How-to: preschool for a 3-year-old

"So, what do you do with her while you're teaching the bigger girls?"

I get that question often. Friends who are curious about homeschooling multiple children ask how it can be done: how to keep a 3-year-old engaged & out of trouble while the other girls are getting direct instruction, and what exactly she should be learning at this point!

This year, homeschooling all three is going so far, so great! This is our 5th year(!!) of homeschooling, but the first in which I'm officially juggling teaching everyone. My older two are doing 2nd grade material; Hannah is 3 and is in her first year of preschool.

What do I do with her for preschool? Here it is in 9 easy blurbs:

Clockwise from left: Sitting at the table and drawing free-hand while the big girls are doing math;
loving the outdoors & the camera (thanks to my friend Molly for that shot!);
painting a birdhouse with her sisters.
1) Tell her about Jesus and how much He loves her, and how great and mighty He is. Every time I get a chance.
Beyond just Bible reading time and praying with her, I tell her about Jesus. A lot. It's more important than anything else I do as a mom. Here are my favorite resources.

2) Schedule in structured and unstructured play time. As often as possible.
We feel that, at 3, playing is the best way for her to learn. If you look at our Morning or Afternoon Routines, you'll notice in her column (the green one) there is a LOT of playtime. Some of it is planned out with specific toys or crafts; some is just free-choice time. Both help her grow in creativity!

3) Read. Read, read, read.
Reading. Sonlight offers a 3-year-old curriculum that is just reading classic & fun stories (no seatwork, busywork, etc). It takes about 15 minutes a day for me to read the day's suggested story, but her "school books" are always available to her during free play, rest time, and when she's sitting at the table with us during "big girl school". Here is the list of books that we are reading this year upon Sonlight's recommendation: Fiction, Fairy Tales, & Fun for Little Learners. We also read oodles of others. (Ever heard of Usborne Books & More? We get many of her books from here!). And then the other classics like the Berenstain Bears series, Spot the Puppy, Curious George, Sandra Boynton board books (forever a favorite), Eric Carle books, Dr. Seuss,...the list keeps growing.

Want to increase the chances that your child will be a passionate lifelong learner, rather than a receptacle for regurgitated facts?! Read with, to, and around your children. Until they move out, and especially when they are small. Aside from teaching my daughters about the Lord, teaching them to be readers is the most important thing I can do for their future (aside from the obvious basics like feed & clean them).

4) Play games with her.
Games can mean activity games like 'red light, green light', or board games like 'Candyland', or just spending time playing "house" or "restaurant" or "store". All are an engaging and fun way to teach good sportsmanship, playing honestly and considerately, and taking turns (all important life lessons!).

Clockwise from top left:
Elizabeth & Abby were teaching Hannah the basics of building a bird's nest (learned in science) during free play time;
Gram H reading "That's Not My Puppy..." with Hannah;
Hannah & Abby helping Mommy in the kitchen, working on stirring over heat safely.
5) Schedule time for her to play with her sisters (and me!).
I wrote about One-on-One time in my post about our Afternoon Routine - where I make sure to connect with Hannah for about 30 minutes twice a week. I let her choose whatever she wants to play, and then I do my best to be totally present during that time with what she chooses - no phone calls, no FB, no visitors, no interruptions. It's also important that she learns how to learn from her sisters, and that she sees that she impacts their lives for good, too, so I put time on the schedule for them to all play together without me hovering over them. Encouraging healthy sibling relationships now means that after they've left home, there's a good chance they will still be close to each other for a lifetime. It starts when they're young. Conflict management & resolution is something that happens during these times - in abundance.

6) Explain, answer, repeat. Explain, answer, repeat. Explain, answer, repeat...
She's three, with the attention span of a ....hey! was that a dog? I like cookies. Mom, what did you say? What's for supper?

If she's clearly not ignoring me or stalling for time, I need to practice patience and kindness by explaining what I'm doing ("Oh! Hannah, look. I'm putting the laundry in the hamper, because if I don't the house will look messy!"), answering her questions (like an innocent 'why, Mum?') as many times as she asks them. Patiently <----I'm working hard on this part.

