Whether you are a stay-at-home parent looking to add some teaching moments to your daily routine, or a childcare provider hoping to create a preschool-like environment to help children reach their developmental milestones, you can easily create a preschool environment in a few days that won’t break the bank, but will increase any child’s capacities for learning. Follow these quick and easy tips to create a quality preschool environment in just one weekend.
1. Find Some Visuals
The great thing about children is that they are excited to learn new things. It isn’t a hassle to teach young children the things they need to know for their future, because they’re already begging us to give them the information they need. There are some basic things that children need to know for the future: letters and the sounds they make, numbers and the order they come in, shapes, colors, names of animals and common items, time (minutes, hours days, weeks, months, years, etc.), weather, and feelings or emotions, among other things.
Establish what you find most appropriate to teach the children and go on a shopping trip to a local store for teachers to find materials to place on your wall. Sioux Falls has a great store called Teaching Treasures. You can find many different formats to display the topics that you want your children to learn: color cats versus color paint splotches; numbers on a line or numbers on a wheel; calendars in every color and theme or blank calendars to create your own. Really, the options are limitless. These stores can be reasonable in price and you can buy the essential things that you need without breaking the bank.
Once you have purchased your items, I recommend that you take them somewhere to get laminated so that the curious hands and mouths of children do not destroy your affordable, yet quality items. I do not recommend taking your items to the Sioux Falls FedEx/Kinkos. I purchased $30 worth of items at Teaching Treasures and the lamination cost me over $100. Obviously, this was not helpful to my goal to create a quality environment on a small budget. Whether you purchase your items at Teaching Treasures or not, look into getting your items laminated there.
Once you have your items and they are laminated, if you chose to, return home and set up your environment. Find a corner of your house where you will feel comfortable putting things up on your wall to educate the children. The space doesn’t have to be huge. It can be a corner in a living room, a corner of a child’s bedroom or playroom, or an entire room if you choose.
Place the items on the wall within eye sight of the children. This means that it shouldn’t be 4 or 5 feet high, because little eyes cannot focus that high and will lose their attention. While deciding how high to put items, remember to consider the capabilities of the children and their ages. If given the opportunity, one and two year olds will pull as many things off of the wall as they can, and will try to find a creative space to shove them! This can be frustrating, but at the same time it is so valuable for a child to be able to reach the items to have a hands on experience when learning the information that you are trying to teach. So, when safe and age-appropriate, try to place the items on the wall within eyesight and reach for all of the children in your environment.
2. Get Some Toys
Now that the walls are filled with the information that children need to learn, you need to provide some engaging toys and other materials for the children to play with. This might seem like a difficult task, but truly it is a very easy one. Children, especially toddlers, find almost everything in life to be not only exciting, but also something to play with. When selecting toys for your preschool area, it is important to place some of the traditional toys in the mix, like dolls and blocks; however, if your toy budget is small, use household items as toys instead.
Children love watching the adults in their lives and playing out the roles and tasks that these adults complete on a daily basis. Throw some leftover Cool Whip containers into the toys selection, or put rags and towels in for a different option. Basically, if it is safe for a child to have, it can work as a toy. You may think that this is odd, but I have witnessed a child tire of a toy within seconds of playing with it, only to be distracted by a paper towel for more than 10 minutes just following her play with the initial toy. If a child finds it to be entertaining and it is safe for a child to have, then it is a toy!
Be careful as you select toys to make sure that you provide sufficient toys, but not too many to overwhelm the children. There is such a thing as too many toys. It is better to have a few toys that are engaging to the children, than to have an overload of toys, engaging or not. If you have a lot of toys just lying around, pack some away to be switched out with current toys in a few weeks.
Engaging the senses of children is very important to brain development. Provide plenty of activities that require children to use their senses: water, sand, toys that make noise, toys with different textures, and toys in varying colors and shapes. Even though some of these toys can create big messes, know that the impact on the brain is also big, and this is way more important than a big mess.
Be sure to include books in your selection of toys. Include books that the children can look at by themselves (i.e. cardboard books that can handle the indelicate hands and mouths of young children), and books that the children can only read with adults. I personally keep a collection of Sesame Street and Disney educational series. These books are great because they teach so many interesting topics that excite children, yet you do not have to prepare ahead of time for what you will teach the children that day. While the newer versions of these series may cost a bit more, the older versions can sometimes be purchased at a second hand store, rummage sale, or by hand-me-downs from older generations.
3. Play with the Children
Now that you have set up the information that you want the children to learn, and provided them with toys and books to use as a means to learn that information, it’s time for you to sit down with the kids and play with them. While a nice display on the wall shows the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors, the knowledge doesn’t get into the sponge-like brains of children until someone teaches the information to them.
If you have an entire day with the children, schedule in some structured moments when you discuss the numbers, colors, shapes and letters in detail, and then some unstructured moments when you play with the children and allow them to play what they want to play and guide them to learn what they need to know. If you only have a few minutes each day, but are still looking for an opportunity to add some information into those brains, spend those few minutes working on the basics before you have to move on to whatever you have to do or wherever you have to go. And whatever you do, don’t fill these spare minutes by trying to distract them with an episode of SpongeBob because you’ll have a rough transition to wherever you have to go or whatever you have to do. Don’t believe me? Read more about SpongeBob’s impact on children’s brains here.
It is best to develop a routine so that the children can best participate in the process. For me when I ran an in-home daycare, the children knew that “Calendar Time” started as soon as breakfast was cleaned up. We started by singing the days of the week song (to the tune of “Oh My Darlin’, Clementine”), counting the days in the month so far, identifying what day it is, identifing what the weather looks like, singing a song about the months of the year, reviewing the rules, singing the ABCs, and then finishing with numbers and colors. Once that was completed, we read one of the Sesame Street or Disney books. The Sesame Street books are organized by letter and number, so we typically read the book that is associated with that week’s letter of the week. The Disney series covers other topics, like colors, shapes, numbers, manners, animals, etc. I allowed the children to select their choice for the day to encourage them to stay engaged in the activity.
When all was said and done, I spent less than $50 (not counting the outrageous price for laminating) on the information on the walls, toys, and books that I used on a daily basis; it took me less than 30 minutes to go through all of this information with the children each day; and most importantly, the children picked up the knowledge quickly and started to use that knowledge in other parts of their day. The best news is that all kids can easily have access to a quality preschool environment, even if they don’t actually go to a preschool.