The idea for Unicorn School was born while visiting Tanya (T, you're getting famous on the internet!). It is always an adventure with her boys and my girls underfoot. One evening around dinner time, the crazy was rampant. I took all the kids to the playroom during dinner preparations and the genius of Unicorn school came to me.
The idea is centered around the circle time idea that preschool teachers everywhere use. Gather the kids around you and remember:
1. It's all about them being interested in what might come next. Keep your "lessons" short and you can gear them to the age of the specific child, even if the ages of your group members vary.
2. Always start with show and tell. Most preschoolers, especially in their own homes, love to have the floor and the attention concentrated on them. Tell them to choose a show and tell item and give each child a minute to talk about whatever toy or object they find to bring to the circle. Ask the other kids if they have any questions about the item. Try to think of a couple of questions yourself, "OH, this is your puppy Pepper? Can Pepper do any tricks?" "What a beautiful My Little Pony. What is her name? What do ponies eat? What's her favorite thing to do?" Keep it short. Then move to the next child.
3. After show and tell, choose a subject. Math? Say, "When I say go, go and find 3 small toys and come right back to your place!" Have each child count their toys for the "class" and when everyone is done, say, "I will count to five. Put your toys back where you found them and hurry back to your seat!" Then switch to colors. "Everyone find something blue when I say go and then bring it back to our circle." The pace of this game is the key. You don't want to work them into a frenzy, but you want to keep them moving. Moving fast enough that they don't have time to ponder if they actually like this game. Which, by the way, they will. Preschoolers love to show that they know how to do something. Plus, practicing following directions is so important. You could do senses (find something that smells, something that feels soft, something that makes noise), shapes, favorites (find something that is your favorite color, your favorite thing to play with, your favorite book)... almost anything works.
4. Moving along, circle time is now over. Announce, "Now it is time for our school work. I will give each of you something important to do. You can practice what I give you and then I will come around to see how you are doing." Then you give a puzzle, playset, bin of blocks or whatever you have around to each child, preferably in different corners of the room. I like to play a children's CD softly during this time. Adds to the ambiance. After about 4 minutes of them playing and you observing each of them, pick up the toys and distribute different things. Again, keep the time short. OR you can have them rotate, "S, come to this area. A, it is your turn to..."
5. Return to the carpet or circle area for a few kid songs and a story. Go around to each child and ask what their favorite part of unicorn school was today. Then "dismiss" unicorn school. Keep them wanting more. It's all about the novelty.
Some of you are laughing thinking "This will NEVER work at my house." I urge you to try it. It works with kids of all ages and for groups with varying ages. We call it "Unicorn School" because my oldest child is obsessed with unicorns and rarely will agree to do anything that doesn't have to do with unicorns. Unicorn school has nothing to do with unicorns (unless that's what she brings to show and tell) but the name draws her in. You might have "Train School" at your house. Or "Super Hero" school. Or "Princess School." Or "School of Rock." Or "Bug Hunter" school. Or "Dog School." You could even throw in a subject-related activity if you want.
But remember: whatever you do... keep it short. Keep their interest. And if you do, Unicorn School will serve you well in the months and years to come. We do it at least once a week.