How to Plan your Preschool Day - 7 Basics for Early Learners
10 September 2018
When I was training early childhood teachers at Duke University, I always emphasized to my student teachers the importance of using what they knew about children in all of their planning. The same goes for anyone who cares for children-- parents, babysitters, day care or creche providers-- begin with what you know about your preschoolers and make your plans based on that information. In addition to what you know about your child and their age (also known as their developmental milestone, explained here in our Child Development Guide) here are seven key early childhood development ideas that are the foundation for planning an easy and enjoyable day for young learners:
- Give your day some rhythm. With young children, it’s important to have a rhythm to your day. This means that when you are planning, you need to have an active, then less-active rhythm to the day. Let’s say you start your day with a quiet, art activity, such as our printing activity, Circling Around. Keeping in mind that young children’s attention span is naturally very short and this activity uses the small muscles in their hands and fingers, the next thing in your plan should get them moving and talking. Our pretending activity, Jet Planes, is a good example to that puts young one’s large motor skills and self-expression in motion. Next, it’s time to slow down again, perhaps with reading a book. Then, get ready to speed things up again!
- Include both individual and small group activities in your plan. If you are planning for a group of preschoolers, be sure to include activities for individual children as well as for the group. It’s important that each child has individual attention throughout the day, no matter how short that time may be. For example, when a small group of preschoolers are playing with dress-up clothes, it’s a good time for you to work with an individual child on their rhyming words, or on a specific skill you feel is appropriate for that child. Every bit of individual time you spend with each child helps build the all important social skills that are essential for primary school readiness.
- Build on familiar activities when introducing new ones. Preschoolers generally pay better attention to new activities that are a good match to their present level of development and skills. That means that it’s neither too hard nor too easy for them. It’s also important to vary activities so that they catch your preschooler’s interest. When introducing new activities or ideas, make sure that your plan that begins with the familiar or favorite, and then proceeds to introduce the new and different. For example, in introducing the letter B to 4-year-olds, you may begin with a favorite book title with a B in it, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Then you can have your preschoolers tell you what foods they know that begin with B, like banana. And now for the new idea! Show them how to write the letter B. To get their interest, practice the new letter B by filling a large sheet of paper with lots of Bs in many colors with crayons or markers. This method, of building on the familiar to introduce the new, is called “scaffolding.” Scaffolding is an early education teaching method for preschoolers. It’s also a great way to work with young children that are timid, introverted or who don’t usually take to new things as easily. Scaffolding helps them feel more comfortable, since they are already familiar with what you are introducing. You can get more ideas for working with shy children in our article, Introverted Children, Quiet Treasures.
- Consider age and attention span when choosing how many activities to plan. The younger the child, the easier it is for them to get over stimulated due to their naturally short attention span, so you must plan accordingly. Older children, 3- and 4-year-olds, are usually able to handle a larger variety of materials and activities, a maximum of 3 to 4 activities total in their day. Activities for toddlers and 2’s need to be more limited in number, no more than 2 or 3 total per day, to avoid overstimulation. If there are too many things to attend to or do, a 2-year-old will easily lose focus and become over stimulated. They won't be able to sit still and will get overly excited in speech and actions. This is why it works best to plan for an activity that you can repeat with 2-year-olds. Because they thrive on familiar things that build their confidence, 2's enjoy doing favorite activities, like reading a book, over and over again. You can add new activities as your 2-year-olds are able to handle them without getting overly excited, one at a time. And for all ages, when introducing new ideas remember your “scaffolding.” Begin with the familiar then introduce a new activity based upon it.
- Plan activities that strengthen both big and small muscles. Young children master their large motor skills, the muscles in their arms, legs and trunk first. To get ready for reading and writing, they also need practice to grow their small motor skills in the muscles of their hands and eyes. So, to nurture the whole child, your daily plan must include time for both large and small motor activities. For example, after learning to draw the new letter B, which is a small motor activity, a wholistic next step would be to have an activity that involved jumping, crawling or another large motor skill. For instance, our large motor activity activity Line Challenges could be the next step in your plan at this point. Need more ideas? You can find all of our Small Motor Skills activities here and Large Motor Skills activities right here.
- Be prepared ahead of time with all your activities’ materials. Before beginning, be sure to gather all the necessary bits and bobs for your planned activities. And if it’s a new activity, whenever possible, try it yourself before presenting to the children. If you’re running around trying to find your necessary materials, it can be especially distressing for preschoolers that are excited to start something new. Or worse, the new activity doesn’t work! We realize that some of the resources needed for our activities may not be available for you locally. So give the activity a try before using it with the children. That way, you will know what substitutions are required and be confident when you introduce it to your child for the first time.
- Include alternate or back-up activities. If an activity isn’t “clicking” with your preschooler, don’t feel you need to forge ahead anyway just because you planned it. Unlike older children, very young children haven’t learned to act like they're interested. If the activity isn’t engaging them, the signs are obvious. Perhaps they they don’t finish it, or start to do something else, or simply walk away. And that’s ok and to be expected. So, it’s good idea to have additional materials for other favorite activities on hand in case a new activity isn’t going over well. And if a preschooler finishes an activity faster than you expected, it’s also helpful to have their tried-and-true favorite materials like crayons, markers, and paper available. You can get more ideas about preschool-age appropriate materials right here in our Materials Guide.
There you have it! These basic ideas are the foundation for all preschool planning. By incorporating them into your everyday schedule, you and your little one will have a smooth and learning-filled time together. Want to get the fundamentals about how very children learn and grow? Try our Early Childhood Basics Guide and our Child Development Guide, these can help you easily identify your child’s specific skills and find activities that are perfect for 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds. And if you're looking for more creative activity ideas for one or a group of preschool children, check out our Good for Groups activity collection.
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