler While Homeschooling Older Children

We often get asked how to get homeschool done when you have preschoolers in the mix. And we’ve talked about that topic several times on this blog. But today we want to look at that situation from the other angle and discuss how to give your preschooler the important “quiet growing time” that Charlotte Mason described when you have older kids whom you are homeschooling. Can it be done? Yes.

One of the beauties of the Charlotte Mason approach is that it is flexible. It is intentionally based on principles that can be applied in any number of different situations. And that includes the principles of a quiet growing time for preschool children. 

Exactly what you do and when you do it doesn’t have to look just like your friend’s family. You have freedom to apply Charlotte’s timeless principles in a way that works best for your family in each season of life.

And believe me, each season has its own unique challenges. Charlotte recognized that fact. You may be wondering where that phrase “a quiet growing time” came from. Here’s the full quote:

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air.”

Home Education, p. 43

Charlotte recognized the pressure that we all feel, and that society puts on us, to help our children excel educationally and socially. But amid that pressure, even in spite of that pressure, she encouraged us to stand firm and to give our preschool children what they really need: a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life.

Let’s take a look at those principles and see how they can be practically applied when you are homeschooling older students as well.

Free to Explore

First, you might be wondering about that word “quiet.” Charlotte was not saying that your home will be free of noise. Of course not. I think “quiet” is explained in that next phrase: “passive receptive life.”

Your preschooler should be free to receive, to “take in,” everything around him as he is ready for it. “Passive” does not mean sitting around with nothing to do. No, a preschool child is born with a natural sense of curiosity, a desire to learn about the world around him, and he should be free to satisfy that desire. “Passive” simply means that we are not pressuring the child to master certain skills or facts at a certain time. 

Your preschooler should be free to receive, to “take in,” everything around him as he is ready for it. A preschool child is born with a natural sense of curiosity, a desire to learn about the world around him, and he should be free to satisfy that desire.

It might help to think of the opposite of a passive receptive life; that would be an active expressive life. An active expressive life means that your child would be expected to participate in planned formal lessons and to learn certain facts or master certain skills at a specific time. Those expectations are active. He would also be expected to express what he is learning. 

Now, formal lessons and required narrations create an active expressive life, which is a wonderful approach to education, but not during the preschool years. You will recall that Charlotte did not require narrations until first grade. In order for the child to get the most out of those active expressive studies at that point, he needs to come into them with the solid foundation that grows out of a passive receptive life in the early years.

A quiet growing time, then, means one in which the preschooler is free to explore his surroundings; to absorb the atmosphere of the home; to observe nature around him; to receive good, loving, and noble ideas but without any set expectations about when he will express those ideas back. It means allowing him time to process what he has taken in and to wonder about it without the pressure of a deadline. Rather, we nurture his natural curiosity and desire for learning, and allow that to set the pace. It also means forming good habits of thinking and behaving during those years.

Regular Routine

Now, all of that can sound rather free-and-easy, loosey-goosey, no set structure, but that’s not the case. Young children especially need routine. In fact, a regular routine is one of the habits that Charlotte encouraged us to cultivate in our homes. We should create regular rhythms to our days. We should have structure. We will need to have structure as we homeschool the older children in the mix. The crucial thing is to create that structure taking into account the principles of a quiet growing time and a passive receptive life for our preschoolers.

In other words, we’re not pressuring them to participate in formal lessons. We’re not setting deadlines for them to be able to read certain words or to write on lines. We’re not expecting them to express what they are learning. We are giving them the security of knowing what to expect in the regular rhythms of our day, and we are surrounding them with an atmosphere that is rich in good, loving, noble ideas. 

Regular rhythms and an idea-rich atmosphere. Let’s talk through what those two things might look like. I’ll give you some suggestions, but remember that you can (and should) take these ideas and tweak them to make them fit well in your home. All right, here’s an example of what a typical day might look like.

A Homeschool Schedule with a Preschooler

A big part of every morning includes several personal responsibilities, or chores: getting dressed, making the bed, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, doing the dishes. Part of that morning routine will include working on appropriate chores with your preschooler. If you have a wide range of ages among your children, you may be able to pair an older child with a younger child to help them walk through their responsibilities. Otherwise, you will be helping your preschooler learn and practice those morning chores. It will take an investment of your time, but try to think of it as just that—an investment. You will reap the dividends of your efforts as that child learns to do more and more of those responsibilities on her own and has cultivated the habit of doing them correctly and promptly.

You will reap the dividends of your efforts as your child learns to do more and more of those responsibilities on her own and has cultivated the habit of doing them correctly and promptly.

So perhaps you help her get dressed and put her pajamas where they belong. She can now have free play while you get breakfast on the table. If needed, assign one of the olders to be her buddy during that time. In fact, you might make those “buddy assignments” part of your weekly schedule and post it so the olders know who is responsible to play with the preschooler during various time slots in the day. 

