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.
• 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).
• Sewing cards: Cardboard sewing cards can often be purchased at discount or school supply stores. Or, purchase plastic canvas and a large plastic needle at your local craft store.
• Large, wooden beads to string: Great just for fun, or for making/copying patterns. A related activity is to string Cheerios or Fruit Loops on yarn (use masking tape on the very end to make a needle).
• Puzzles: Start with simple wooden knob puzzles and move on from there. Ravensburger makes beautiful cardboard tray “see inside” puzzles.
• Nest and Stack Boxes: Wonderful toys for learning about size. Some have pictures that are completed when the boxes are stacked in the right order. Discovery Toys’ Measure Up Cups are similar, but are correct measurement-wise and are great to use with sand or water.
• Magnetic fishing: Tie a small doughnut-shaped magnet to string or heavy yarn; this is your “fishing pole.” Cut out fish from construction paper, adding a paper clip near the mouth. Children try to catch the fish with their pole. Variations: make this a learning game! Write letters or numbers on each fish. When your child catches a fish, name the letter or number for them. Later, see if they can name them by themselves. This activity can be used in the same way to teach colors, shapes, letter sounds, and so on.
• Felt board play: Betty Lukens Felts makes beautiful, full-color felts for counting, telling stories, and so on, or you can make your own by using a black sharpie to outline or draw shapes, numbers, letters, animals, and so on onto heavy duty interfacing (find it at your local fabric store). Color with pastel crayons and cut out. You can also cut pictures out of magazines or discarded books and apply iron-on interfacing to the back. For the board itself, use a large piece of heavy cardboard, wrap in blue flannel, and secure with tape/hot glue.
• Nuts and bolts: Go to a hardware store and pick out several sets of large nuts, bolts, and washers that fit together. Buy several of different diameters. Use them as an assembly project. This builds eye-hand coordination and estimation skills.
• Water play: Let your child stand on a chair or step stool at the kitchen sink and “wash” plasticware, dolls or doll clothes—or play with plastic measuring cups and old shampoo bottles.
• Rice/birdseed bin: This is a fun alternative to a sand box that can be used indoors or out by children who do not put things in their mouths. Fill a large, shallow plastic box ¼ of the way with rice or birdseed. It’s a good idea to keep an old sheet underneath, or put the whole box inside an old wading pool to keep the spills under control. Add spoons, funnels, measuring cups, a two-liter bottle, a metal strainer, etc. for play. Play figures and toy cars work well, too. Activities: stand the two liter bottle upright. Try to fill it up using the measuring cups, and then the funnel. Compare/learn math: See that two halves equal one cup, etc. Add a container of salt to the mix. Have the children use the strainer and see if they can separate the two. Just playing with the rice/birdseed is soothing to children and will engage them for a long time.
• Play dough: Provide play dishes, rollers, and cookie cutters.
• Art box: Include stickers, felt-tipped pens or colored pencils, stencils, rubber stamps, etc. Other activities that will engage a young child for a good period of time (but are a little more messy) are watercolors, coloring books with watercolors built in, collage with paper scraps, beans and macaroni, etc.
Finally, try to take on a new mindset. I’ve come to realize that interruptions will happen—they are inevitable. However, I’ve learned that interruptions can be a part of learning for my older children. Our interruptions teach us all patience, and the children learn how to do their schoolwork even when distractions are present. My older children have learned a lot about parenting, too. I know they will be confident parents someday.
Remember, this is but a short season of life. All too soon, new challenges will concern us. In the meantime, let’s enjoy our preschoolers and keep them busy with creative play. All too soon they will be grown, and we’ll wish they were little again!
Susan Lemons and her husband have been married for 23 years, and have homeschooled their four children (ages 19, 15, 6 and 4) “from birth.” Susan has earned both Associate and Bachelor Degrees in Child Development, and serves the homeschooling community as a mentor, “first contact” for new homeschoolers, and conference speaker. You may contact her at email@example.com if you have any questions about her column, or about preschool at home.