Last fall, as my husband worked outside on our house, he invited our oldest child, a daughter nearing her teens, to climb the ladder and join him on the roof. She handed him tools and provided encouragement. Eventually, our oldest son asked to follow Dad up the ladder, too. By the end of the afternoon, our three other little helpers were all wanting to be at the base of the ladder! Prudence dictated that they weren't quite ready to "help," but one day all of our children will be able to climb the ladder.

This scenario parallels many home school families' plights. The first child begins to read and write, masters basic math skills, and takes an interest in science and history. Then, a couple steps--or years--into the oldest child's home schooling, along comes the next child. He or she is also ready to tackle reading, writing, and arithmetic. And what about the other children who follow? How are parents to continue to adequately "climb the ladder" with children of different ages on different steps at the same time? How can they competently add the younger ones' learning to a crowded daily schedule without neglecting the emerging and more rigorous academic demands of the older ones?

The Bible only hints at Jesus' home instruction under Mary and Joseph's parenting. According to Luke 2:52, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." This summary of His upbringing describes the major components of His growth. Since a child must develop in all these areas in order to become a fully mature adult, Mary and Joseph must have had a plan for juggling the needs of all their seven--or more--children (Mark 6:3).

To have a plan and make it work is a tremendous challenge when several children are all climbing the ladder on separate rungs. For me it means teaching a six-year-old to read while answering the eleven-year-old's pre-algebra questions and supervising the copywork of the nine-year-old's new cursive handwriting--all while the baby needs a clean diaper and the toddler wants a playmate. Honestly, it's not just some days that are like this in our home. With five children stair-stepped from ages eleven to one, it's every day! We have days that leave me frustrated at how little we have accomplished; we also have days that leave the children clamoring for more one-on-one instruction from me. Therefore, I am constantly looking, reading, and asking others for ways to manage our ladder of learning. Here are a few of the methods that are working for us.

Training the Youngest Ones

Years ago my husband and I received some of the wisest counsel of our early parenting: Teach our babies to play independently in their playpens. This bit of practical advice has proven to be one of my biggest tools as a home schooling mother. This "play time" began when each of my babies was about six months old as I sat them in their playpen for a very short amount of time, a stack of board books and other small toys in each corner of the playpen. With each month, the time has lengthened. Today my 20-month-old enjoys morning play time for the duration of a musical cassette tape or part of a CD. Now when I say, "Let's go upstairs for play time," he hustles up the stairs and gathers toys to put in the playpen. I know that he is safe, he is developing creativity and independence, and it affords me more focused time with my older ones.

Our toddler's play time has moved in location (from the playpen to his bedroom) and graduated in ability (from infant toys to Legos, puzzles, and cars and trucks) but it remains an almost daily occurrence. I absolutely rely on their individual play times each day to work with my older children on tutorial subjects like math, learning to read, and the language arts (handwriting, spelling, reading comprehension, grammar, and vocabulary building).

Another practical aid for training at various age levels relates to housework. (If that sounds crazy, hear me out.) It's a given that any home with several children has plenty of laundry, dishes, and cleaning to be done. The challenge is to develop in your children the habit of cheerfully helping around the house. For instance, most four-years-olds are very capable of matching socks, putting away clean silverware, sweeping the floor, or picking up toys. We ask our children to "obey all the way, right away, with a smile," a phrase we learned somewhere along the way. My children's ability to help me around the house hands me available time to teach them.