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!