One of the most difficult things to wrap your head around when you’re considering homeschooling is how in the world you’re going to teach multiple children of a variety of ages in many different subjects… all at once. Not to mention the little nursling in arms or the busy toddler underfoot.
Most of us were public schooled ourselves, and it’s really hard to break free of the line of thinking where all the 7 year old children go into a classroom together and learn the same things at the same time. Of course, that model doesn’t work well for everyone, but it’s still pretty deeply ingrained in our brains.
I read stacks of books and talked to everyone I could, but I still went in unsure of how it was really all going to play out on a day to day basis. My best advice for anyone standing on the precipice is to just jump. I mean, make your plans first, but then, seriously, just dive in. You can read everyone else’s how-tos, pore over others’ schedules, but it will really all boil down to what works for you and your children. Your children are unique, you know better than anyone else how to parent them, teach them, and help them to grow.
You’ll sort out a rhythm to your days and realize that family learning as a group has a lot of really cool benefits, and that education doesn’t have to be segregated according to age. People will be on different levels, but children can easily work on different things at the same time. That still leaves the littles, though, yes?
In my experience, a baby-in-arms was a total piece of cake. Nurse him to sleep and put him to bed in the next room. Bounce him on your lap while helping / listening / reading and have plenty of baby toys on hand. It’s the busy toddler stage that is a bit more daunting. Or even better – a baby in arms and a busy toddler at the same time!
The first step is to create a baby and toddler friendly space. You do not have to have a dedicated school room like mine – even if you’re schooling at the kitchen table, just make sure that dangerous stuff is out of the way and have baskets of age appropriate stuff within reach.
We’ve definitely had (and will have more) rough days when a little one is clingy and whiny or wants to sit a bare bottom on someone’s penmanship paper — but for the most part, our overall family vibe of learning all the time, meshes well with children of all ages. If I’ve got the older boys at the table playing a more difficult math game, my 5 year old might be sorting counting bears while my toddler is at the child-sized table pounding on lumps of play dough.
You get pretty good at multitasking and being aware of the entire area. I get the older kids started on penmanship and help the toddler clean up his play dough mess. He finds a bag of pattern blocks on his own, and I set to helping my daughter get situated at the computer to do Spanish. If I have to jump up and stop the toddler from climbing into the toilet and using it as a small bathtub, we all laugh (or cry, depending on the day) and get back to work (or go get a snack, or run around in the back yard for a little while).
Flexibility, flexibility, and more flexibility. Even Susan Wise Bauer, who I had imagined to be very scheduled and structured when I read The Well Trained Mind, goes with the flow – check out her School at My House series.
I keep lots of things in our school room to entertain the younger children including picture books, toys, and games. I can easily read a little board book to the toddler on my lap while the others color maps to paste into their history notebooks. You’ve just kind of got to be willing to adjust the day on the fly. And you know, if something just isn’t working – if there are tears and frustration, I have no problem popping in a Sight Words DVD to entertain the two youngest while we regroup or finish up something they were foiling. Likewise, the two older can pull on headphones and do Rosetta Stone Spanish while I get the littles set up with a box of beads and string — or just cuddle them for a while. Though I have to add, that so far this year, my 5 year old wants to do almost everything the older two are doing, which is absolutely marvelous!
Some of our favorite ‘keep the littles busy’ activities are:
- Usborne sticker books and workbooks.
- A box of beads and string to make necklaces – this one is amazing, if you can teach them not to make a huge bead mess, it entertains the 2+ set for quite a while.
- A bin of Play Dough, cookie cutters, rolling pins, stuff to make patterns. Release your OCD side and relax while they make an enormous mess, it’ll buy you loads of time. And hey, make some dough together – teaching cooking skills and stove safety and the like? All counts as school.
- Stamps, paper, and ink. Again, let ‘em get all inked up, you can clean it up later. (We found a crazy cheap full alphabet stamp set at Michael’s and then used one of their 40% off coupons – or Melissa and Doug makes several fun stamp sets.
- Sewing cards and laces.
- Basic wooden blocks and our favorite “lego blocks”.
- Big bin of matchbox cars and playmats.
- Tons of crayons, paper, dollar store coloring books, free printable coloring sheets, and big rolls of table paper (lots of newspaper places sell end rolls for cheap).
- On brave days, I use that table paper with finger paints.
- Fun wooden puzzles and cheapo dollar store cardboard puzzles — either all stacked up and ready for fun, or sometimes I put a few out for a while and then change the puzzles to ‘new’ ones from the cupboard they haven’t seen in a while.
- One of the biggest hits this year are little plastic animal figures. First I bought them on Amazon and then realized I could get just about the same quality and quantity from the dollar store for zillions cheaper. We have a whole bin of them and they are a hit with everyone.
- Our kids’ microscope is pretty sturdy, and I’ll let the littles look at pre-made slides on it with a little bit of supervision. They like sticking things like leaves, flower petals, and strands of hair under the light as well.
- Everybody loves the aforelinked Counting Bears. They get incorporated into lots of play, and I scored two sets for pennies on Homeschool Classifieds.
I find that rotating the toy and activity selection is important. Plus, if you don’t have loads of space, you can store some things and bring them out later, putting the old and tired stuff away for a while. Generally the basic toys: blocks, puzzles, matchbox cars etc. stay out all the time — along with books, of course. I’ll rotate things like stamps, paints, colored pencils, finger paints, water colors, play dough, microscope stuff, beads, and different boxed games.
In the beginning, I’d admire photos on blogs and Flickr where homeschooling moms had set up beautiful play spaces with a Waldorf or Montessori feel, and then die of sticker shock over how expensive the really lovely wooden toys and manipulatives were. I started small. A couple of Ikea shelves in my front room with a child’s table set I bought damaged at an outlet store:
I kept a running wishlist on Amazon, watched sales, saved my pennies, searched thrift shops and outlet stores, and homeschool re-sale type sites, learned when office supply stores gave away free supplies for teachers, scoured eBay, and raided ‘retired’ homeschoolers’ stashes. All you really need to homeschool: a library, a willingness to read, and the toys and art supplies you probably already have. Internet is pretty darn nice, too. But over time, with careful spending and searching, you can build up a lot more.
I’ve homeschooled while horribly sick (reading books in bed and PBS totally counts as school) while pregnant, and with a nursing baby in arms, and with busy toddlers underfoot. I am not all that organized, I forget appointments, my patience deteriorates on a regular basis, I have health issues, and have enormous gaps and holes in my own education. But I can do it. And so can you. Pinky swear.
Questions? Comments? I’m thinking about doing a couple more how-to type posts (these were inspired by my friend Tracy), maybe on more specifics regarding different things we do, like what our devotional looks like, how chores mesh with homeschooling, and more on the financial side of it? What say ye. I’m all ears.