At the breakfast table, you can do five minutes of Scripture memory work and sing a hymn after everyone has finished eating. This is a time to keep in mind that phrase “passive receptive life.” Your preschooler does not have to be done eating and does not have to participate. She needs to stay in her place at the table and respect others by not interrupting, but she is not required to take an active role in that formal learning time unless she wants to.

After breakfast there are more chores to be done before school lessons can begin. And this is prime time to give your preschooler your undivided attention. While the older children are doing the rest of their chores—making their beds, brushing their teeth—you can get down on the floor with your little one and enjoy time together. You might read a book or two; you might build with blocks—whatever she wants to do. It doesn’t have to be a long time; even 15 minutes together is better than nothing. But it must be uninterrupted as much as possible. Giving her your full, undivided attention before school work begins helps that little one know that she is important to you too, and it prevents her feeling like she’s constantly being pushed to the side. She gets you first every school day.

As your time winds down, you can remind her of what is next. Something as simple as “After this song, I’m going to do some school with the others. Do you want to join us for poetry and Spanish or keep playing?” So you give an easy invitation but with no pressure to participate. If she wants to keep playing, you might ask, “What would you like to play with?” and make sure that toy is readily available. Then sit down with your students and read the poem and do the Spanish lesson, preferably where you can see your preschooler and she can see and hear what you’re doing. Now, remember, in a Charlotte Mason approach, these lessons are not long. Poetry will take about five minutes, and the Spanish lesson, probably 15 minutes at the most. On other days this 20-minute time slot might include music study, picture study, an inspirational habit reading, practicing a poem to recite, or going outside for nature study. 

The rest of the morning could involve one-on-one work in language arts and math. While you’re working with one student, you could have another student interacting with the preschooler. And you could cycle through several that way, if you have several school-age students. If you have only one school-age student, you can alternate a play time with a short school lesson, then a play time and a lesson, as you work your way through the morning. Or you might postpone that student’s individual work until nap time after lunch. That’s going to be your next good chunk of time.

During that time slot after lunch, your preschooler could have quiet time on her bed. She can sleep if she needs to, but she must stay on her bed and play quietly or look at books. This slot could be up to an hour or more, depending on your child’s age and needs. During that time, you can do the heavier read-and-narrate lesson in history or Bible with your students. And if you have more individual work to finish, you can accomplish that during this time slot as well.

That leaves the after-nap time slot for free play for the youngers—hopefully outside, if weather permits—afternoon occupations or independent work for the olders, and getting things ready for supper. Then you can share your family read-aloud at bedtime.

Following a routine like that will enable you to include in your day’s school work these subjects: Scripture Memory, hymn singing, history, foreign language, poetry, language arts, math, and literature. On other days you can swap out the foreign language and poetry for music study or picture study, as I mentioned earlier, and you can swap out the history reading for geography or Bible or science. So you can still follow the wonderful feast of subjects outlined in the Simply Charlotte Mason lesson plans and curriculum. You’re just rearranging them and fitting them into time slots as they work best during this season of life.

I’d like to highlight two things as we think about this daily-routine suggestion. First, I encourage you to do all you can to protect your little one’s time for free play. That quiet growing time can be sabotaged by a schedule that is too busy with outside commitments. I can’t tell you how many outside commitments is too many. That’s something each family must decide, but it’s something to consider carefully and regularly. Outside activities have a way of sneaking in and increasing little by little over time. 

Providing an Idea-Rich Atmosphere

The second thing I’d like to focus on is how you can create an idea-rich atmosphere for your preschooler while keeping the “quiet receptive life” in mind. Free play alone will not furnish an abundance of good, loving, noble ideas to nourish your child’s mind and heart. Here are some simple and gentle suggestions of what your older children (or you) could do with your preschooler.

Engage in Conversations

Engage in conversations with full attention. This can be a challenge, but conversations are vastly important to help your preschool child make sense of the world around her and learn how to communicate with people around her. So try to offer undivided attention and thoughtful replies, whether before, during, or after a shared experience.

Prioritize Time in Nature

Many Charlotte Mason home schools have a distinct advantage with this priority, because they most likely have made good acquaintances with nature around them, and noticing and talking about nature friends is part of their family culture. That’s the ideal. But allow this newer member of the family plenty of opportunities to develop her own relations with nature too. The flowers may not be new to you, but they are to your little one.

Read Books

Read good books together, selecting stories that communicate good, loving, noble ideas. You can include Bible stories and simple poetry too.

