Savannah Parker is a British mum currently living in the US. She started the Key to Learning at Home curriculum with her 4-year-old daughter when her daughter was just 3, and has raved about it to us so many times, we decided to interview her and find out what she believes makes it so special. She is also an experienced early years’ educator in play-based settings.
So how did you find us in the beginning and what resonated with you?
There was a post in a homeschooling pre-school Facebook group that I am in where there was serious discussion about whether you need a curriculum or not for 3 and 4-year-olds learning needs. I wasn’t exactly homeschooling my daughter then but, as a stay-at-home mum to her, that group was full of ideas for me. Many people wrote that you don’t need a curriculum to teach you how to play, and that real play and lots of hands-on opportunities is what this age group really need. I fully agreed but then I read a post from someone using Key to Learning at Home that explained in detail how they were using the activities to bring even more play opportunities and joy for learning into the home, and how it was just a small part of their child’s day and yet always their favourite part.
When I looked into it, I saw that these activities were like what many educators call ‘provocations’ or ‘invitations’ for the child – where you set up something appealing and developmentally appropriate, and leave it open for your child to come and play or get involved. And I saw that these learning games were full to the brim of fun characters, stories and games that really would be attractive to most children. And even better, they were for doing as a shared activity with a parent, and other children if possible, in order to maximize on the opportunities for modelling thinking – aloud I mean, sharing ideas, discussion – language use of all kinds. And I knew that the more language opportunities there were in my child’s life, the more she would advance.
My natural reaction then of course was to say, well, we shouldn’t be so prescriptive with the child. I mean, setting up a provocation can sometimes be like pulling them in to our agenda. But there was something about the program that kept me hooked on finding out more. I read everything I could about it and then decided to give it a try with my daughter, keeping things open, and take it from there.
So how would you describe your teaching/learning approach with your daughter before finding Key to Learning at Home?
I guess a little bit academic, a little bit unschool, a little bit Reggio, lots of play… a mix really but definitely play-based but with a desire to let her choose how to spend her time and what to learn. Somehow I tried to balance that with my need for her to develop more ‘academically’ too. In the end I realise why this curriculum was such a good fit for us – it is fully preparing her academically but through age-appropriate play, and she gets plenty of time to follow her own ideas and interests too. She is learning and developing to her full potential through having fun and I just love that.
So what happened when you first started the program? What did you think? What did you notice?
Actually, what happened next really surprised me. My daughter is very strong-willed and resists being taught anything at all. She’s also really active and always on the move. I was sure that I would set up the activity and she would maybe come and have a look but then disappear to play again. But I think I underestimated the natural desire for challenge within her developmental level and for the variety of things that could stimulate her thinking processes and learning outcomes. In her free play at home, she often reenacted things from life that she had experienced, but that was as far as it went. I always tried to find time to talk about what she was doing with her and also talk to her as much as possible about life in general.
Anyway, I started with the Sensory Maths mouse game. My daughter already knew her colours and could match them, and besides there are hundreds of other ideas out there for this – but I knew from what I had read that the activity develops other specific mental abilities, not only what is apparent or what it looks like on first glance. The way you do the activity makes all the difference, and the language you attach to it is critical. By the way, I love the way it is always made so easy for the parent to know what to do and say, to ensure they get the right level of learning challenge and stimulation from the activities.
So there we were doing the game and my daughter asked to repeat it about 6 times! She wanted us to take it in turns being the cat, and we used a cat mask that she had made recently for that. As soon as we had finished, she spent ages ‘putting the mice to sleep’ in such a way that the cat wouldn’t get to them, told me to leave everything out and not put it away, and then asked me for the next ‘game’! I hadn’t prepared or even looked at the second session yet so she told me she would play while I got things ready! Five minutes later I was back with 3 animals and 3 balls, and session 2 was underway – after repeating this one a few times, she decided to involve her favourite teddy and began to explain to him what to do in the game. I was so impressed with the way she had internalized the process of the activity and the language she used. I was hooked – I could just see that the activities in this curriculum were different to any I had ever seen before – and I’ve seen a lot in my time! It’s hard to articulate exactly how but they just are. At times the differences between one of these activities and something that looks similar are very subtle, but that different angle is what makes them so unique. And they work so well.
Basically, since then, not a lot has changed. She asks me for the games most days, sometimes many in a row, and I do my best to oblige!
So what do you think is different then, compared to other curricula that you have seen?
