When my daughter was less than a year old, we were out for a stroll, and a stranger asked me where I was going to send her to preschool. Preschool? I thought. She can’t even walk.
Researching Preschool Options
But the question remained. Where was I going to send my daughter to preschool? Online, I found what seemed to be an endless list of preschools in my area. They had non-refundable application fees of $125, “admissions specialists,” and Nanny & Me groups conducted in Spanish. The schools called older siblings “alumnae,” sent out letters of acceptance, and in addition to art and story-time, taught woodworking and capoeira. At one school, Wednesday was Cheese-Tasting Day, and the chef prepared organic menus of poule au pot, quiche, quinoa, and fennel hearts.
The price tags were astronomical. My husband and I made the choice that one of us would stay home to raise my daughter, Gemma, and that the stay-at-home parent would be him. Despite how much I loved the idea of bilingual capoeira teacher, we just couldn’t afford preschool. We were going to have to settle for music class at our neighborhood children’s bookstore, and story-time at the public library.
When Gemma was 2 ½, I met Sarah, a mom who lives up one street from us and also brought her daughters to story-time. Sarah had recently put together a weekly co-op for some of her mom-friends who weren’t doing preschool, and named the group Little Explorers. It sounded wonderful. Was I interested? Most definitely.
Our Preschool Alternative – the Little Explorers Co-op
Sarah had masterfully organized everything so that each month had a theme, and that each mom in the group took turns hosting. She had also designated the first, second, and fourth weeks of the month as classes, and the third week of the month as a field trip. The time for classes was set, but the location was flexible, chosen by the host-mom.
We met at different parks, or at the host’s house, and each class lasted an hour and a half. As people arrived, there was free play. About 15 minutes in, we’d round up all of our kids, sing a couple of songs to shake our sillies out, sit down on a picnic blanket, and read a story or two. Then we’d do a craft or activity, followed by a theme-related snack. We closed with more free play. If we were at a park, and the weather was especially nice, and the children were playing happily, people stayed longer.
My First Time Hosting the Co-op – Dinosaur Lessons
The first time I hosted Little Explorers, I was terrified. The mothers Sarah had gathered together were all so creative and smart, and just generally nice to be around, so I really wanted to do a good job.
The theme of the month was Dinosaurs. I chose two dinosaur books – How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends by Jane Yolen and Bones, Bones, Dinosaur Bonesby Byron Barton.
While I read the stories, my husband buried plastic dinosaur skeletons in the park’s sandbox. After the Little Explorers had excavated “fossils” in the dig site, it was time to assemble bones just like the paleontologists from our story.
I’d labeled boxes of dry pasta with bone names (for example, the rigatoni noodles were “Femurs: Leg Bones”), and each child glued pasta “bones” on a print-out of a dinosaur skeleton. The snack was my piece de resistance: I’d found three-dimensional dinosaur cookie cutters, and baked a herd of green triceratops.
Eventually, Sarah went back to work and passed the administrative duties of the Little Explorers to me and a friend.
Administrative Duties for our Preschool Co-op
Every three months, we send out an email to the moms requesting suggestions for themes. Little Explorers has an emergent curriculum, which means that we base what we do on what our children are interested in. Past topics have included planets, sea creatures, world cultures, transportation, famous artists, birds, cooking, and body systems.
We compile the list of suggested themes and send out a second email – a ballot. Each mom has 48 hours to vote for her three favorite themes. Finally, we tally the votes and send out a third email, announcing the winners, assigning each month a theme, listing the meet-up dates for the upcoming quarter, and requesting that moms sign-up to host one class.
Little Explorers has been going strong for three years now. Some families have moved on – I supposed we could call them “alumnae” – and new families have taken their places. As our children have gotten older, Little Explorers has evolved. We’ve changed our start time to 3:45 p.m. to accommodate explorers who are now school-aged, and our field trips now take place on school holidays or on weekends. While some things have changed, we’ve remained a group of involved parents who want to raise sweet, insatiably curious children.
About the All-Star Blogger
Mariel Howsepian is a full-time teacher, wife, mother, and homeschooler. She is in her 13th year teaching elementary and middle school, and currently teaches 4th grade in Los Angeles. Mariel lives with her husband and 5 ½ year old daughter three blocks from the beach. Her favorite day of the week is Pajama Saturday.