Homeschooling with Toddlers Part 1

Homeschooling with Toddlers

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.

12:30 Lunch

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.


  1. Sabriena says

    Hi! I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago, and have been reading several of your different posts. I really love your writing!

    I have three littles, ages 5, nearly 4, and 2. My husband and I each were homeschooled our entire lives and both LOVED it. My 5-year-old is already reading a lot, he was begging me to teach him to read when he was 3-and-a-half, and absorbed EVERYTHING reading and math related that I would hesitantly introduce to him.

    Although all of my kids are littler, I try to run our day VERY similarly to what you just outlined! I agree that everyone has to find what works for them, but then stick to it. We had a lot of stuff come up this last month and I got very sidetracked, and we got to a point where I felt like we were just barely surviving. So I pulled myself together this morning and started getting back on track, and already the kids & I are having a way smoother day. They didn’t even argue when I said it was Quiet Time, and that is the one thing I have tried to keep going this month while they were fighting me tooth and nail. :-)

    We also do a morning hour (except the last few weeks…), except that my kids are all still young enough that ours looks a lot different than yours. We do Bible, short poems or songs with activities (Hokey-Pokey, Ring-Around-The-Rosies), drawing/coloring, and reading-aloud.

    I have to keep the little girls entertained while I spend 15 minutes on a reading lesson with my son, but I usually just ask them to sit quietly with a book. I totally agree with you on having a very, very limited period of time that the littles can’t be involved with the rest of the family.

    As I mentioned before, I have skimmed through some of your posts. Every time I would read about something you do that we do also, I would get so excited! Like your morning hour, Quiet Time, and I don’t remember if there was anything else. Anyway, as I was reading this post, I realized we seem to think very similarly, and it’s just great! :-)

    I thought I should comment, because I have been feeling like I must be a creepy person if I discover your blog and start reading it without saying anything, when I’m a perfect stranger.

    I was also wondering about the “Socrates questioning” method that you mentioned. I looked it up on Pinterest, but I didn’t notice anything in my brief search that looked like it actually explained what Socrates questioning entails. If you had an opportunity and described it in more depth, that would be so cool. However, it’s obviously not necessary. LOL.

    One last thing: I wonder if you have chapter book read-aloud suggestions for my kids’ ages? We flew through the first three Little House books, LOVING them. Then we did Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse series, which the kids still really enjoyed. But I loved the richer language in the Little House books. I don’t think they are quite ready for Anne of Green Gables, Where the Red Fern Grows, etc. I am okay with the modern child-level books like Beverly Cleary’s, but I would LOVE IT if I could get my hands on something more like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s literature. I have been asking around the homeschoolers I know, but I thought I might ask you, too, because I’m making a guess that you and I might like the same type of read-aloud material for our kids. :-)

    Again, sorry for the lengthy comment! Looking forward to tomorrow’s continuation!

    • Gretchen says

      I’m glad you did comment! That always makes me smile,
      I learned about Socratic questioning through a course I took through the website. I had to purchase it, and I believe it’s called “Teaching the Classics.” It’s so well done, and can be adapted to any age or ability level, or any book. I went through the course last summer, and I intended to watch the whole thing again this summer as a refresher.

      I have too many favorites to list! I can point you to some book lists I usually depend on for picking a next book. The “Read-Aloud-Revival” crowd online has pretty spectacular suggestions, as well as Sarah Clarkson’s “Read for the Heart” and Sally Clarkson’s “Educating the Whole Hearted Child.” (That one is more about homeschooling, but there are some great booklists in there as well.)

      I hope that helps. Thanks for getting the courage to speak up! You made my day.

  2. Sabriena says

    P.S. I missed your blog the last few days, so I just noticed you had recommended the Father Brown Reader. Do you think that would be something my kids might be ready for yet? Or is it geared more for a few years down the road?

    • Gretchen says

      It’s definitely not a difficult read. I think it would be perfect, especially since your oldest sounds like he absorbs everything and loves read alouds. It’s very engaging and mysterious, but not in a scary way.

  3. Krisha says

    We run things similarly here. The one key I have found to encouraging the littles to play and explore independently is to have focused time with them in the morning before “school”. They tend to play better once they have claimed their share of my attention. I am usually able to fit this in while the bigger boys do their morning routine (getting dressed, feeding pets, tidying their room and eating breakfast)

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