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No. 4

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Early Years Previous Page Next Page
by Vicki Bentley & June Oberlander
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Homeschooling: How Early Can I Start?

Sometimes, it’s hard to know when a child is ready to start “school.” In response to parents’ often-asked question, “When should I begin homeschooling?” HSLDA President Mike Smith interviewed HSLDA Early Years Coordinator Vicki Bentley and preschool author June Oberlander on our radio program, Home School Heartbeat. Here are a few thoughts from Vicki and June, adapted from their interviews.

Children learn through meaningful play.

When is my child old enough to start learning?

Vicki Bentley: Mom and Dad come into homeschooling with the greatest qualifications: a deep love for their child and a vested interest in his success!

So I like to remind parents that they’ve already been homeschooling their young children—they’ve taught them to talk, to communicate, and they’ve taught them a variety of basic skills as well as character lessons.

Then I encourage parents to explore ways to simply expand what they’re already doing in the context of that natural relationship—sort of a lifestyle of learning!

I’ve had moms ask me, “How do I start? My children don’t seem to even want to sit still and read a book. They just want to play with toys and pretend.” And I tell them, “Your children are little; let them play with toys and pretend!”

But you pick the toys, so you shape the play. Their play is their work—their early learning. It might look easy to us, but it’s not all easy to them, and it’s developing their thinking and providing life experiences, sort of like hooks on which they can hang their future learning.

Here for You

HSLDA members may contact our early years coordinator, Vicki Bentley, for advice on teaching preschoolers through 8th-graders.

So provide them with stimulating, age-appropriate, developmental toys: Duplos or Legos or building blocks. And your everyday activities can be helpful for brain and skills development. For example, working puzzles is a pre-reading skill, and helping them put away their toys in an orderly fashion is classification and organization—basic science, math, and English skills.

And because these are all things that happen in the context of everyday living and everyday play, it’s much easier to move at the child’s natural pace and in his learning style.

June Oberlander: Learning begins at birth. A baby’s five senses are keenly aware, and they use these senses for what they see, they hear, they feel, they smell, and they taste. Their gross motor and fine skills are developing rapidly, too, and this also helps with learning. I feel that children learn best through meaningful play experiences because play is a child’s work. And I feel that the enriching experiences that young children encounter determine, to a large degree, how they learn.

The learning of basic readiness skills should be age-appropriate and developmental. The simpler readiness skills I think should be mastered before attempting to teach more advanced skills. Sometimes parents try to rush their children and this is not a good idea. Strengths and weaknesses should be noted, and the child’s strengths can be used to help him to overcome his weaknesses.

When is my child ready for structured learning?

June Oberlander: Sometimes children are exposed to structured learning before they’re ready. But children do need some structure in order to learn many things.


First, though, they need to learn to listen to and follow directions on their level. Unfortunately, most children ages 1-5 have very short attention spans and need to work on that. Through meaningful play experiences, a child’s listening span can be increased. But when he is required to sit and attend to a task for far too long, problems may arise and if he hasn’t learned to listen or follow directions, he’s going to have problems! This may cause him to become frustrated if he’s been asked to sit too long; he may balk and refuse to cooperate. Some children have developed mental blocks as a result of this.

Parents should also observe and assess the child’s progress, and determine some things such as:

  • Has he developed his fine motor skills well enough to write legibly?
  • Is he able to follow three-step directions?
  • Can he sit still for 20-30 minutes in order to complete a task?
  • Is he aware of letters and sounds and their relationship to reading?
  • Can he retell a story with accuracy and with some detail?
  • Does he recognize and understand number concepts from 1 to 10?
  • Can he count to 100?
  • Can he count by twos up to 20?
  • Can he count by fives up to 30?
  • Can he count by tens up to 100?

I feel that deficits in any of these areas can hinder the child’s progress.

Vicki Bentley: If you mean structured learning as opposed to play-based learning, studies show that, developmentally, young children benefit from—they really need—lots of physical and creative play: building, pretending, exploring, discovering, trying out their ideas.

If by structured, you mean having an outlined plan, many moms feel more comfortable having some specific goals, so I just encourage them to have age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate expectations.

For basic academics, foundational math activities encourage everyday mathematical thinking: activities like counting, sorting objects, and cooking. Even setting the table teaches one-to-one correspondence!

Everyday language practice can include alphabet puzzles, notes to Grandma, telling you about their latest adventure, or cuddling up for read-aloud time. And if that's not structured enough for you, then there are guides to help you plan a few activities based on some of those library books that you're reading together, or on other interests your child has. For preschool through kindergarten or even possibly 1st grade, an hour of one-on-one structured learning time per day is usually plenty.

About the author

Vicki Bentley is a mother of eight and foster mother of over 50 children. She has homeschooled 17 children since 1988 and was a local support group leader for 14 years. Vicki is the author of several homeschool books and serves as HSLDA's Early Years coordinator.

June Oberlander is a retired kindergarten teacher with over 25 years of teaching experience. She helps parents and caregivers develop preschool skills in children. June is the author of Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready.