I have dubbed my approach to homeschooling my preschoolers Library Books and Rabbit Trails. It’s simple and wonderful. We read books aloud and they do what kids do- they ask questions. I call their questions rabbit trails and enthusiastically follow them… into more books. The answers stock library shelves. More books generate more questions that send us back to the library and the cycle continues. This easy method fuels itself and its simplicity reminds me to not over complicate their early education as we moms are often tempted to do.
My chief goals in preschooling include: preserving curiosity, engendering a love of story, growing an admiration of nature and culture’s gems, cultivating creativity and kindling faith. Children’s hearts are already inclined to drink deep of these beautiful things. So, discipline aside, teaching little kids is less like building from the ground up and more like nourishing what is already inside them.
Knowing that our kids’ first five years are pivotal to developing their minds and guiding their affections, we moms strive toward the goal of “doing what is best for them.” And there is so much truly good advice out there on what is best for kids (see my book list at the end of this post). Although I love flipping through other moms’ ideas, I have to guard myself. Twenty minutes on Pinterest can launch me into a sticky note frenzy of craft ideas, lessons, science experiments, outings, volunteer opportunities and projects that either a) never get done or b) get done at the expense of more important things. Important things like:
- imagining with a basket of play clothes
- crafting freely with raw materials like paint, tape, clay, cardboard or string
- running loud outside
- dawdling through a grove just to see what they see
- playing in unstructured media-free free time
- giggling through impromptu dance parties
- cuddling up to read stories and poetry together
- discussing their ideas and dreams with my undivided attention
- engaging in family worship
- and managing the household well
This list looks both blissful and doable… if I don’t crowd it out with lengthy frivolous schooly to-do lists.
In this crazy wonderful “Mommy, can I sit in your lap?” season, I refuse to use valuable time prepping lesson plans when my children are sleeping (while I should enjoy solitude) or orchestrating messy expensive stressful time-gobbling projects when they are awake and simply asking for my attention. I have found that when I simply read to my children often and entertain their questions, I am all at once feeding their knowledge, preserving their appetite for knowledge and connecting with them.
Kids are full of questions! Exploding with them. I decided to view this trait, which some adults find annoying, as an built-in springboard for their learning. Reading books aloud naturally draws questions out of their naturally curious minds. “Do cats eat bats? Why do kings wear crowns? What is under the sand under the ocean? Did John Muir have any kids?” We check out library books that answer their questions and those books spawn new questions! Reading fuels questions fuel reading fuels questions fuel reading.
Often times, I do not know the answers, but “I don’t know” is an okay response. We can consult a book. I don’t need to read ahead then spoon feed them information or avoid topics I am not equipped to expound on. We just learn together and they gradually learn how to look things up themselves.
No matter what teaching method we choose, our kids are not just learning- they are learning how to learn. Library Books and Rabbit Trails (LB&RT) fosters self-led learning, builds their confidence and grows kids’ communication skills. For example, my 5-year-old cannot read yet, but he has learned how to ask the librarian. “Hello, can you please take me to nonfiction books about knights? Thank you.” He’s taking initiative and he’s communicating. Also, I sometimes ask the kids to narrate tales and facts back to me after we read (a little trick I picked up from Charlotte Mason). Narrating helps them digest concepts and practice communicating. I am over and over amazed by how well-spoken they are becoming and how much information their little brains retain.
Drenching kids in books influences their activities and tightens the bond between siblings and parents. In our home, we joke together about funny one-liners and recollect meaningful scenes; we play “Guess who I am” by imitating our favorite characters; we steal pieces from fairy tales when we make up our own stories; they tape magazine clippings of birds and bugs into homemade books then dictate the facts for me to write in; they point out “lobed” or “serrated” leaves to each other on walks through the woods. All this educational and imaginative fun can blossom without a guidebook.
Going to the library and following rabbit trails has truly proven harder to stop than to maintain. Here are some examples of rabbit trails we have followed:
A book about knights led us to a book about dragons which begged the question, how does fire burn. So we read about forest fires which sparked interest in pontoons on fire fighting airplanes. Pontoons brought up glacial lakes which naturally led to discovering ice age mammals and carried us right through 10 books on dinosaurs and paleontology. In short, now there is a drawer full of rocks and bones in my house.
N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of pirates made them wonder (among other things) why boats float which incidentally brought them to how ships sink. A close look at shipwrecks revealed thriving marine life around them which triggered a lasting interest in coral reefs and drew us to a tide pool near our home.
A little book of Degas’ famous ballerina paintings roused interest in ballet. At the library, we found books about ballet terminology, classes, costumes, and theaters. We listened to recordings of various orchestra instruments and danced along with a video of The Nutcracker almost daily. “Where did The Nutcracker come from?” brought us to a picture book biography of its composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which introduced us to his great work, Sleeping Beauty. After dancing all the more with Sleeping Beauty’s ballet video, we emptied the Library shelves of different renditions of the fairy tale and compared the illustrations. Of course, we watched (most of) Disney’s 1959 version and listened to the score on repeat. Their questions about animation led us to a biography of Walt Disney which inspired the kids to make their own movies on my phone with their toys as characters.
Let me interrupt myself to add that I do let the kids interrupt mid-page to ask their questions. Instead, I have trained them to ask at the next page turn. Anyway,
Even though I do not follow a preschool curriculum, I do ponder the guts of different teaching philosophies and internalize the parts I love. I will share here some books I have leaned on. I read Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease for their book lists and for foundational ideas about the value of reading aloud. I read Preschool Math at Home by Kate Snow to better understand my children’s stage of cognitive development and generate ideas for how I might weave math into our days. I read The Outdoor Life of Children, excerpts from Charlotte Mason’s writings on education, to plant in me a desire and knowhow for engendering an adoration of nature and power of observation in my children. I read The Life-giving Home by Sally and Sarah Clarkson for direction on how to lovingly serve my family well. And I am forever thankful I read For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay because it laid for me a groundwork that will ever underpin my parenting/teaching style. I read a lot, but I don’t let good advice and picture perfect Instagram posts send me into a frenzied sticky note overload. Likewise, I hope you take this post with a proverbial grain of salt and adopt only the parts you like most. Mother from your own strengths. No one teaching style does suits every mom’s or kid’s personality.
In these precious early years of connecting and becoming, let’s choose to use our hours well. Reading books and following rabbit trails is an efficient and effective way to keep our kids inquisitive, steer them toward self-led learning, build important skills, tighten the bond between us and leave plenty of time for unstructured play. It even inspires the best kinds of play! Through LB&RT, we can lay a foundation to build on as our children grow up, a foundation that will benefit them their entire lives. Through this self-propelled method, we can learn alongside our children about all the wondrous wonderful things they wonder about.
Watch some of our book trail journey on my instagram page.
See how I manage library excursions with small children here.