Adult-child Interaction Getting Started with Preschool at Home Initiative, Planning, and Reflection Interest and Engagement

The Secret to Getting Your Preschooler Excited about Learning

Last week, I had the opportunity to connect with a mom for the first time. And it was a good time. We discussed teaching preschoolers at home, working full time, and the craziness of the pandemic. It was so nice to be able to connect with another preschool mom who is trying to balance it all while stuck in the house for months on end.

During the conversation, this mom shared that she was struggling with getting her preschooler to join into “learning activities”. She said, “he can smell a learning activity coming from a mile away”. She went on to explain that at the start of the pandemic she would drag him into activities kicking and screaming. But the fact of it was, when she did this, she never got the desired result. Her son was angry and tantruming, she was frustrated and felt like she didn’t know what she was doing, and NOBODY WAS LEARNING ANYTHING…well at least not what she had set out to teach.

She proceeded to tell me that she had abandoned the kicking and screaming strategy and instead was now focused on “accidental learning”. She had coined this term to explain that she didn’t try to engage her son in “learning activities”. She let him find something engaging and tried to embed the learning activity into what he was already doing.


She had stumbled upon my secret weapon…a secret weapon that worked in the classroom and at home with my preschooler (and my big kids, too). Here it is….

Craft “learning activities” around your child’s interest.

Now let me hop up on my soap box really quick:

Preschoolers are ALWAYS learning! No matter what they are engaged in, they are learning. So we don’t have to craft activities for them to learn. When a preschooler interacts with others or manipulates materials he is learning. When she plays catch or explores water, she is learning.

Okay, I’ve got that out of the way. Back to the secret weapon!

The secret to getting your child engaged and excited about learning is to capitalize on his interest.

In education circles this is referred to as interest-based learning. There has been a lot of research done around this idea; the National Institute of Health, US Department of Education, etc. The bottom line of it all is that children learn best when they are engaged and interested.

What’s funny about this is that I don’t really think there needed to be massive research studies to come to the idea that children learn best when they are engaged and interested. Isn’t that how we, as parents, learn best, too? If we don’t enjoy languishing on in a meeting or conference or summit that is boring, why do we think that our preschooler will?

What’s In it for Me?

I was just in a meeting like this and after an hour, I checked out. I was done. I didn’t care what else the speaker was sharing. I completely stopped listening. Why should I give my full attention to a seven-hour meeting that wasn’t even related to my work? What’s in it for me???

There wasn’t anything in it for me, which led to me to completely disconnect. If I could have thrown a tantrum to get out of it, I might have. Parents, we can all relate to the feeling that our child has when she is not cooperating with learning–because we have felt it ourselves. Using your child’s interest as the starting point allows him to see that there is something in it for him. If he joins in with you, he gets to play with dinosaurs. If she joins in with you, she gets to build with blocks. If he joins in with you, he gets to blow bubbles outside.

Interest-based learning is the foundation for a successful preschool at home. And successful here means fun and engaging. We don’t want anything less. We don’t want to carve time out of our already busy schedules to invest in our children and then spend that time feeling miserable, frustrated, or ready to throw in the towel. If we are going to carve out this time, make a routine, and be consistent, we want a fun and engaging preschool experience that both, we and our children, want to return to day after day. And that is where we will have success, that is where we will see gains–in that day after day consistency.

You may be saying, how do I get started with interest-based learning? You’ve got to pinpoint your child’s interest. This may take some reflection, but it shouldn’t be hard. You already know so much about your child. In fact, you probably already know where her interest lies. You just need to drill down a little bit to get a clear focus.

4 Steps to Capitalize on Your Preschooler’s Interest

I suggest using a pen and paper to work through this process. If you are a journaler, this would be a great topic to journal.

Step 1: Take an Interest Inventory

  1. What gets my child excited?
  2. If I gave my child a choice, what kinds of activities would he choose?
  3. What makes my child laugh or smile?
  4. What actions/movements does my child enjoy?
  5. Who are the people my child prefers to hang out with?

Step 2: Reflect on Your Daily Routine

Now that you’ve taken an interest inventory, it’s time to reflect on your daily routine. Consider the following:

  • What are the activities in your daily routine that your child enjoys?
  • What are the times of the day that your child asks to be involved in–dressing, cooking, laundry, etc.
  • When do you have extra time in your daily routine?