7) Require her to help me out with (age-appropriate) chores.
She learns how to be part of a team and that we need her when I have her come alongside me and teach her how to pick up her toys, put garbage in the trash can, dust the tables, wipe the counters, and switch the laundry over. Right now, she shadows me and has no chores of her own (that will come around age 5).

8) Invite her to listen in when I'm teaching her sisters!
She routinely sits and listens/plays or colors at the table quietly while I teach 2nd grade language arts, math, history, & science to the girls. And it blows my mind, because she retains quite a bit of it. Maybe she doesn't understand 95% of it, but she remembers what I said and can repeat it back. She drew a 10 the other day, and said "Hey Mom, I'm making tens!" I didn't teach her that on purpose.

One thing I've learned about children over the past few years: when you teach 'up' to them (meaning, reading or explaining at a level you think is way over their heads), they absorb WAY more than you think they do. So take a chance and teach up every now and again. If they latch on and love it, run with it for a bit. If they don't care, drop it and try again later.

9) Encourage her to come along on errands and field trips.
Real life is the best thing to prepare a child for real life. Taking Hannah along to the bank, grocery store, post office, etc helps her immensely. She learns that not everyone is nice - and sees how Mommy responds (hopefully, in humility & love with grace!). She learns that sometimes you can't get what you want (BUY ALL THE COOKIES), and how we expect her to respond when she doesn't get her way.

And taking the occasional opportunity for a field trip to a farm or museum or park teaches her how to conduct herself in public, in a way that brings honor to God.

Clockwise, from top left:
Checking out a baby chick that a dear friend brought to show us!;
E reading to H during free time;
the girls created a puppet show together;
E wrote out "God loves you too Hannah!" and the memory verse for the week, so H could learn it, too.
I want to point two components that you didn't see on my list:
1) Screen time.
I've definitely had days when the TV has helped me maintain sanity. And the girls get one hour of scheduled TV time on Monday mornings, and once in a while we'll have a family movie night. As a rule, though, Hannah does not have many opportunities for screen time. I have not taught her how to use the computer, and we do not own any iPads/smartphones/similar gadgets. Not because I'm anti-technology, but because I know she totally lacks the self-control to master using technology for learning rather than the technology sucking her in. (...*I* often lack the self-control to master using technology rather than letting it dominate my days...but that's another post, I think.) I'd rather not have her hooked on learning with technology at the tender age of 3. In a couple of years, like her big sisters, she may be ready for a limited amount of computer time. There are some great resources out there! But there is nothing that a computer can teach her at this stage that she can't get from playing with basic toys or spending time with me.

2) Workbooks.
I spent an obscene amount of money to purchase a complete, fun-looking workbook-based curriculum when Elizabeth was 3. And it did not work for us. Elizabeth hated it. I thought that because I learned best with traditional approach to school and rigid, scheduled planning that my daughters would too. And it sucked the fun out of our homeschool almost right away. I go for a more individualized approach now.

If it works for your child - go for it: use a workbook! Use the computer! But if you find that your child fights learning at the age of 3, you really should consider trying to find another method that better fits your child's learning style. Three-year-olds do not need to memorize how to write their letters and numbers and read sight words. If yours does and loves it and wants to - AWESOME! Encourage them as long as they are enjoying learning. But don't push it if they seem unwilling or frustrated. How they perform & memorize at three usually serves to bolster a parent's ego at playdates and is not necessarily indicative of a Harvard-bound student.

As I said before. This is how we roll at the Hunter house. You might do something entirely different, and you're rocking it - I am thrilled for any family who figures out what works well!! If you're a mom who uses ABCmouse with your preschooler or your child loves doing worksheets, I assume you chose it because it's best for your family! For those who are at a loss for how to homeschool a little one, or who are looking for a little inspiration, this is my offering. I hope it can be an encouragement that homeschooling a preschooler doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. It can be a fun and joyful season of life for the whole family!

Preschooling and loving it,
for His glory!

I may be sharing this post with these uplifting Link-up parties!
If this post has inspired, blessed, or encouraged you, please comment, pin it, or share!