Listen to Music

Listen to good music and let your preschool child respond to it in some way. You could easily combine this with your older student’s music studies, but it can also be nice to have some shorter pieces that are especially for your preschooler and can be enjoyed during play times. For example, listen to one of the songs from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens, such as “the Elephant,” and encourage your preschooler to move like an elephant if she wants to. You can also sing simple preschool songs or folk songs together, such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “I’m a Little Teapot,” or “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” 

Look at Art

Look at good art together. Again, this could be combined with your olders’ picture study, but a set of pictures that are all your preschooler’s own can also be used to play simple games. For example, she might like to find all of the pictures that have an animal in them or pick out one picture and try to pose like a person in it. Keeping in mind the passive-receptive principle, your preschooler should not be required to do those types of activities, but most preschoolers enjoy simple games like that.

Make a Simple Craft

Cutting, coloring, gluing, painting, folding—all of these actions are a great way to encourage hand-eye coordination and develop fine-motor skills. In keeping with the passive-receptive principle, though, help should be freely offered and no pressure should be put on the child to master a particular skill by a particular time. The emphasis should be on exploring how different materials work and forming relations with those materials while creating something together.

Explore Math Concepts

Explore math concepts using real objects. The early years are all about exploring and learning with things, not with symbols on paper that represent things—and certainly not with drilling math facts or terminology. Start with counting toys as you work together to pick them up off the floor and put them away in the basket. Or count the number of people sitting at the dinner table. Play with little, middle-sized, and big or first, second, and third in line. Once your preschooler is able to count with one-to-one correlation—assigning only one number to each object—then you can move on to exploring what happens when we have five people at the table and grandma joins us. How many have we now? Those types of oral, informal, everyday activities are what I mean by exploring math concepts with real objects.

Work on Chores

There are five steps to learning any new chore: I do it and you watch me; I do it and you help me; you do it and I help you; you do it and I watch you; and finally, you do it and I check it. So some time can be spent with your preschooler working on wherever you are in that process with a chore or responsibility. Just a little three- or four-minute touch can keep the learning moving ahead but, again, with no deadline for mastering it. So you (or an older sibling) might work with your preschooler on putting her dirty clothes in the hamper or folding clean washcloths and putting them away or emptying the clean silverware from the dishwasher and putting it in the drawer. Responsibilities like that—that are in your young child’s capabilities—bring a sense of accomplishment and meaningful contribution to the family. And working and contributing as part of a community is an important part of growing as a person.

Play with Letters

Play with letters and their sounds. Just as you explore math with real objects, do the same with the alphabet. Get your preschooler some letters that she can handle. They might be foam letters, or wooden blocks with letters on them, or plastic or magnetic letters. Then you can play with those letters together casually and informally through short, fun games. But, remember, don’t put pressure on her to recite those letters or express that learning by any deadline. A passive receptive life. Most children will enter into those types of games with joy and eagerness, and you may be surprised at how quickly your little one picks up the concepts. She will most likely voluntarily express what she is learning, and that’s fine. But she is not required or expected to do so until she joins in the formal school lessons at six years old.

A Great preschool Resource

I don’t have time here to outline all of the informal play-based activities that can be done in each of those areas: nature and books and music and art, crafts and math and chores and playing with letters. But I can point you to a wonderful resource that will give you hundreds of gentle, Charlotte Mason-style ideas that you can use with your preschooler or quickly and easily hand to an older student to use while you give another student your attention. It’s called Our Preschool Life, and it comes directly to your door every month.

Inside the box you will find great books; simple games; a variety of crafts, along with the supplies you’ll need for them; beautiful and interesting art prints, with ideas for looking at them and playing with them; outdoor activities; stickers of nature friends to look for, along with a beginner nature notebook; colorful chore cards, with ideas for leveling those chores up or down to fit your child; poems, music, folk songs; plus a bonus of lots of encouragement and tips for you, the parent.

With Our Preschool Life, you will have a ready supply of good, loving, and noble ideas right there at hand to sprinkle throughout your preschooler’s days as it fits best in your family’s routine. In fact, every month’s box comes with simple suggestions of how to include all of the ideas by doing just one five-minute activity each day. Of course, you can always repeat favorite games or books or other activities, but I just want you to see how you can create an idea-rich environment without a lot of extra work.

The GIft of a Quiet Growing Time

Now, let me give you some encouragement as we wrap up. When you have a preschooler and older siblings whom you are homeschooling, it’s going to look different from when your first child was a preschooler and you were able to give her your full attention for most of every day. Life is different now. You have more children and more responsibilities to attend to. This season is different, but that doesn’t mean it is inferior. Let me say that again: different does not have to mean inferior. You can still provide a quiet growing time for your little one. You can still create an idea-rich atmosphere in which that observant child will have many things around her that are worth observing. And you can still offer her a passive, receptive life without any pressure to master certain skills or memorize certain facts. 

Think of it this way: The wrapping may look different, but the gift can be the same. You can still give your preschool child the gift of a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, in an atmosphere rich in good, loving, noble ideas. And that, my friends, is a beautiful gift no matter how it’s wrapped.

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