Step 3: Plan for Your Sweet Spot

The best activities are the ones that provide your preschooler with the opportunity to engage in his interest while also learning something new. That’s the sweet spot.

When you plan for the sweet spot you are considering your routine for the day and based off of that routine, asking yourself, “when will my child have opportunities to engage in things that she is interested in.” You will literally get out a calendar or planner and plan these times.

Here is an example:

I know I have to do laundry today. Lucas likes helping me with laundry. I’m not going to be rushed, so this is a great time for him to help me.

Step 4: Map Out New Concepts to Teach Your Child

Once you’ve planned out when the sweet spot can take place, you have to figure out what to teach your child. Remember, the best activities allow for your child to engage in her interest while also learning something new. We’ll continue on with the laundry example.

What does Lucas get to do?

  • Sort clothes
  • Put clothes in and out of the machines
  • Pour detergent

What can I teach Lucas?

  1. Measuring–He can pour detergent from a measuring cup. We can talk about different measurement terms.
  2. Sorting by color or item–He can sort clothes by color or item type.
  3. Introduce new vocabulary: clean, dirty, wet, dry, wash, detergent, laundry.
  4. Practice back-and-forth conversation.

In these four steps, I have pinpointed my child’s interest and mapped out real-life, doable ways to teach him new things while he gets to engage in his favorite activities. This method worked when I was teaching other people’s children in a classroom and it works with my preschooler at home. It will work for you, too.

Here is a quick recap:

  1. Take an interest inventory
  2. Consider your daily routine.
  3. Plan for the sweet spots.
  4. Map out new concepts to teach your child.
  5. Have fun!

Don’t forget to have fun!  

Adult-child Interaction Getting Started with Preschool at Home Initiative, Planning, and Reflection Social and Emotional Development

The Only Rule to Teaching Your Child at Home

The only rule to teaching your preschooler at home

Okay, okay.  There really are no rules.

But this one strategy will make the MOST difference is teaching your child at home.  

Shared Control.

What is shared control?

Shared control is just that…sharing control with your child.  Parents who share control with their children provide choices, listen to their children, and allow for flexibility in activities. 

So let me break it down for you a little bit.  I want my child to circle his name.  But, nope, he wants to make lines.  Okay, perfect, let’s make lines.  I’m going to encourage him making lines.  I’m going to talk to him about his lines.  And once he’s done with the lines.  I am going to encourage him (and maybe even model for him) how to circle his name.  And if he REALLY REALLY REALLY doesn’t want to circle his name, I’m going to let it go. 

This actually happened…see that picture above…it was happening right then.  Lucas wanted to write the letter “L” over and over instead of whatever I was asking him to do.  So I followed my own advice and let him do what he was SO excited about.  By taking a step back and giving him the opportunity to make his own choice surely made him feel empowered and that empowerment translated into ownership.  That means that Lucas doesn’t see our time together doing preschool at home as something that I make him do, it is something that he has a say in, as well.  

A Little Bit of Self-Reflection

This is something you will hear me say again and again: if you don’t want to do it, neither does your preschooler.  

Let’s apply this situation to your own life.  You’re at work and you have a few tasks to do to get your day going.  Do you want the latitude to choose which tasks to do first or last?  Do you want the autonomy to do these tasks in your own way as long as they get done and done well and on time?  Do you want to be able to decide to do something else completely and work on those tasks tomorrow?  

I bet you would say yes to all of these questions.  We don’t like being micromanaged at work.  We want to be able to make choices about when and how we complete our tasks as long as we hit deadlines and perform well.  

Guess what?  Your preschooler wants that, too.

Imagine going into work and your entire day is preplanned for you. You’ve got to write emails from 9-10 and work on expense reports from 10-1130.  Then you can get coffee and then you can make your phone calls for the next half-hour.  Do you feel empowered in a situation like this?  Do you take ownership of your work?  Most times adults don’t.  When we are in situations like this we often look for an exit.

We don’t want our children to look for an exit from learning at home.  Really, we want them to look forward to this time.  We want them to seek after this time. I always feel so privileged when Lucas comes to me and says, “Mom, let’s do my school”.  Even if he makes missteps and even if I don’t share control perfectly or focus on his interests every time, I know I am getting some of this right because he comes back and asks me for more day after day.  

And I know that’s what you want, too.   

