When I first started running a dayhome, I thought it would be like an old-fashioned preschool every hour of the day, with a firm schedule of monthly themes, learning objectives and daily learning activities, and myself as the teacher, standing in front of my "class" and running the show while they watched and learned from me. I soon realized that I needed to be more flexible in my thinking!
I now see my role more as that of a caregiver, facilitator and coach, rather than as a teacher in a traditional classroom. My main role is to set up a safe and enriching learning environment for the children and to be with them, as much as I possibly can, observing what they do, intervening when they have a problem they can't solve and helping them to find what they need to build on their learning. I see myself as homeschooling my own children for preschool - and dayhome children as well - and I want to work with the natural learning styles of the children rather than setting up rigid objectives and routines that might not work for them. Friends who homeschool tell me that my style would be called "unschooling", and is a common approach of people who educate children in a home setting. From my reading in early childhood education theory, I believe my approach is related to the practice of "emergent curriculum."
Children are amazing learners. I believe that if you create a rich learning environment for them and respond to their cues, most children will be naturally motivated to work on what they most need to learn at whatever age and stage they are at. Babies and toddlers are busy working on their developing bodies and independence skills, listening and talking, and some social learning -- their most important "curriculum" is to learn that loving adults are always near to respond to their needs. Preschoolers have these needs as well, but they are also ready to learn more about the world around them. By watching children's free play, and giving them the attention they need, a caregiver can find those "teachable moments" and move through those moments with them, whether they are most interested in learning to walk, to share with another child, to count, to recognize letters and learn the sounds letters make, or to learn about planets and stars. By the way, if children are interested, we do "play school" and practice everything from packing our backpacks to holding a pencil, to doing preschool worksheets and learning projects at our activity table.
I do have learning themes - but I am free to change them if the children are not interested, or stay with them if they are in a way that a larger group in a daycare or preschool cannot easily do. This year, so far, themes we have returned to over several days or weeks include apple trees, school time, Thanksgiving, ABCs and colors in French, dress up, art gallery and surrealist pictures, dolls and baby care, wild animals, farm animals, children around the world, Christmas and the nativity play, fire safety and fire drills, construction site and builders, sharks, doughnuts, typewriters, Martin Luther King, and I am currently cutting up the laminated posters and setting out space books and my son's rocket ship tent to start an Outer Space theme next week. We are always looking for opportunities to reinforce learning about numbers and counting, the alphabet and reading. I introduced a laminated calendar set at the start of January and we started talking about time, days of the week, days of the month, weekends, holidays, seasons and the weather. Now, the children remind me every day to do "Calendar Time" with them. Once they have the days of the week down pat, I'll introduce a clock toy and start talking about the hours of the day.
The babies and toddlers are aware of what we are doing, and I help them engage with their materials and ideas at their own level. Babies may sit on my lap while I read part of a book about sharks to an older child, chew on soft toy fish or carry around a laminated flash card with a picture of a shark, join in the actions and dance to Charlotte Diamond's song "Slippery Fish". Toddlers may roam the room during the same story, still listening on one level, gather up toy sharks and fish in a bucket and dump them, pretend to be sharks and chase each other at the playground, rip paper from the magazine that the preschoolers are cutting shark pictures out of, try to use the gluesticks and learn that they are not for tasting.
The very best teachers for children are other children; one of the beauties of a mixed-age group in a family dayhome is that the older children teach the younger ones and the younger ones are often ready to learn earlier than they might be because they want to do what they see the older children doing!
I am very aware of the developmental checklists for each age and stage -- my agency is currently training providers on how to do the Nippising Developmental screen checklists in partnership with parents for children in our care. (See this website for more information on this screening tool that helps adults to help children who are falling behind in any area get the specialized help they need as soon as possible: http://www.ndds.ca/home.html. ) This checklist is done at various stages of development for each child in the dayhome from birth to age 6, with parental consent and involvement. Doing this helps me to be aware of what children at various ages should be doing and to plan appropriate activities for each age and stage that I have in my home.
I also am very aware of preparing preschool-aged children in my care for kindergarten. I make sure that they have every opportunity to meet and exceed the guidelines for kindergarten readiness, such as the following checklist:
When entering kindergarten, a child should be doing most of the following.
Cares for personal needs
(copied from Birth Issues article http://www.asac.ab.ca/BI_spring02/soonlate.html , similar information available widely on the web and from the school district of your choice.)