One of the popular questions I was asked in my Large Family Living series is, "What do you do with toddlers and preschoolers while you're trying to homeschool?"
It's funny, I remember asking the same thing when my big kids were little. I think part of the answer is to have older children who are patient and understanding. When your kids are all little, things are more challenging. I've always said, "If you have 3 or more kids, and the oldest is not capable of showering by themselves yet, you're in the Boot Camp Years of parenting."
I've had littles underfoot pretty much ever since I started homeschooling. Different things work for different kids. Sometimes, it feels like nothing works for some kids! Busy toddler boys are a handful!
Here are a few things that we've tried over the years, or are working for us now.
Cheap and free ideas: Coloring! Crayons, markers, colored pencils... Whether you print pages for them to color, or use the back of junk mail for them to scribble on, most kids will color for at least a little while.
Scissor practice! A preschooler can be set to work cutting out non-essential coupons, or shapes you've drawn for them.
Blocks are always good, and can be combined with other toys like Little People or animals, or they can be used on their own to teach size (big, bigger, biggest), colors, and counting.
My kids have all really enjoyed Legos/Duplos/Mega Bloks.
Math manipulatives: We have counting bears, pattern blocks, tangrams, links, balance, etc. While one thing won't necessarily hold their attention for a long period of time every time, sometimes dumping out and cleaning up one after another of them will occupy your toddler long enough so you can help another child get through their math.
We store our manipulatives in these cute buckets from Lakeshore.
The nice thing about occupying your littles with math manipulatives is that they're educational. Learning shapes, classifying, and more happens organically when a parent or older child plays with a toddler or preschooler who is using one of these sets.
One thing that helps occupy our younger crowd is having certain toy sets in buckets, so they are less accessible. This serves the dual purpose of making them more special, and it keeps the pieces from being mixed up in the bottom of the toy boxes.
Wedgits are one of those toys. Any time they ask, "Mommy, can we play Wedgits?" I tell them yes, as long as the playroom isn't already totally thrashed, and if it is, I ask them to pick up first, so they don't mix the Wedgits in to the general toy population. We have a standard set, a purple set, the idea cards, and a baseplate. These can occupy my girls for quite a while, and they're great for spatial reasoning. Think of them as toddler Tetris.
Some playthings I would totally love to add to our collection of special school toys:
Rainbow Nesting Wooden Blocks Stacker - I can't justify the expense, but oh, isn't it lovely?
Animal Counters (I know we have bear counters, but these offer more sorting opportunities)
Safari Toobs --these are great for kids who don't put things in their mouth anymore! Lots of open ended play possibilities. We have a few, but I'd love to get some more.
It's important not to overlook the simple things. Inside, colored masking tape on the floor makes a great balance beam for physical exercise. Outside, you can achieve the same thing with sidewalk chalk. Sidewalk chalk is also good for driveway artwork. And once you're out there, how about bubbles? The spill proof bubbles are pretty good now. Your older kids can be working on nature studies or art (we seem to have been assigned a lot of "go outside and draw" in our current art book lately) while your littles run off some energy outdoors. As spring fever sets in, we'll probably take our schoolwork outside as a treat. Last year, I used to read aloud to the kids while we lounged around on the warm trampoline in the sun.
We keep a basket of board books in the school room that Katie can read any time she wants to hang out with us. I'm very lucky. She's usually happy to play with her kitchen set or the Playmobil sets left over from when the big boys were little, downstairs in the playroom, for quite a while.
Next school year, Katie will be 4, and I intend to get a little more serious about directing her toward educational activities for part of the day. However, I'm a big believer in the idea that play is the work of children, so I'm not going to go overboard with a rigidly structured, labor intensive curriculum. Last year, I had the chance to review a fabulous book, The Homegrown Preschooler: Teaching Your Kids in the Places They Live. There are a ton of great ideas in there that will keep us busy.
If you can stand messy, there's always painting, play doh, and water play. Just don't be surprised if your big kids want to stop what they're doing and get in on all the fun your busy little bees are having with the things you're trying to distract them with so you can homeschool the big kids. Irony, much?
I'd love to hear what your little ones do during school time!
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