I think one of the hardest parts of homeschooling is the fact that there is usually a toddler underfoot. And toddlers are not ready for school. You don’t want them to be ignored, you don’t want them to watch t.v. all day. They are needy. They make big messes. They must be watched.
I have a list of busy activities for toddlers to do during school time, but first, I think it’s important that we nail down some more important ideas.
Success with homeschooling with toddlers has more to do with the environment of your home and expectations of what toddlers can actually do than anything. You cannot put them in a chaotic environment for many hours of the day and expect that to work. I’ve had to draw a pretty extreme line to make it work. This will vary from home to home, and it’s important you figure out your puzzle with the space and resources you have. Come up with a plan, and work the plan. Homeschooling with toddlers is nutso when you try to wing it.
Some approaches I have taken that have worked for us:
1. Get rid of 90% of your toys. I mean it. That room you could clean up with a snow shovel? You don’t have time for that anymore. You just don’t when you are homeschooling. Your kids don’t have time for that either. They have time to play, just not the endless cleaning. And it’s actually stopping your toddler from being able to play. A pile of toys is the exact opposite of what you need. Toddlers like big open spaces and a plain box in the middle of the room. That’s the goal. They are very easily overwhelmed, so don’t make it look like Christmas morning just exploded all over your living room every morning.
In our house, I removed all toys with a battery, all toys that were just plain annoying for me to pick up every day, anything broken, missing pieces, or rarely played with. Then I cut deeper. I have very, very few plastic toys, and look for high quality wooden ones instead. I look for toys that require my child to work at their play instead of being entertained.
We have a little 9 cubby shelf, and I only keep toys that will fit in those 9 cubbies. That’s our limit before the constant fighting, constant mess, and constant complaining start. It’s our sweet spot. High quality wooden toys are more expensive, so you can’t buy as many of them as the cheap plastic. This actually works in my favor: less toys. If your house is swarming with toys, your toddler will not know where to start. Simplify. Big time. This has been the most sanity saving step in the homeschooling process. I simply don’t have time to manage toys, so we only keep the number of toys my kids can manage and clean up on their own without whining about it. We think that more toys means kids are occupied more. That’s so false. They’re overwhelmed more with more toys. Cut back on the toys, and let their creativity stretch. That keeps them occupied working at their play instead of occupied being entertained, which is more of a pseudo-play. Too much pseudo-play, and it’s almost like they get bored easier. They sit there and expect entertainment instead of going after it.
2. Find a locked cabinet, or high shelf for “just school time toys.” These are the toys that I have listed below that are off limits at all times except when I get it out. (There’s a few exceptions.) Of course, they have other toys to play with, but these toys are special, and keeping them separate from the all day-every day toys is crucial. Find a spot in your home to hoard the good toys for school time only.
3. Bring out school toys one at a time. Don’t let them have at your whole collection. Make it the “exclusive” toy club. My master school-toy list will be tomorrow’s post.
4. Decide ahead of time where they will do their work. We do school at the kitchen table, on the couch, on the floor, outside, etc. Think about what part of your day you will need them occupied the most, and where you will be during that time. For our schedule, that’s the morning hour, which we do at our kitchen table. Make a special spot for them.
5. Keep your “sit down school time” short. You don’t have to keep everyone together, and at a table all day long. Spread out to the couches, chairs, and fireplace hearth. Keep the “teaching time” short. I know that you have a lot of subjects to get in. But keep it realistic. For me, things started falling into place when we instituted a “morning hour.” Basically, all the subjects that we learn together (Bible, poetry, history, memory work, grammar, etc.) are done in an hour or so. We don’t get all those subjects done, so I pick the most important to do no matter what, and then I have a list of “slush subjects” where they don’t have to be done everyday, and we just rotate them as we have time. After that, the older kids are off to do their “independent” work that I oversee once they’re settled in their spots.
Now, they need my help a lot with their independent work, but I separate them into different rooms, and float from room to room, and the little ones just tag along, or have some idea of what to do with their day at that point. I can be interrupted easily during independent work time.
