Whether homeschooling or not, parents often wonder how they can give enough focused, one-to-one time to each of their children. If there are younger children at home, finding this time can become more challenging. As much as the sometimes willful exuberance of a toddler can often upset the best laid plans and intentions, there is also something wonderful about being able to tap into that energy, with its constant reminders to fully inhabit each and every moment: to play, explore with all the senses, take chances, and creatively express ourselves. The idea of life as an interpretive dance is nowhere more apparent than when you’re working with a group of children that includes toddlers. How then, do we find a balance that allows us to keep our younger children happily busy while devoting enough individual, focused time to homeschooling our older children?
Create playscapes that will engage your youngest
During focused work in the morning and afternoon, provide engaging sensory materials and creative playscapes for younger children while you get your older children settled into their lessons. What is your younger child interested in? Turn a low table into a Dinoland for a couple of weeks, with a juxtaposition of natural materials (sticks, rocks, shells, etc.) and man-made items (plastic or wooden dinosaurs or other animals) that allow them to recreate and change the scenery, act out their own stories, and remain fully engaged for great stretches of time. Use rocks or wooden blocks for perches and “mountains,” and add small pine branches fastened on clay stands for miniature trees. Cloth can be used to provide different backdrops.
“Find what makes your heart sing and create your own music.” ~Mac Anderson
Fill a nearby basket with library books on the theme of your playscape—or whatever your child is currently passionate about. Young children love to act out stories, so a well-stocked costume bin can be brought out when you need your younger children occupied for a period of time. If you put it away afterwards (rather than leaving it out all the time), it will have greater appeal when you do make it available.
Transform play spaces to invite self-directed imaginative play by including natural materials, everyday household objects, and some favorite open-ended playthings. Always popular: cardboard boxes, action figures/animals, Playmobil/Legos, blocks, etc. Baskets and boxes can be stocked with pictures, manipulatives, books, and other interactive play materials to explore things your older children might be learning about as well.
Rotate toys to keep things fresh and interesting
When you create an intriguing playscape, consider setting it up after bedtime and covering it with a sheet. When your children see it in the morning, they will want to pull the sheet off immediately, but you can say, “No peeking until math time!” and then unveil it just when your older child needs individual attention from you. This will increase the interest and novelty of it and build excitement. Depending on how inquisitive your younger children are and where you have it set up (in an area that you can keep an eye on or not), you may have to get creative with securing the sheet to ensure little hands keep away until you need them busily occupied with the new play scene. (Think clothespins, heavy books weighing down the corner of the sheet, etc.)
Rotating toys can be a huge help. In fact, most toys should be rotated regularly to keep things fresh and your child’s interest level high. There are other strong, research-based benefits as well: “Toy rotation actually helps your child to increase their attention span with just a few toys per week. It gives your child the opportunity to fully engage with a few toys without being overstimulated by so many. It allows for toy mastery, more creativity, and critical thinking with your little one. If a child is exposed to too many toys, it can lead to ‘scattered play,’ rather than strong schematic play, which has stronger developmental benefits.”
“An avalanche of toys invites emotional disconnect and a sense of overwhelm.“ ~ Dr. Kim John Payne
Invite participation and collaboration
There are many activities that are well-suited to including younger children. Morning circle is a wonderful example of how an essential element in the daily routine can be transformed to work for all ages. Invite your older children to help you choose activities that encourage everyone to be involved and share their unique take on something–whether a song, finger play, or movement game. This can helps everyone feel happily engaged and invested in the group dynamic. Younger children can take center stage with their own contributions, whether planned or not: singing a favorite song, doing animal-yoga, or acting with props or puppets.
Since younger children like to imitate their older siblings, they will invariably want to participate in as much of the homeschooling experience as possible, whether trying to write in a journal, do math problems, or make new discoveries in a science experiment. Need help acting out a math story? Enlist your younger children to stand in as squirrels hiding their nuts for the winter, while your older students convert the story into written math equations. When your older children are writing, provide your younger child with his or her own main lesson book, as well as with a rotating variety of materials in a shoebox top for tracing letters with a finger or making letter shapes (dried beans, sand, cornmeal, sticks, etc. work very well). Finger knitting or modeling with beeswax can be soothing ways to keep little hands busy during read alouds.
You’ll find that it often works well to include young children in school projects. Science and nature explorations are fun at any age, and can be easily adapted to include ways for your youngest to participate. There’s always a role they can play: butterfly spotter for your Citizen Science project, weather station master, beaker washer for your science experiments, the ammo-restocker (or eater) for your marshmallow catapult, or the lead scientist in a simple Sink or Float game. Family nature walks can provide plenty of opportunities for even the youngest explorers to exercise their own sense of wonder with activities that stretch the imagination and build fine motor, sensory, and observation skills. Social studies explorations are also full of opportunities to engage young minds and bodies. Historical reenactments, field trips, community service, map-making (and treasure hunts!) are just a few of the many ways that you can include your young children in the learning activities of their older siblings.
Just for them
Amid the inevitable whirl of activity in a household with children of different ages, your younger children will benefit from not only being included and made to feel like a “big kid” whenever possible, but also having their own activities tailored just for them. Consider their developmental stage and attention span, and if you want, enlist the help of your older children to help you put your ideas into action.
Your goal is to engage your mobile explorers with an ever-exciting, rotating buffet of fun, playful, learning opportunities and spaces. This will provide them with an ever-expanding repertoire of experiences while allowing you sufficient time and energy to tend to your older children, and to your own needs as well.
Your Turn: What’s your best way to keep the little ones busy during school time?