The (Nearly) No-Prep Plan for Homeschooling Your Little Ones

When the pandemic hit last spring, my son had been spending his pre-kindergarten days at our local Montessori school and his baby sister was finally adjusting to spending two days in the infant room at the same school. We were happy with the school and community, but homeschooling was something my husband and I had been discussing since our son was born, and with kindergarten on the horizon, it was time to make a real decision.

Covid-19 made that decision an easy one.

We decided that adopting an unschooling-type of approach to our homeschool is what we think will work best for our family. Neither one of us is a real planner and we like the idea of a flexible schedule that will allow us to take advantage of learning opportunities as they arise. This means I haven’t purchased any kind of curriculum for the current school year, but will confess to spending much more than one should on project supplies from The Dollar Store. I’ve also stocked up on blank books, canvases, bulk LEGOS, hot wheels cars and other multifunctional, multi-use items. And, of course, books, puzzles and outdoor gear. My goal is to be prepared for whatever creative projects the kids want to dive into, as well as anything that can support our outdoor educational experiences.

As a former elementary classroom teacher (13 years ago) and current stay-at-home-mom, the hardest part of my days has always been getting buy-in from the kids, maintaining interest and enthusiasm (theirs and mine) throughout the day and making decisions for everyone all day long. With this in mind, I spent the summer thinking about what I wanted our days to look like as we transition our homeschooling into fall days and cooler temperatures. I needed to figure out how I could potentially turn the tables and have the kids come up their own ideas all day (or at least most of it!).

I wanted a structure simple enough to follow when we wanted it, but easy enough to abandon and return to when we needed a break. An idea broad enough to engage both kids (ages 2 and almost 6) but flexible enough to go deeper with my son in the development of his literacy and numeracy skills. I wanted something fun and motivating for the kids that would allow for spontaneity and adventure in our days. A rhythm that would help us make use of our space, toys, materials in meaningful ways. A flow that would inspire us to engage with our environment and community while naturally integrating reading, writing, math and all types of learning in whatever direction we find ourselves rolling each day. 

So, I came up with this plan I’m calling our “Alphabet Days”. While it wouldn’t be considered true “unschooling”, it’s about as relaxed and unstructured as I’d like to be in these COVID times — with many of our social and recreational activities closed. I was going to wait to post this until we were in full swing next month (with success stories to share), but with so many other parents trying to figure out what to do right now, I thought maybe some of us could try this out together and support each other. (And if it completely bombs for me, at least maybe someone else can benefit from it?)

The simple steps are outlined below:

  1. Get a jar and put 26 pieces of paper in it — each with one letter of the alphabet written in upper and lower case (write, use stickers, stamps, stencils or cut out letters to make). 
  2. Before bed, have your child pick one letter out of the jar. That will be the next day’s “Letter of the Day” (LOTD) (or days or week – whatever works for you). Pro Tip: if you pick a letter like Q, X or Z during your first week, pick two letters! 
  3. Start your day by working with the kids to come up with a list of 10- 20 words (or as many as you like!) that start with that letter — ideally beginning with things around your house or activities your child likes to do. You can write them on paper, in a book, type them in a list, make a word web, put them on a white or chalkboard, use magnet letters, sticky notes — whatever you like. If you like mixing things up, try a different way each day and see what works. I’m excited to start an alphabet book with my kids (maybe one for each of them). And I’ll probably start with writing the words in there. I think they’ll enjoy drawing pictures of some of them or cutting out pictures to go with the words. In case you get stuck or need a little inspiration, here’s a list of words for each letter (feel free to make a copy!).
  4. If the kids are antsy, move to step 5. If talking about the words is going well, make silly sentences with the words. See if your child can make a sentence using three of the words. Then four, etc. Write it down if that feels right. Type it. Put it in a journal and have your child draw a picture. Write it in highlighter and have them trace it. Have them retype or rewrite the words or sentences. Come up with words that rhyme with your words or simple words that have your letter in it (instead of just starting with it). Clap or tap out the syllables. Put them in alphabetical order. Talk about which ones are nouns (person/place/thing), verbs (actions) or adjectives (descriptive words). 
  5. Review the list and have your child plan the activities of their day (or just jump right into them) based on the letter. Think about things you can wear, eat, do, make, play, cook, sing, listen to, etc. Places you can go. People you can call, FaceTime or write to. Topics you can research. Literally ANYTHING at all that starts with the letter. Find more ideas at the bottom of my alphabet spreadsheet. (I’ll keep adding to this)