Our day goes like this. (I try to start at 8:30, but really, I like routines more than schedules. The times are sketchy. I don’t live by the clock, I try to live by rhythms. With little kids with big needs, and a husband who regularly drops in during the school day needing me or one of the kids to help with something, this idea routines rather than schedules give us some sanity, and room to be patient.)
8:30 Morning Hour
9:30 Break (spend time with little ones, and prepare snack)
10:00 Snack time (or as we like to call it: tea time) and I read aloud to the kids from some great book of literature as their mouths are busy with snack.
Between Snack and Lunch, Silje and David rotate between instrument practice and Math on the computer. We practice instruments in the morning so that it doesn’t interrupt afternoon quiet time, and late afternoons and evenings are so scattered and unpredictable with activities and church and everything. If I want them to practice consistently, it has to be done in the morning. I switched them to Teaching Textbooks for math, which we have loved. Mostly, I love that the software instructs them in their lesson, and automatically corrects their work. I just have to be on hand to help them with tricky problems. So it takes about 5-10 minutes of my time per day, per kid. That has been a lifesaver. Silje has to practice piano and violin. David just has the piano. We have only one school computer, and only one piano so they switch. I try to be somewhat available to remind them to use a metronome, and remind them to slow down their song, because they think fast is fun, even when it’s badly done.
I usually do math, reading, and copy work with Elias during this time when the biggest kids are working hard on their own. He’s a bright, easy to teach kid who is eager to learn. He just loves this time. I do a Saxon math worksheet with him, and we have been working through a McGuffey Primer (I have all these fancy reading programs and this is the one that he likes and clicks with him. He’s very old-school and it’s very simple), and he writes out some copy work at the end. I keep it super simple. Usually none of us don’t take this whole time, so there’s a bunch of playtime mixed in here too.
What are the toddlers/preschoolers doing during this time? Usually they’re off and running playing somewhere. They loves to dance to her older siblings practicing the piano. Ingrid’s quite the dancer. She will sometimes sit in my lap, but usually by this time of day, with that kind of start, she has a mind for what she wants to play, and she has her toys out and is hard at it.
1:00 lunch chores. The 3 older kids are each given a chore, whether it’s fold and put away a load of laundry, wash a sink load of dishes (we don’t have a dishwasher if you can believe it) fill up the woodbox for our fireplace, or pick up just one room that got destroyed during the morning. I direct, correct, and try to keep the big kids going, and try to teach at least some concept of cleaning up to the little ones during this time too.
1:30 Quiet time work. I bring the 3 and 5 year old upstairs for their rest. The 3 year old sleeps, the 5 year old looks at picture books. I stay up there because it’s my downtime. I need to just not talk for an hour or so. More on our quiet time here.
When I come down from quiet time, I am normally flooded with questions, and sometimes I’ll give them permission to do a science lab in the kitchen that they read about, and help them with that, or I’ll help them spell something that they couldn’t find in the dictionary, or grade a test that I left for them to take and go over the answers with them. I basically help them finish up their schoolwork for the day, wherever they happen to be at. I’ll sometimes ask them about their reading, and sometimes we’ll discuss their book using the “Socratic questioning” technique, if I can pull a good discussion out of them. Sometimes that happens conversationally at the supper table. I don’t feel the need to squeeze it all in before 3pm.
Homeschooling isn’t a section of your day, it’s a lifestyle.
Basically, that’s the end of the day. Did you notice, the only time my toddler needs to be busy and not interrupt is that first morning hour? That’s very much by design. It’s kind of their limit. All the other times, I’m just going from room to room, checking on the kids. It’s easy to squeeze in 10 minutes for a book, or have them on the counter watching me while I’m preparing a meal. It’s important to set them up and pour some attention into them before school starts. Set them up well, and they’ll do well…for a short period of time.
I have done many schedules, and this is the one that fits our puzzle. It’s one we have grown into. We also do more reading aloud before bed most nights with just the older kids, if there’s a book that’s too suspenseful or deep for the little kids. So we have read-alouds during morning snack and before bed. Any other time in the day just gets too many interruptions. School doesn’t just have to happen between 8:30am and 3pm. You can do it at 8pm too. There’s no rules.
So now…keeping the toddler(s) busy during morning hour. I have a master list of school toys for this time. That will be tomorrow’s post.