Preschool Unleashed: How to Toss Your Lesson Plans and Adopt Core Routines for More Meaningful Early Childhood Learning
Picture walking into your classroom without a lesson plan. How does it make you feel? Unprepared? Anxious? Are you already envisioning a Lord of the Flies scenario, with total chaos reigning as you cower in the corner? If so, you’re probably not alone.
If you’re used to strict schedules and elaborate lesson plans, it can be hard to imagine what an effective alternative could look like. The fact of the matter is, the leap from an instructor-driven classroom to a flexible, student-centered learning model can feel daunting for even the most experienced educator. It requires a total reimagining of what education looks like and what the role of the adult should be.
So, before those visions of tiny tyrants wreaking havoc scare you away from this whole “ditch-your-lesson-plan” thing, let’s break down why it’s worth it, and, more importantly, how to make it happen.
Why Ditching Your Lesson Plans Is Worth It:
As preschool and kindergarten curriculums have become increasingly focused on the acquisition of academic skills, children’s learning has actually suffered. Too often, excessive rules and limiting lesson plans end up stifling creativity, squashing enthusiasm, and getting in the way of meaningful learning. Studies show that forcing rote learning on children who don’t yet understand the value of the skills being taught can actually inhibit intellectual development and lower academic achievement over time.
The bottom line is that preschool has become a hyper-structured "school-readiness” bootcamp and children are paying the price.
So what can we do?
It stands to reason that if an over-emphasis on heavily scripted direct instruction is the problem, shifting the balance and allowing children a greater role in steering their learning experience is part of the solution.
When executed correctly, student-driven early childhood programs offer children the chance to engage in deep, meaningful learning, becoming creative problem solvers and life-long learners along the way.
We need to stop thinking in terms of what our children should be able to achieve (a framework reinforced by years of increasingly rigorous standardized testing) and start thinking in terms of who we want our children to be.
For most of us, the answers will be similar. We want them to be kind and compassionate. To be creative thinkers and determined problem solvers. To be confident. To take risks and be resilient. To be stewards of the earth.
The problem is, these skills can’t be taught with worksheets or measured with standardized assessments. If we want our children to be those kinds of people, it’s our job to create stimulating, supportive, and flexible environments in which they feel safe to take risks, motivated to try new things, and empowered to steer their own exploration.
Shifting the balance from direct-instruction to an exploratory, student-driven learning model takes more than simply throwing out our lesson plans and giving students free reign. The goal isn’t chaos, after all. If we’re going to toss the structured lesson plans, something needs to fill the void. And that’s where core routines come in.
How To Make It Happen (Successfully) With Core Routines:
For those familiar with the “forest school” model, the importance of routine should be familiar; a primary feature of any authentic forest or nature school program is that children return to a familiar natural space on a regular basis for an extended amount of time. This allows children to form a deep and meaningful relationship with the place, observing changes over time and across seasons. It also makes it possible for children to build upon past experiences, deepening their exploration and expanding on their creative play scenarios.
The way we approach the structure of our school day should be no different. Instead of jumping from lesson to lesson, guided by instructor-selected topics, we should prioritize deep, meaningful learning experiences - or core routines - that children return to again and again, allowing for a depth of understanding and range of connections that would not otherwise be possible.
I first encountered the idea of core routines while reading Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. The concept stems from Jon Young’s “Coyote Mentoring” model, which was inspired by the “invisible” learning pathways found in native cultures. Children in these cultures didn’t have conventional schooling; their learning came from routine interactions with their community and the world around them.
Based on his findings, Young outlines thirteen key core routines, including wandering, journaling, mapping, sit spots, and telling the story of the day, which, when practiced regularly, help to foster authentic learning and a deep connection with the natural world. While these specific core routines may not be a natural fit for all early childhood programs, Young’s concept provides a jumping off point for thinking about the types of routines we embrace, and their larger role in each child’s holistic development.
While the richest early childhood growth and learning comes from extended blocks of unstructured, student-driven play and exploration (a core routine in and of itself), I've found that having a handful of additional, more structured core routines woven through the day helps to deepen learning and provide meaningful context for the children's independent endeavors. It’s logical to incorporate core routines that support a range of developmental goals, from math and literacy to social emotional growth and self regulation.
So what does this look like in practice?
At Riverside Nature School, each school day is guided by a sequence of core routines, some more structured than others:
► Opening & Closing Circles
Our day is bookended by opening and closing circles, core routines that foster a sense of belonging, giving each child the opportunity to be seen and heard as an individual while simultaneously reaffirming their membership in the class community. I’ve found that the Responsive Classroom morning meeting framework dovetails nicely with a routine-focused model; it emphasizes four key elements (greeting, sharing, a group activity, and a morning message) that offer a consistent structure while still leaving plenty of flexibility for student needs and interests to shape the nature of those elements.