For example, if the letter is “B”:

  • Wear BLUE or BLACK, a BASEBALL or BASKETBALL shirt, or one with a BALLERINA or a BEAR. 
  • Eat BREAKFAST: include BANANAS, BLUEBERRIES or a BIG BOWL of cereal
  • Listen to a song on your favorite Spotify playlist, like BABY Shark or Apples and BANANAS or a BAND like The BEATLES or BOB Marley & The Wailers
  • Watch a video from your favorite YouTube playlist — like anything by The Laurie BERKNER BAND or Little BABY BUM
  • BUILD a BRIDGE — or anything, just BUILD! 
  • Set up pins for BOWLING
  • Take a BATH
  • Go to the BEACH 
  • Read or make a BOOK
  • Ride a BIKE
  • Fill some BUCKETS 
  • Walk in your BOOTS
  • Sit on a BENCH
  • Call, Facetime or write a letter to BILL, BRENDA or The BROWNS
  • Go outside and BRING a BLANKET
  • Feed the BIRDS
  • Do a craft related to BUGS or BIRDS
  • Make something with a BIG BOX

In essence, you’re just doing all the things you might normally do in a day, but it will be more fun for everyone if you build them around a letter theme and let the kids come up with the ideas based on your word list. The point isn’t to stick rigidly to the “everything has to start with the letter” rule all day, but to get the kids coming up with their own ideas for what to do and to keep the day rolling along without mama having to keep lifting and pushing the ball up the hill. 

That being said, one thing I keep telling myself to remember is that preparing nothing means being prepared for anything! Choosing the letter before bed will give you an idea of what your kids *might* come up with the next day, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stick with the plan in your head. They are your children after all. I’m reminding myself to begin each day with three things: 1) a big cup of coffee 2) a playful, positive attitude and 3) an open mind. 

And if you feel like doing 5-10 minutes of prep work here are a few other ideas:

  • Start the morning with a hunt for 10 words or things that begin with the letter of the day. Example: Label 10 things in your house that begin with B and have the kids find the labels. Use those for your first 10 words in your daily list. Or put a bucket outside their bedroom door and have them look for 5 or 10 things that start with LOTD when they wake up (BALL, BUTTON, BOOK, BRUSH, BAG).
  • If your kids love arts and crafts, go on Pinterest and type “kids crafts” and a few words from your LOTD to find some easy ones to do. Example:  KIDS CRAFTS BUGS, KID CRAFTS BIRDS. To avoid tantrums or disappointment, I recommend doing this in advance or without your kids looking over your shoulder so you can eliminate the ones that look too complicated or messy — or the ones you don’t have the materials for. Hand pick a few for them to choose from. 
  • Hide a bunch of sticky notes around your house with random upper and lowercase letters on them. Have the kids find 10 with your LOTD. 
  • Do it backwards and have a tray of things out for the kids when they wake up. Have them guess what the LOTD is!

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have spent the past three months with the kids at my parents’ house in Canada, but a new reality is just around the corner for us. 

My plan when I get home to Greenville is twofold:

  1. Have the kids spend as much time as possible with Daddy for the first week while I Marie-Kondo the crap out of our apartment. 
  2. Test out this new idea and see if it sticks!

If all goes well, I’d like to be able to think of it as another tool on my belt — not to be used every day, but when I feel like it’s the best one for the job.

Please share your thoughts in the blog comment section and connect with me on Facebook & Instagram to share stories or ask questions. I look forward to connecting with like-minded parents who are interested in test-driving this with me!

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