  1. I want to homeschool my girls, but am currently doing a preschool group with them once a week. And I definitely feel the same way about screen time with my girls. A lot of my friends use workbooks or online computer games for their 3 year olds, but I just think they don't need it now. I'm not worried about them "falling behind" in technology use. Technology use is something that can be picked up very quickly imo.

    1. I'm astonished (and slightly terrified) at how quickly little ones pick up how to use gadgets, without help! We have a desktop computer that my parents gave to us that Will wiped everything off of except for MS Paint, MS Word, and the calculator. It became the older girls' computer and they get to earn computer time to create art or type stories - and it took my oldest daughter less than two weeks to surpass me in her knowledge of how Paint works! Just by trial & error. I don't feel the need to encourage Hannah to "learn" how to use the computer or TV just yet :)

      Thank you for visiting, Katelyn! Have a sweet Monday~
      Lisha :)

  2. Lisha,

    I love your very first point. Telling our children about Jesus is the most important thing we can do. If we don't teach them anything else that day, we need to make sure we've at least taught them something about Jesus, His love, His power, His might.

    My three-year-old just wants to be doing what big sister is doing, so she sits at the table with us and does phonics and some math too. She loves her do-a-dot markers, so I will print off letters for her to dot paint.

    1. I've learned that even if the rest of the day's plan has to go out the window (sick kid, unexpected visitors, etc), I need to make that sweet time to share something about the Lord with them!! Han loves to shout out at random times "MOM! Guess what? God MADE us ALL!" and it makes those Bible times worth it. :)

      Three is SO MUCH FUN. I was too busy hurrying it along with Elizabeth and too exhausted to notice it with Abby (16 months apart, those two!) - that I am just mostly loving it now. And when she begs to 'do 'schoo' with the big girls, I let her sit and read/sticker book/color as long as she wants to. It's so sweet (mostly!) when she imitates them.

      What are do-a-dot markers? I've not heard of them!

  3. Our daughter is long past this and will soon have kids of her own. Your photos are so precious. Homeschooling is so rewarding, but such hard work. God bless you!

    1. Oh, how fun! I'm learning that each new stage & season brings a beauty all its own...thank you for the encouragement. It has been worth all the work so far :)


  4. Play is so important at this age. I love how intentional you are in your homeschooling and parenting. It is an inspiration and there is much to be learnt here.
    Thanks so much for sharing at Essential Fridays.
    Mel from Essential Thing Devotions

    1. Thanks :) I am blessed to be part of a church where mentoring is taken seriously - we are surrounded by the parents who have been there, done that and help teach the younger parents how to keep pointing their children to Jesus and shepherding them, not just caring for them. It's made all the difference in how I've seen my calling!

  5. Love your blog! I have a 2 year old that I can use these tips for! I look forward to following you!

    1. April, I'm encouraged by you today - thank you so much! :)


  6. Great posts. My girls are almost 6 and almost 2 and keeping the little one from literally jumping on her sister when she is reading or scribbling all over her sister's math pages has been a constant struggle.

    Here is one post of something we tried. http://www.typativemamacat.com/2013/10/more-school-time-toddler-distractions.html

    1. Thanks, Heidi! It can take time to find activities and way to engage the littles so that they not taking away from the other children :) Thanks for the link, I appreciate it!


  7. These are wonderful ideas, thanks for sharing this at Anything Goes! I pinned each post your shared! Have a great night. :)

    1. I'm glad you like them :) I appreciate the pins, so much. Thank you for the encouragement!!

      ~Lisha :)

    2. Just stopping by to let you know that this post was featured at this week's link-up! When you stop by to link up this week, feel free to grab an "I was featured" button. (not required) :)

  8. Thank you so much for sharing with Wednesday's Adorned From Above Link Party. Have a great week.
    Debi and Charly @ Adorned From Above

    1. Thank you, ladies! I hope you have a sweet week as well!


  9. What a great post! I am just know starting to figure out what to do with my newly three year old and this is so helpful. Thank you for linking this up with the A Nurse's Wildflowers: Homeschool Weekly Moments and Musings linkup...this fits very well with this week's post :)

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Heather. :) Preschool age is so. much. fun! I'm blessed that this was helpful for you!