Once we’ve set the tone for the day with an inclusive and welcoming opening circle, we prepare to head outside. The bulk of our day - a minimum of an hour and a half of uninterrupted time - consists of unstructured outdoor wandering, a Young core routine that invariably leads to rich and meaningful learning. We return day after day to a handful of familiar outdoor locations, where the children are free to play and explore as they see fit. I bring some essential tools and supplies with me to make sure we have what we need to make the most of our time outdoors, but beyond that I try to step back and leave the children to their own devices as much as possible.
It’s during these times that the true magic happens. Within minutes, children as young as three become deeply engaged in tasks of their own choosing, remaining focused for extended lengths of time with no outside prompting. Some choose to play independently, challenging their balance by leaping around our stump circle, soothing themselves by climbing a familiar tree, or collecting mud and leaves to create delicacies in our “mud kitchen.” Others engage in complex group play, often building upon a scenario developed on a previous day.
While there’s no formal instruction that takes place during this time, there’s no shortage of learning, either. Leaves are collected and exchanged as currency, helping to hone math skills, and sidewalk chalk is used to create signs on scraps of wood, allowing the children to practice their writing skills in a meaningful context. Building ramps and bridges allows the children to explore engineering and physics while simultaneously developing their gross motor skills by carrying heavy objects and balancing on slippery or uneven surfaces.
By returning to the same spaces again and again, day after day, the children also develop a deep understanding of natural rhythms. They see on a daily basis the cause and effect of seasonal changes and weather patterns, and become familiar with the plants and animals of their local ecosystem.
This core routine of “wandering” is the guiding force that shapes all other learning in our program. Interwoven with this keystone experience are a handful of more structured core routines aligned with specific developmental or academic goals. The learning fostered by each of these routines is meaningful because it stems directly from the children’s personal, lived experiences rather than from a pre-determined lesson plan.
A growing body of research points to the incredible benefits of a mindfulness practice for both children and adults, and more and more schools are making mindfulness a priority. In a nature-based program, mindfulness is the key to tuning in to the subtle magic of the natural world.
In our program we use the walk from our indoor classroom to our outdoor space to quiet down and tune in: we walk slowly and as silently as possible using stealthy “fox walking,” and turn on other animal senses like our “owl eyes” and “deer ears” to enhance our powers of observation. Not only does this practice strengthen sensory awareness, but since the sights and sounds the children pick up on are different each day, it's guaranteed to inspire fresh conversation and exploration each and every time.
A sit spot practice is another great outdoor mindfulness routine, and there are countless other methods for including mindfulness indoors as well.
► Weather Tracking
Since children in our program spend the bulk of their day outside, they already have a deeply personal relationship to the weather. A simple weather tracking routine builds upon this foundation, offering them a richer understanding of the world around them as well as the opportunity to integrate some important math and science skills. Connecting numerals with quantities, comparing, measuring, and using tools to perform tasks are all key early childhood learning goals, and a weather tracking routine gives children daily at-bats with all of these skills in a context that's meaningful rather than abstract.
I’ve written about our weather tracking routine in more depth in the past in case you’re interested in learning more.
Just like with mindfulness, the research is clear that having a routine gratitude practice is good for overall health and wellbeing. This can be as simple as pausing before a meal to sing a song of gratitude or say a blessing, or expressing thanks to classmates at the end of the day. When children begin to see gratitude as an integral habit, you’ll likely see the benefits carrying over to the social interactions in your class.
► Story of the Day
Another one of Jon Young’s core routines, telling the story of the day is a practice as old as humankind that promotes transfer of knowledge, fosters reflection, and builds empathy and understanding. Often done orally, I’ve found in my program that a whole group journaling practice is a fantastic way to incorporate a full spectrum of literacy learning, from reading and writing to speaking, listening, and language skills, into the process. We include this practice as part of our closing circle, and it aligns nicely with the Responsive Classroom framework’s emphasis on ending the day with reflection and celebration.
Want to take a deeper dive into this process? Check out my blog post about the logistics of our group journaling practice and the incredible benefits it offers.
So What Next?
Alright, so now you have a basic understanding of what a shift from lesson plans to core routines might look like. There’s no one-size-fits-all model, since every class is different, but I’d encourage you to play around with swapping out some of the direct-instruction in your day for less structured, more meaningful core routines.
If you’d like some support with that process, I’m happy to help! Go ahead and schedule a complementary 30-minute phone call so we can discuss your situation and explore how best I can support you.