Any mom who has homeschooled more than one child has experienced the dreaded moment when the preschooler invades.
You might have a perfect day planned: reading aloud from a classic novel, perfecting the five-paragraph essay, working on multiplication facts, and studying the geography of ancient Egypt. And then disaster strikes. It’s the three-year-old with his mischievous grin, poking his older sister in the back with his light saber, climbing up the bookcase and jumping onto the couch, or drawing with permanent marker on the window sill. I’m speaking from experience when I say that it’s tempting to view your little ones as a bother during your homeschool day.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon twice over. I’ve tried all the techniques – yelling, quiet time, activities, and naps – and my experience the first time around has helped me do better the second time. It’s a good thing, because my third child is an active little boy with an explosive imagination.
If you have little ones underfoot, I want to encourage you that this too shall pass and probably all too fast!
But before you jump right to the tips, recognize that your little ones are precious because of the stage of life they are in. What could be more exciting than a brain that is growing by unimaginable leaps and bounds, with unbridled imagination, sucking up knowledge through all the senses at the speed of light? Little ones say what comes to mind, they ask blunt questions, and they take what you say at face value. When they need your attention they come and get it in the most literal sense: hanging from your knees, snuggling deep into your lap, or putting their impish faces so close to yours that you can feel their breath on your cheeks.
Little ones live big.
Even when they barge into your day, ruining the best of your plans, they are precious. Sometimes what you need to make it through your day with little ones is a change of heart. Pull them close for a moment, thank God for them, and begin again where you left off.
Practically speaking, if you have little ones at home and you also want your bigger kids to learn something, you have to become a battlefield strategist in your homeschool. You’re not at war with your little ones, but you need a plan to make it through the day.
Here are twelve tips to keep your little ones busy while you homeschool:
- Make a rhythm for your little ones that dovetails with your big kids’ schedule. You’ll have to balance your little ones’ needs for nap time, active play, and snacks with your big kids’ need for individual coaching, read alouds, and quiet study. I encourage you to write down your little ones’ natural rhythm in a typical day, including when they are most likely to wake up, when they are most active, when they are sleepy, and when the have the most need for attention from you. If you’ve never paid attention to this before, track their natural rhythm for a week using the printable rhythm tracker. When your little ones are down for a nap is when you can coach your big kids through math or assign silent reading and study. Everyone is happier when there isn’t a tug-of-war for mom’s time.
- Make your space and supplies child-friendly. Put your little ones’ books at their level. Make sure they can get to their own puzzles, games, and toys. If they have art supplies, put them down where they don’t have to ask you to get them. If possible, put their clothes and toiletries where they can access them. Purchase child-sized cleaning supplies like a broom, rags, and spray bottle. If they make a mess, they can clean it up themselves! Of course, make sure that you choose child-appropriate supplies – permanent markers, sharp scissors, and harsh cleaners aren’t for preschoolers, but washable markers, round edged scissors, and water with a few drops of essential oil in a spray bottle are.
- Designate toys and activities for specific times. If you have two or three toys that are only accessible when you are doing school work with the big kids, those toys will be much more attractive at that time. Choose things that don’t need a lot of your attention and inspire imaginative, engrossing play.
- Choose toys and games that encourage open-ended and imaginative play. Blocks, LEGOs, plastic animals, items from nature — these can become many different things and be used in many different ways. That way your children are more likely to stay engaged for longer periods of time, caught up in whatever world they have created rather than jumping from one toy to the next.
- Include outdoor time and quiet time in your regular schedule. Your little ones need to be in nature on a regular basis; green space reduces stress. They also need time to be quiet, where they can focus without all the distractions. Designate a space for their quiet time and place boundaries on what they can do during that time. Quiet time is not a punishment. Find ways to make it special, like making them “tea,” giving them a special blanket, or buying a soft rug for them to sit on. Outdoor time and quiet time work together to bring internal peace to your little ones, especially if they tend to be rambunctious.
- Introduce audiobooks and story podcasts as soon as you can. My mom bought two sets of storybooks with tapes for me when I was two: one was the classic Disney stories from the movies and the other was classic fairytales. She gave me a simple tape player, showed me how to use it, and I was off to the races. I spent hours upon hours listening to stories. My youngest boy destroyed tapes and CDs, so he needed more supervision, but all of my kids have listened to books and stories from their earliest years. Stories can save many a terrible moment. Start a twenty minute story and hand them one of your designated school time toys. You might be surprised at how long they will play without coming back to pester you. Not only that, listening to audiobooks and read-alouds has the distinct advantage of cementing important language patterns and listening habits.
- Give your little ones jobs and chores that they can do on their own. My littlest boy loves to do laundry. So I let him. He feels useful and important when he moves clothes from the washer to the dryer and then again to the basket. A little bit of teaching time on a chore that your children like will pay off by the ton later.
- Do your best to pull your little ones into read-aloud time and learning that you do as a group. Even two and three-year-olds will listen to a book if they can sit quietly on the floor with their LEGOs or blocks. Set the expectation that everyone is going to listen and not make noise while mom is reading aloud. Little ones have excellent memories and can often memorize Bible verses or names on a timeline as fast as an older child. Include them in the fun!
- Use a visual timer that your little one can watch if they keep interrupting your time with older kids. It’s far easier for a five-year-old to watch a timer tick down than it is for them to measure what “later” or “in a little bit” means.
- Set aside time for your little ones that is just for them. Pull them into your lap and read aloud to them, give them a math lesson using counters or an abacus, or draw pictures and trace letters together. Your second, third, and fourth children (and beyond) get far less of your individual time and can suffer for it. Do your best to make them feel special at least once a day.
- Limit screen time ruthlessly. It’s so hard in our age of tablets, smartphones, and streaming movies, but new research is finding that screen time raises children’s stress levels. The more time they spend in front of a screen of any kind, the more stressed they will feel. This leads to more acting out during the school day and less peaceful play. Resist the urge to hand your children the iPad to make the whining and pestering stop. Take a deep breath, give them a hug, and find another activity for them to do.
- Give your little ones as much control and as many choices as fits into the rhythm of your day. A helpful tool is an activity chart that your little one can look at and mark off himself. Download the printable “my activities” chart and allow your child to choose what he’d like to do next. The chart can even be used by little ones who can’t read yet.
Remember that your little ones are a gift. They’ll only be little once, and you can make the best of your time with them every day!