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5 Great Screen-Free Strategies for Mixed-Age Homeschooling

Diane has been homeschooling since 2015. She and her husband are raising their three children in middle Tennessee.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling

Homeschooling With Preschoolers and Elementary Age Combined

Homeschooling with toddlers underfoot adds a special layer of challenges to the school day. It's especially hard to manage teaching an early elementary-aged student while their younger siblings are running around also needing 100% of their parent's attention.

Our first year of homeschooling was in 2015. I had a second grader, kindergartner, and toddler at home. My sweet toddler daughter wanted to be included in everything her big brothers were doing. I very quickly learned to abandon my dream of a perfectly structured and uninterrupted day of learning with my two boys. In order for this to work, I had to start getting creative in ways to incorporate her in the lessons in some fashion and/or figure out ways to keep her safely occupied.

Here are 5 ways I figured out how to homeschool effectively with a preschooler:

  1. Use nap time strategically.
  2. Create a "busy box" for the preschooler.
  3. Consider out-of-home preschooling.
  4. Employ a teacher's aid.
  5. Design lessons for every age.

1. Be Strategic About Nap Time

It didn't take long for me to figure out that my children focus best in the morning, right after breakfast. This is wonderful because it means we can get most of our lessons completed by lunchtime, with the exception of any afternoon field trips or tutorials. The downside of this is that my toddler's daily naps take place after lunch. This is not wonderful because it means we have zero morning hours to focus on school with her peacefully sleeping in her crib.

If you can figure out a way to schedule the bulk of your home school lessons while your toddler or baby is napping, this is by far the easiest way to get schoolwork done. Yes, even if that's in the middle of the day! One of the beautiful things about homeschooling is that you can do it on your own schedule. I often have to remind myself that if I wanted my home classroom to look and function just like the school does down the street, then I would have sent my kids there!

At the very least, save nap time for the subjects that require more one-on-one, focused attention. Maybe it's the hour of the day when you teach your kindergartner to read or complete that challenging new math concept. If you have an older student who can read independently, nap time is also a great time to have them complete their silent reading work. This will allow the opportunity to eat lunch, prep dinner, switch the laundry, or just sit down and take a breath before the rest of the afternoon kicks into full swing.

Older students are busy with workbooks while the preschooler works on an activity from her busy box.

Older students are busy with workbooks while the preschooler works on an activity from her busy box.

2. Use a "Busy Box" for the Preschooler

"Busy Boxes" are my absolute favorite way of incorporating our youngest into the homeschool day. I curate a box of fun and exciting things for her to play with, but the catch is that the only time she has access to this box is while her older brothers are doing school work. It is completely off-limits the rest of the day. This keeps high appeal for playtime with the busy box.

A "Busy Box" can be whatever you want it to be! I often get most of the contents from a local dollar store, toy section of a big box retailer, or parent/teacher store. Snacks are always a win. Some favorite items in our home are things like playdoh, coloring books with special markers or crayons, animal figurines, cars and trucks, watercolor pages, a special doll, and craft supplies. I also look for age-appropriate games or crafts, like putting cheerios onto a pipe cleaner (practice dexterity and get a snack at the same time!), tracing the letters of her name, matching games, puzzles, or something as simple as placing stickers on a poster board. I even give her her very own roll of tape. Since it is designated for her use only, I don't care how she plays with it or how much was "wasted." It's not wasted if it keeps her busy while I'm helping my kindergartner with addition problems!

It's actually pretty easy to keep the box stocked with fun things if you keep your eye out for items during any normal shopping trip. Once I gathered enough supplies to make three or four boxes, I just rotate them out one to two times a month to keep things new and interesting.

Sending your younger children to preschool can allow for a wonderful year of learning for the entire homeschooling family.

Sending your younger children to preschool can allow for a wonderful year of learning for the entire homeschooling family.

3. Consider Out-of-Home Preschool

Sending your little ones to a two- or three-day-a-week preschool program can really free up the prime homeschooling hours. It can be especially life-giving during those early elementary school years when those students are early readers and still require so much help and parental attention with each lesson. Many preschools do a wonderful job preparing younger children for kindergarten as well!

There are a few challenges with adding preschool to the schedule. Some days' drop-off and pick-up times can potentially interfere with interrupting lessons. There is also the added task of packing lunch (not packing lunches is such a wonderful perk of homeschooling). Budget is another challenging factor for many households, as preschool tuition can be quite costly.

Trading childcare with another family not only saves money, but also cultivates some pretty cute friendships.

Trading childcare with another family not only saves money, but also cultivates some pretty cute friendships.

4. Use a Teacher's Aid (or Mother's Helper)

Hiring a babysitter to help watch your younger kids is always a super great option. Finding another homeschooling student who may be too young to babysit alone, but is old enough to watch babies and toddlers in another room while mom or dad teaches the older kids is a great way for families to afford childcare. Hiring middle school students as a "Mother's Helper" is not only more cost-effective, but it allows these preteens to begin to get babysitting experience. It's a win for everyone involved!

A second great option is offering a babysitting trade with another Mom. Even if it's only one or two days per week, swapping a couple of hours a day of free childcare can be immensely helpful for both families.

Bringing younger siblings along on field trips is a great way to include them in homeschooling lessons!

Bringing younger siblings along on field trips is a great way to include them in homeschooling lessons!

5. Design Lessons for Every Age

Including the younger siblings in the school day is kind of a hit-or-miss tactic, but on those days when it works, it's so much fun! I always attempt to include my daughter any time I read aloud to my boys. Oftentimes, my youngest was thrilled to be part of the school activity in the same capacity as her older brothers. I'd also have her participate in art projects, science experiments, nature walks, and every field trip.

Did she sit still, follow directions, and execute projects perfectly? No! Did she feel included, learn something, and have fun working with her older siblings? Yes!

My experience including younger siblings in these types of lessons is that they will always walk away having learned something. Their brains are soaking up everything around them at an impressive pace. Don't discount this time as something not worth trying. You'd be surprised at the knowledge children absorb through play and trying new things!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Diane McDaniel

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