If you have a baby, toddler, or preschooler in your home, you know how difficult it can be to keep them busy and happy while schooling your older children. Just when you sit down to help your older child with his math lesson, there always seems to be an interruption – a diaper to change, a nose to wipe, someone needs to go potty, or your 2-year-old has wandered out of sight. You don’t want to use the television as a babysitter, but let’s admit it – some days it sure is tempting!

If you’ve faced this dilemma as I have, you know how frustrating it can be. I have experienced this problem three times! My children have large age gaps between them. We’ve done kindergarten and high school with babies in tow! Some days the tyranny of the urgent is still overwhelming. But I know that, with a little planning and organization, I can help myself keep things running smoothly while helping my preschooler learn – all at the same time.

A good daily schedule is imperative. Preschoolers who have an established routine all their own will be much easier to handle, and you can feel sure that they are “getting their fair share,” too. It has always been my rule to schedule time for my youngest children first. I’ve found that if I give them the time and attention they need, I can teach my older children with fewer interruptions. I try to alternate my schedule between the older and younger children throughout the day.

If your youngest is a baby or a toddler, nap time is your best friend. You may have to schedule lessons during nap time, even if it is short. Otherwise, try to work lessons in after a feeding or snack, when young ones are most content. Spend some time reading to your toddler or playing with him on the floor; get him interested in a toy or activity, and then you’ll be able to school the older ones. Your goal should be multiple short lessons.

Practical Ideas

     • Use gates to close off rooms that are off limits or to close children in. Set up your preschooler’s room like a giant playpen, making it as safe as possible, then gate it off. Require “room time” of 15-30 minutes at least once a day. Check on them frequently, especially if it gets too quiet! For safety reasons, schedule this for mature preschoolers, ages 3 and up. Use your own discretion.

     • Keep young ones near you. Rotate babies and toddlers between playpens, baby swings, and bouncer seats. Don’t go more than 10-15 minutes before alternating or giving them a floor break!

     • If you have the financial means, hire a teenage homeschooler to come over for one or two hours a couple of times a week to play with your preschoolers while you get some uninterrupted school time with your older children.

     • If you use your kitchen table for school, have your preschooler sit at the table doing art or playing with manipulatives while you teach older children.

     • When your preschoolers outgrow their naps, institute a quiet time instead. After lunch, wash up, brush their teeth, and read to them just as you would before nap time. Have your children rest in their beds for 30 minutes, quietly looking at books or listening to story tapes. If they don’t fall asleep during this time, they can get up. This gives you time to continue school with your older children or take a personal break. Some families continue this tradition even with older children, turning it into a quiet reading time.

     • Have your children play on the floor near you with the “Box of the Day.”

Box of the Day

To help keep my preschooler’s interest, I have divided some of our toys into special boxes brought out only during school time – our “Box of the Day.” I use plastic boxes with hinged lids and store them out of reach. I also purchased a small rug for each preschooler. I lay the rug on the floor near me and get one box. Rules: keep the toys from the box on the rug. Before another box is brought out, the previous box must be put away. We put Duplos/Legos, Magnix, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, shape sorters, and other manipulative-type toys in our boxes.

I have also put together boxes of activities designed for “educational” play. The goal is to engage children in fun learning activities which they can pursue (almost) independently. If you would like further ideas, investigate the books Making the Most of the Preschool Years: 100 Activities To Encourage Independent Play, by Valerie Bendt; Workjobs: Activity-Centered Learning For Early Childhood Development, by Mary Baratta-Lorton; and Mommy Teach Me!: Preparing Your Preschool Child for a Lifetime of Learning, by Barbara Curtis (Montessori-style activities).