How Not to Share Control

Before I take you through the five strategies that will help you share control with your child, I want to highlight what NOT to do.  Let’s go back to Lucas. I wanted him to circle his name and he wanted to write the letter L all over the paper.  In this moment, I had a few choices to make.  

Let me tell you what I did not do.

I didn’t choose to create a power struggle and try to FORCE Luc to circle his name.  You know what? It’s not that important.  We can circle on another day.  We can circle later in the day.  We can circle next week.  I don’t want to micromanage Lucas and I don’t want to engage in a power struggle because a power struggle usually ends in him being upset, me feeling frustrated, and nobody learning anything.  

Circling his name would be far less important than making his learning time exciting and engaging.  When he feels successful and excited about what we are doing together, he will want to do it more.  He will learn more.  He will grow more.  And in all of that, I will get what I want, too–a preschooler prepared for kindergarten when the time comes.    

Don’t let power struggles derail creating a fun and engaging preschool experience for your child.  That is easier said than done, though.  Power struggles can be so common when working with preschoolers, especially our own preschoolers.  Why?  Your child has come into a time in his development where he has learned that he has a certain amount of control.  And HE IS EXERCISING THAT CONTROL!

This can be especially frustrating, but we have to acknowledge that it is appropriate.  At some point, children will learn that they are autonomous and have control.  In fact, we want our children to learn this.  We just need to help guide them along the way.  

So, I’ve told you a lot about sharing control, but let me take you step by step through actually doing it with your preschooler. 

Five Strategies to Use Right Now to Start Sharing Control

  1.  Provide Choices

Building choice into whatever you are doing with your preschooler is a sure-fire way to share control.  This doesn’t mean that your child has infinite choices–that wouldn’t be appropriate for a preschooler’s level of development.  Providing choices with a preschooler may look more like, “which blocks would you like to use right now?” or “what do you want to play with first?”   Even giving limited choices provides your child with some control.  “Do you want to use crayons or markers?” “Do you want to paint with your fingers or use a paintbrush?” Permitting your child to make the final choice allows her to feel in control and creates that sense of ownership.    

  1. Listen to your child

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I am guilty of this.  In fact, Lucas just said to me, “Wait. I am trying to say something”. 

And I felt like a giant dork!Giving our children the respect of listening to them when they talk is a pretty easy way to share control.  When we make a habit of listening to our children to understand their point of view and to hear their ideas they grow to believe that their ideas are important which has all sorts of positive learning benefits:

  • Development of a growth mindset
  • Increased ability to take risks
  • Confidence in their own learning/speaking ability
  1. Be Flexible

Sometimes we are doing things with our preschoolers and we haven’t built in choice–like when I asked Lucas to circle his name.  There wasn’t another option.  So how do you share control in those moments?  You choose to be flexible with your child.  

Lucas wanted to write letters and I wanted him to circle.  Being flexible means that in that moment, Lucas got to write letters.  Let’s say I planned an activity for us to build towers with blocks so that he could practice counting.  I got all of the materials ready and shared my idea.  And Lucas decided that he wanted to build a house for Spider Man, instead.  If I am going to share control, I am going to be flexible here and switch gears.  Cause you know what?  Lucas can practice counting the blocks in Spider Man’s house, too.  

  1. Allow Your Child to Make Mistakes

Duh!  Right. 

Of course, preschoolers will make mistakes.  

But sometimes (and I must slowly raise my hand here), we forget that immense amount of learning that is taking place within our preschoolers..and we are quick to punish them.  

I had a trainer once tell me something like, “we expect preschoolers to make mistakes with academic material but we often don’t expect them to make mistakes with social interactions.”  That really hit home for me. Of course, preschoolers are going to mess up social interactions.  There are many adults that mess up social interactions.   

We can share control with our children by viewing their missteps as mistakes and taking the opportunity to teach them.  Help them solve a problem they are having, help them come up with a solution before we jump to a punitive response.  

  1. Focus on the Relationship

Lastly, treat your preschooler the way you want to be treated.  You don’t want to be micromanaged, right?  Don’t micromanage your preschooler.  In respecting your child’s feelings, choices, and ideas you will continue to strengthen the loving relationship that you already have.

Relationships that are based on power and strict control are likely to breed situations where kids will misbehave because you’ve set up an adversarial relationship and kids are going to try to win.”–John Zola