Toddlers and homeschooling – making it work

06/08/2010  | 

While some families are sending their children off on the bus or dropping them off at the preschool or daycare, most homeschooling families are trying to incorporate toddlers and preschoolers into their daily learning activities.  This can lead to some interesting and exciting multi-age learning, of course, but it can also lead to exasperation or frustration for parents and school-aged children who are trying to “work around” a little one who’s interested in one thing: getting hands-on!

Not all activities are developmentally appropriate for wee ones to be involved in, nor are they always safe for them.  Obviously when your high school chemistry student is mixing ingredients in the kitchen, you need your toddler to be busy elsewhere.  Howls of dismay may follow, however, if you’re not adequately prepared to distract and delight the children who cannot join in every moment.

Try these tips for keeping the homeschool day going while helping the “Little” feel involved, and keeping everyone learning:

Search teacher stores for developmentally appropriate learning toys and tools that your toddler can use while older children are doing focused lessons.  Keep these items stored separately from your toddler’s “regular” toys so they are a special treat – the attraction may last a little longer that way!  Personally I’ve found some winning items at Lakeshore Learning ( and similar stores, as they market to preschools and daycares as well as school-age teachers.

Include toddlers and preschoolers in daily lessons when possible.  Music appreciation, foreign language study, and art lessons can be adapted for people of all ages.  If your eight-year-old is attempting to paint her own version of Monet’s Water Lilies, try giving your toddler a cup of water and a paintbrush along with a dark colored piece of construction paper.  He can “paint” to his heart’s delight and when the water is dried, he can start all over again.  Any spills are easy sponge right up, too.  (This is a time-honored project in my house!)  Listening to CDs of classical music while older students read related lessons can often lead to spontaneous dancing and creative movement time for the younger set.

Consider unit studies that incorporate activities for a multitude of ages and abilities.  If you’re checking out books about frogs and dissection for your middle schooler, help your four-year-old find some story books about frogs and tadpoles.  Raise tadpoles together as a family after going on a nature hike, with plenty of sunscreen and snacks to keep the youngest family members calm and happy.  Make up some homemade play dough and tint it green – make frogs and let your child use a plastic knife to “dissect” safely at the table while your older child is dissecting at a higher, but visible, location.  (Standard safety rules should always apply, of course.)  Your toddler will feel involved, but you’ll be nearby to assist whoever needs your help with the next cut. 

If your family is large enough, split off into pairs or groups for learning planned and led by older children.  One family I know has six children, and the eldest is frequently called upon by her younger siblings for new ideas and the rules to games.  Her kindergarten-aged brothers particularly delight in her leadership and encouragement, and the split allows Mom to spend one on one time with the second grader, toddler, or baby as necessary.  You never know when a sibling’s spontaneous idea will win more minds and hearts than a lesson planned out when Mom and Dad were just looking for busy work – and older children will benefit greatly from passing on their knowledge.  Don’t we all learn better when we teach a skill or fact to someone else?

Get involved with a local MOPS or MOMS Club group, or a similar venture.  It’s not just the “big kids” who need to head out to activities with peers.  While family togetherness is vital for military families, who frequently face TDY and deployment schedules, it’s also important to let your kids make friends of all ages.  If a group isn’t already in place, talk to your unit or post chaplain about starting a MOPS group or a preschool/nursery school co-op.  My toddler loves the fact that our new homeschool group has a handful of boys and girls his age; the fun isn’t just for his big sister anymore!

When all else fails, just take a break!  If a little one needs some one-on-one time, it’s perfectly acceptable to start your elementary student on reading practice instead of a face-to-face math session.  Let your toddler rock to sleep in your lap while your son reads a chapter from Swiss Family Robinson aloud.  If your high schooler needs to practice her piano piece, invite your preschooler to grab some colorful scarves and dance to the music.  Better yet, have everyone grab a scarf, mask, or cape and call it homeschool PE for the whole family!

Remember military-specific resources such as hourly care at local CDCs and FCCs.  There’s no shame in signing your toddler or preschooler up for a few hours with base childcare providers so you can tackle Trigonometry with your high schooler!  In fact, if your service member is deployed, you may be eligible for free childcare during the deployment, as well as before departure and during reintegration periods.  Hourly childcare can also be handy for those field trips to sites that don’t allow younger kids due to safety concerns.  Check with your FRG leadership or your unit chaplain for more information, or drop by your local CDC and ask them about their hourly care options.

Coming up with ideas for “busy work” for toddlers and preschoolers can be exhausting.  You really don’t have to buy a formal curriculum for children this age, but you do have tasks that need to be performed and lessons that must be learned throughout the school year.  Just keep your end goals for each child in mind, and be prepared to find ways that little ones can keep busy, feel involved, and learn along with their older siblings.  Public school teachers don’t always make it to every page in a workbook if they leave time in the day and year for interesting discussions and thoughtful questions; there’s no reason we homeschool parents can’t allow ourselves a little leeway and let everyone enjoy the biggest perk of homeschooling: time together as a family, living and learning with days of love.

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