6 Ways to Teach Preschoolers at Home

Tips for Being Intentional in the Everyday Teachable Moments

Ways to Teach Preschoolers Without Curriculum
FatCamera / Getty Images

 “What it the best curriculum for my preschooler?”

It is a question often asked by eager homeschooling parents. The preschool years, usually considered ages two to five, are such an exciting time. Young children, full of curiosity, are ready to begin learning and exploring the world around them. They are full of questions and everything is new and exciting.

Because preschoolers are like sponges, soaking in amazing amounts of information, it's understandable that parents want to capitalize on that.

However, formal curriculum can be stifling to a young child. Preschool children learn best through play, interaction with the people around them, imitation, and hands-on experiences.

That said, there is nothing wrong with investing in some quality educational resources for preschoolers and spending some time on formal learning and seat work with your two- to five-year-old. However, ideally, formal work should be kept to 15-20 minutes at a time and limited to an hour or so daily.

Limiting the time you spend formally teaching your preschooler doesn’t mean that learning isn’t taking place the rest of the day. There are many ways to teach young children without curriculum, and most of them you are probably already doing. Don't overlook the educational value of these everyday interactions with your child.

1. Ask Questions

Make it a point to regularly engage your preschooler. Young children are no strangers to asking questions, but be sure you’re asking some of your own.

Ask your preschooler about his play activity. Ask him to describe his drawing or creation.

When you’re reading books or watching TV with your preschooler, ask her questions such as:

  • Why do you think the character did that?
  • How do you think that made the character feel?
  • What would you have done in that situation?
  • How would that make you feel?
  • What do you think will happen next?

Make sure you're asking the questions as part of an overall conversation with your child. Don't make her feel like you're quizzing her. 

2. Don’t “Dumb Down” Conversations

Don’t use baby talk with your preschooler or modify your vocabulary. I’ll never forget the time my two-year-old stated that it was “ridiculous” that a certain attraction was closed at the children’s museum.

Children are fantastic contextual learners when it comes to vocabulary, so don’t purposely choose simpler words when you would normally use a more complex one. You can always ask your child to be sure she understands and explain if she doesn’t.

Practice naming objects that you encounter as you go about your daily routine, and call them by their actual names. For example, “This white flower is a daisy and that yellow one is a sunflower” instead of just calling them flowers.

“Did you see that German Shepherd? He's much bigger than the poodle, isn't he?”

“Look at that large oak tree. That small one next to it is a dogwood.”

3. Read Every Day

One of the best sit-down ways for young children to learn is reading books together. Spend time reading with your preschoolers every day—even that book you’ve read so many times you don’t even have to look at the words anymore.

Preschoolers also learn through repetition, so even though you’re tired of the book, reading it—again—provides another learning opportunity for them.

Make sure that you take time to slow down and enjoy the illustrations as well. Talk about the objects in the pictures or how the characters' facial expressions show how they're feeling.

Take advantage of opportunities like story time at the library. Listen to audio books together at home or as you run errands in the car. Some of the benefits of listening to a parent read aloud (or listening to audio books) include:

  • Improved vocabulary
  • Increased attention span
  • Improved creativity and imagination
  • Improved thinking skills
  • Encouragement of language and speech development

Use the books you read as a springboard for extension activities. Are you reading Blueberries for Sal?

Go blueberry picking or bake blueberry cobbler together. Are you reading The Story of Ferdinand? Look up Spain on a map. Practice counting to ten or saying hello in Spanish.

The Big Red Barn? Visit a farm or petting zoo. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? Bake cookies together or dress up and take pictures.

Picture Book Activities by Trish Kuffner is an excellent resource for activities designed for preschoolers and based on popular children’s books.

Don’t feel that you have to limit your child to picture books.Young children often enjoy more complex stories. I had a friend who couldn’t wait to share her love of Chronicles of Narnia with her children. She read the entire series to them when they were preschool and early elementary age.

You may want to consider classics such as Peter Pan or Winnie the Pooh. The Classics Starts series, designed for readers ages 7-9, is also an excellent option for introducing young children—even preschoolers—to classic literature.

4. Play with Your Preschoolers

Fred Rogers said, “Play is really the work of childhood.” Play is how children assimilate information about the world around them. One simple way for preschoolers to learn without curriculum is to provide a learning-rich environment. Create an atmosphere that invites creative free play and exploration.

Young children love to play dress up and learn through imitation and pretend play. Have fun playing store or restaurant with your child.

Some simple skill-building activities to enjoy with your preschooler include:

  • Working puzzles
  • Building with blogs
  • Dropping clothes pins into clean milk jugs
  • Coloring and painting
  • Sculpting with modeling clay
  • Playing with lacing cards
  • Stringing beads or cereal
  • Cutting pictures out of magazines and pasting them on construction paper to make a collage
  • Cutting plastic straws

5. Explore Together

Spend some time actively noticing your surroundings with your preschooler. Go on nature walks—even if it’s just around your yard or neighborhood. Point out the things you see and talk about them

“Look at the butterfly. Do you remember the moth we saw last night? Do you know that you can tell moths and butterflies apart by their antennae and the way they hold their wings? What are antennae? They are those long, thin pieces (or appendages if you want to use concrete vocabulary) you see on the butterfly’s head. They’re used to help the butterfly smell and keep his balance.”

Begin laying the simple foundations for math concepts such as big and little; large and small; and more or less. Talk about spatial relations such as near and far and in front of or behind. Talk about shapes, patterns, and colors. Ask your child to look for objects that are round or those that are blue.

Categorize objects. For example, you can name various types of insects that you see—ants, beetles, flies, and bees – but also put them in the category “insects” and talk about what makes them each an insect. What do they have in common? What makes chickens, ducks, cardinals, and blue jays all birds?

6. Look for the Educational Moments in Your Everyday Activities

The activities that you do as you go through your day may be routine to you but fascinating to a young child.

Don’t miss those teachable moments. Let your preschooler help you measure ingredients as you bake. Explain how he can stay safe in the kitchen. Don’t climb on cabinets. Don’t touch knives without asking. Don’t touch the stove.

Talk about why you put stamps on envelopes. (No, they’re not pretty stickers with which to decorate!) Talk about ways of measuring time. “Yesterday we went to Grandma’s house. Today we’re going to stay home. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the library.”

Let him weigh the produce at the grocery stores. Ask him to predict which he thinks will weigh more or less—the orange or the grapefruit. Identify the yellow bananas, the red tomatoes, and the green cucumbers. Encourage him to count the oranges as you place them in your shopping cart.

Preschoolers are learning all the time, often with little purposeful input from the adults around them. If you want to purchase preschool curriculum, that's fine, but don't feel as though you must do so in order for your preschooler to learn.

Instead, be intentional in your interactions with your child because there are countless ways for preschoolers to learn without a curriculum.