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Preschool for Pennies

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #62, 2005.

How to teach your preschoolers almost for free.

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Melissa Morgan

For preschoolers, learning means play. Parents, family, and close friends provide the best play partners for young children. The Bible tells us, for everything there is a season. Do we have the time - and money - to play?

Over-scheduled and financially strapped families, including or perhaps especially homeschoolers, juggle an ever-lengthening list of obligations. It pays to plan for family playtime, just like other activities, such as meals and work. Once playtime is set, kids won't let us forget.

What about kids playing with "age mates?" Most preschool programs emphasize social skills. However, just putting a group of kids together doesn't help children learn important character, conversational and social skills. Left on their own, even "good" kids will model the worst behavior of their peers. The Bible teaches that "the companion of fools will suffer harm." (Proverbs 13:20)

Place playtime with other kids under parental authority. I recently started a once-a-month play group, called Mommy and Me Time. Moms and kids play together, with show and tell, songs, games like Ring Around the Rosie and London Bridge, movie time, and snacks prepared by kids with the moms helping. Kids make crafts, such as paper bag puppets, out of throw away materials. We also include a "nap over." In a nap-over (as opposed to a "sleep over" for older kids) mommies have tea while kids rest on mats and look at books. After naps, it's time for free play. Kids take turns picking toys to play with.

Homemade Fun

Toys are just props for a child's imagination. My parent's generation owned few, if any, toys as children. They created their own toys, which was twice the fun. Who hasn't watched a child delightedly playing with the box, and ignoring the expensive trendy toy?

One way to have a great time with preschoolers is to provide large boxes, useful for making train cars, playhouses, lemonade stands, or whatever imagination dreams up. Drape old sheets and blankets over a table and provide an instant indoor club house.

Look around, and you'll find many other items that your preschooler would love to play with - if you're willing to allow it. Dominos can be lined up on their ends, and then nudged over to topple one by one. Play with card decks by sorting shapes and matching numbers. Button boxes store plentiful treasures, to be used as beautiful jewels or ransom for pirates. Kids love adult clothes and shoes for playing dress up - especially with you.

Still, most families enjoy some store-bought toys. Maximize your toy-buying dollars - your child learns best with toys that aid creativity and encourage communication for the longest time period.

Best Toys for All Ages

Over the years, we're regretted caving in to fad toys, toys that glorified violence or physical appearance, and toys that even hint at the occult. If relatives and friends ask what your child would like for a gift, suggest items such as books, clay, craft kits, historical or biblical figures, doll houses, doll families, play food sets, toy cash registers for playing store, building bricks that include play people and train sets that can be constructed many different ways.

Since you're play partners, consider your own interests as well as your child's preferences when you buy toys. If possible, also look for toys that will also attract older siblings, so your children will enjoy playing together. Imaginative toys can be enjoyed by a wide age range, and kids can create a new story or toy every day.

I've learned to appreciate toys on a smaller scale, since I lack storage space. Most preschoolers, as well as older kids, love tiny things. Of course, preschoolers may still put small toys in their mouths, so supervise this closely. Manipulative toys used by older kids for school, such as counters, wooden puzzles and magnetic letters, make absorbing toys for preschoolers. No need to spend a lot. I've found many valuable educational toy sets such as marble slides and pattern blocks for ten cents on the dollar at garage sales, homeschool support group sales, and resale shops. I put aside special educational toys for using only during "school time," so my little one can play school with the family.

I also seek out portable toys, as we're often on the go. Store small items in zippered plastic bags and carry them in back packs. Avoid mess build-up and lost pieces by enforcing the "only one project at a time" rule. For instance, put away your building set before you get out your markers.

Recycle outdoor equipment for large muscle, active play. Young growing families living in cramped apartment villages frequently discard unneeded, bulky play equipment in the trash, such as tricycles, small swimming pools - with or without holes (useful for sand boxes), toddler slides, etc. Many communities sponsor a spring or fall "Neighborhood Cleanup Day," when the city will pick up large items for free. Find out about this from your local city hall, mark your calendar, and comb the streets for freebies. If this sounds embarrassing, don a floppy hat and sunglasses. As the old saying goes, one person's trash is another person's treasure. Make sure that the community doesn't have any local ordinances against this type of "recycling."

Wherever I acquire toys - through recycling, discount stores, thrift shops or garage sales - consider safety first, and avoid older toys with hazards such as brittle plastic, sharp edges, allergens, or the possibility of lead paint. I prefer second-hand, high quality, sturdy toys, over brand new, flimsy amusements. I also stick to toys that can be easily cleaned, which means I avoid second-hand stuffed animals. Upscale neighborhood yard sales often offer high quality educational toys inexpensively. Less pricey neighborhoods can also be a good place to pick up bargains, or even freebies after the yard sale is over.

For more playtime ideas, explore resources such as Montessori Play & Learn: A Parents' Guide to Purposeful Play from Two to Six by Lesley Britton and Making the Most of the Preschool Years: Creative, Confident Children, by Maxine Hancock. You may also enjoy Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready (Bio-Alpha, Inc.), which includes activities for independent play and learning for birth to age five, and Parents Guide to Entertaining and Educating Young Children, Babies & Toddlers, (EDC Publishing). Your local librarian can help you find many more books to help make your home preschool fun!

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