Well, for a start, almost all the other learning activities that are done in the early years and pre-school settings are about teaching knowledge and skills – letters, numbers, counting, this is how you stick, this is how you cut, this is how you hold a pencil… The rest of the time is spent dealing with social and emotional issues that arise or free play of course. Of course children need knowledge and skills but they are not the starting point. Key to Learning recognises that the mental abilities and neural connections a child needs to make before they can succeed at all those other things.
I think that’s the best way I can describe it – the games cleverly train the brain to see what is not apparent visually, build up mental models of the way things work, provide deep opportunities for the child to articulate their ideas, foster understanding at a deep level, recognise and solve problems, plan and implement and test their own plans, exercise self-control when necessary… and they also open up the imagination so much – it’s incredible.
These are not tangible things like seeing your child read or write or count. But I promise you I have actually seen these changes for myself in my daughter since we started – I mean you can tell from the things she says or the way she does something. It’s just so fascinating!
How did you manage times when you thought she didn’t need to do a particular game or that it would be too easy for her?
In most cases I did it anyway. I made a few errors of judgement near the beginning – a couple of times I assumed she wouldn’t get anything out of a certain activity but then decided to do it anyway just in case. When I followed the instructions properly, I realised there were things that she couldn’t understand yet that I thought she could, or things she couldn’t verbalise – so that was a big surprise for me. So from then on I hardly skipped anything. As I said before, sometimes the learning they take from it is subtle but critical.
What did you do if your daughter didn’t want to do the activity?
As you advise in your introduction to the program, I let it go – I don’t see any point in pushing it on our agenda – I still wanted it to be her choice to join in or not. Like all of us, children have their favorite types of activities and a sense of whether they want to do something or not. But since in general she is always so keen to participate, I just brought the game or activity out again another day, and often the second time she wanted to join in. Sometimes I changed the characters to ones I knew would have her there in a flash, and other times brought in her favourite teddy to play a role! I think this last idea is genius, really! It’s not comfortable or natural asking your child to repeat something or express something back to you just so you can check their internalisation of a concept. But when Teddy is acting all confused and needs some more help to understand, your child has a purpose for explaining what they know. As I said, genius! There are so many opportunities to model excellent language and communication in the curriculum – it really is outstanding for that too.
How did you find the preparation of the sessions in the curriculum?
I remember at the beginning I thought it looked like a lot of work. But as I said before, I felt drawn to it anyway and so gave it a try. But to my surprise, I spend a lot less time than I used to preparing activities for my daughter. And I forgot to say before, so often when we finish an activity, my daughter carries on playing with it, the characters, props and so on, for a long time afterwards. Our house is full of resources left-over from the games but she won’t let me put most of them away! So in the end, to see her get so much enjoyment out of something that took me 5-10 minutes to prepare.. well, it’s well worth it. I also highly suspect that I will have to spend a lot less time working with her later on, when it comes to learning the more concrete skills, as her brain will be so well prepared!
So do you feel your daughter is achieving her full potential?
Absolutely! You (Katie) told me once when I wrote asking for advice on something that I would be surprised at what her potential really is. I didn’t believe it at the time but you were right. Every parent wants to have smart and happy kids, and that they truly reach their potential and be the best version of themselves, don’t they? But it is still not well-known how much these early years matter in terms of how much the brain can actually develop. My daughter would be missing out on so much if we were only doing the regular.. I mean typical.. play-based pre-school or pre-k and kinder activities right now!
Any advice for other parents considering the program for their little ones?
Lots actually! Are you ready?! Don’t be too quick to judge and say, ‘I’m already doing those types of things’, ‘They don’t need to be pushed like that at this age,’ or that ‘Play alone is enough and will meet all their needs’. Trust a little and give it a try for yourself – but follow the documents provided and try it properly – otherwise you won’t see how special it really is. I’ve been astounded by what my daughter is actually capable of at this age. It’s amazing watching her develop her thinking and processing in real-time. I can’t believe this isn’t taught everywhere – for sure it’s a game-changer for children and their abilities, by giving them the mental tools to truly succeed in life. I recommend it to anyone who will listen!
And thank you so much for this opportunity again – doing the activities in our own home with my daughter has also been the most satisfying and bonding experience. I couldn’t have asked for more for her.
Key to Learning @Home - creating happy and highly motivated children with exceptional mental abilities, through an exciting, engaging and unique collection of 20-minute play-, game- and story-based activities for use in your own home.