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Co-ops for Little Kids

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #89, 2009.

Give your young children play time with others in a co-op
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Melissa Morgan

You’ve heard the question, “What about socialization?”—and you are homeschooling a pre-schooler!

Young mothers often feel isolated and stuck at home. Perhaps children of friends or relatives seem more sophisticated, or socially mature than your child. However, pseudo maturity or blasé attitudes are not anything to emulate.

Still, carefully chosen, well supervised play groups and homeschool co-ops can prove valuable and enjoyable, both for children and parents. You can find more choices than you ever dreamed within your local community, church, and homeschool activities.

How can you choose the best? Consider why you would like more social outlets, and what you hope your child will learn.

Write down your goals, as simply as possible. Here are a few of our general goals:

  • Teach my child how to respect God, parents, self and others.
  • Allow my child positive social experiences interacting with various cultures, ages and abilities.
  • Help my child to learn how to communicate effectively, listen, follow directions and take turns.
  • Teach my child to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
  • Provide fun, fellowship, and encouragement for the entire family.

Seek out activities where families share your values, and toddlers can obtain positive social training, improve communication skills and build self control. Consider how these experiences can also strengthen—not detract from—your ability to parent your child.

Your local and state homeschool group can help you hook up with like-minded homeschoolers with young children. For more information, check out the “Groups” listings at home-school.com. You’ll probably find several established play groups or co-ops to pick from in your area. If not, or if your local groups are focused on older kids, consider starting your own informal group, with as few as only one other family.

Sharing Your Toys (and More!)

Few homeschool families can compete with the financial resources of a private or public preschool budget for buying educational toys. But you can get together with a few other families, promote sharing, and host a Toy Exchange day. (To find toys your child is willing to exchange, you might want to try some Don Aslett-style decluttering first: see his column in this issue!). Friends go home with your child’s forgotten game, toy, or puzzle, while your family gets to enjoy something new (to you).

Animal care can help kids connect, and of course, pets provide lively fun—at least for awhile. Then the pet loses his novelty, and becomes a burden instead of a thrill. What if you only had to take care of a pet for say, a month at a time, then you could send your pet home with another family? Consider sharing and rotating small pets, such as lizards, hamsters, birds, and fish. Each child can be responsible to communicate care instructions to the next child in line. Keep a schedule, so that you know who is supposed to keep which animal, and for how long.

Pick up educational items to share from garage sales in upscale neighborhoods, at pennies on the dollar. Many teaching colleges offer libraries, open to the public, where you can borrow group learning materials. In addition, activities such as local church ministries, library story times, 4H (csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html, for ages 5 and up), and various scouting organizations offer materials and ideas for group activities and positive social training. Search for groups in your area through kidsclubs.about.com/popular.htm.

Themed Activities

Consider hosting groups with a different theme every month. Try these simple ideas to get you started:

  • Alphabet Zoo (make up an animal and song for each letter)
  • Band Concert (with toilet paper kazoos, wax paper combs, oatmeal box/coffee can drums, pop bottle flutes)
  • Chalk Art Celebrations (decorate the sidewalk or garage floor)
  • Culture, Family Heritage and Foreign Languages (dress up and simple recipes)
  • Create Your Own Game Day (make checkers by painting stones to resemble bees and ladybugs)
  • Holiday Crafts (make Christmas cards to distribute to neighbors and friends)
  • Career and Helper Day (make costumes and play police officer, doctor, pastor, service person, etc.)
  • Literature/Book Club (each child brings favorites to share)
  • Science and Safety (how plants grow, vitamins, safety rules and health)
  • Sports/Preschool Olympic Festival (cooperative games such as relay races)
  • Very Small Business Day (lemonade stand or yard sale for charity)

Large Equipment for Groups

Besides oodles of flu germs, your local preschool probably boasts great playground equipment. How can homeschoolers compete? Kids enjoy playing together and facing challenges together, while exercising their large muscles. However, children get bored quickly of the same old slides and swings. Rotate play groups at various homes and locations, so that your child can sample a variety of play equipment. Children will also practice sharing, waiting their turn, and proper behavior in public. Adults and older children in the group can consciously foster a spirit of cooperation and encouragement, instead of the “law of the strongest” in the “playground jungle.”

If you can’t afford traditional swing sets and sand boxes in your own yard, do what previous generations did: improvise with tire swings and homemade obstacle courses, or plan a field trip to a variety of public parks. (If you build your own equipment, consult an expert to ensure your equipment is safe.)

Communication Skills

Is social communication unusually challenging for your child? He or she is not alone. Often goals and activities for young children far exceed both the children’s desires and abilities.

You don’t need a degree in child development, but it helps to know a little about ages and stages. Very young children (ages 4 and under) seldom play together, but may enjoy side-by-side parallel play. Play side by side and imitate your child, at the child’s level or a little beyond. Respond in kind: if a child makes sounds but few words, do the same with short, clear sounds and words in response. Consider resources such as Communicating Partners, jamesdmacdonald.org, which provides free resources to families learning to communicate with their children. You may be amazed at how interested children become when you relate with them at their level!

What About Formal Classes?

What about preschool classes, homeschool or otherwise, that focus on intensive academic skills?

As a family with a child who has special visual and health needs, we’ve occasionally felt pressured to conform to developmental schedules and expectations. Although some may disagree, I would not force strictly regimented and tested “school-like” activities for young children. Keep group learning for young children fun, simple and child-centered.

A young child learns mostly through the senses: mixing measurements, building with bricks, cutting, gluing, working puzzles, lacing and tracing. Resources such as Better Late than Early by Raymond and Dorothy Moore can encourage families with preschoolers to focus on good behavior and character development. Most kids are in school at least twelve years. Academics can wait.

You may find that your preschooler is so frantically overscheduled that you yearn for days at home with naps, snacks, books, blocks, mud pies, and dolls. You may even notice that intensive social activities increase negative social behavior (such as whining, temper tantrums, back talking, disrespect, hitting, cursing, or stealing). Consider canceling some (or even all) outside activities for awhile. Work on social skills within the family. Model and play-act turn taking, self-control, and how to make wise choices. Properly trained children can practice treating others with kindness within their own family. Children of the past, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” books, lived and thrived in relative isolation compared to children today.

For help in character training you can find resources, such as For Instruction in Righteousness: A Topical Reference Guide for Biblical Child-Training by Pam Forster (doorposts.net), and Character Building Kingdom Stories, from pearables.com. Relax and enjoy uncomplicated hours of family time together. As your child matures, you can look forward to many years ahead, with increasingly more independent, successful, fun learning time with friends!

Melissa L. Morgan is the co-author of Educational Travel on a Shoestring and Homeschooling on a Shoestring. With her husband, Hugh, she has homeschooled their three children from birth, taking advantage of many educational opportunities in the real world. She invites you to visit her website at www.eaglesnesthome.com.

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