What to Do with Toddlers and Babies While Homeschooling Older Children: Taming Toddler Tornadoes
Are you homeschooling older children and you have a baby and/or toddler at home as well? I currently have three school age children along with a preschooler, toddler, and baby. A question I get a lot from homeschooling families is, "What in the world do you do with your toddler and/or baby?" Read below to find out what I do to keep my babies and toddlers busy and happy while still covering algebra, sentence diagramming, dissections, and more with the older set.
I wanted to start by telling you to get some chocolate. Better yet, grab a fudge brownie because you are probably reading this because you have either a baby or toddler right now. Everyone knows the best tool to use for dealing with a toddler is chocolate. No, not chocolate for them...chocolate for you...and a lot of it! Since you will be needing lots of chocolate, I want to first share one of my favorite jokes about toddlers. The mom attempts to bake a batch of brownies while her toddler repeatedly hides his teddy bear in the oven, covers the cat in Crisco, makes a long-distance phone call, and more. You will definitely get a good laugh from reading the fun recipe for brownies found at http://www.hugsandsmiles.com/brownies/ !
Can you relate? Don’t you love those photos of the happy homeschooling mom sitting at the table with a baby in her lap? You know the picture, a toddler coloring a picture on her left, and her older child diligently working away in his workbook to her right? Everyone is happy and smiling, while the baby coos and the mom looks like she’s a cover model for Ladies’ Home Journal.
If you have ever tried to teach your older kids and deal with a baby or toddler as well, you know how realistic that photo actually is. Life can get pretty crazy really quickly. One child is asking for your help with algebra, another keeps staring out the window because he does not want to diagram sentences again, your 3 year old is learning how to write her name...on your wall...with a sharpie marker, your 1 year old is emptying out your cupboard...again...for the fifth time in the last hour. As you get ready to "lose it" once again, you wonder why you ever decided to do this. You are not alone, and there is hope!
Below you will find my tips on what has worked for my family over the years. I haven't found the perfect solution yet, but I do have a few "tricks up my sleeve" I'm excited about sharing with you!
Hold your baby. My baby is only a baby for such a short period of time, so I do try to hold him when he is awake as I sit at the table while my children work or on the sofa while I read. Notice I said, “when he’s awake.” I do desire to use both hands quite frequently throughout my day, so I do put him down once he’s asleep. For those of you who are panicking because you are pregnant or just had a baby, remember that young babies do typically sleep a lot.
Use your baby tools. I’m talking about your front pack, Bumbo seat, bouncy seat, exosaucer, mobile, & high chairs, etc. Sometimes I just need to use my hands. During the first few months, I’ll use my front pack, Bumbo seat, bouncy seat, and swing. I might lay him down under a mobile. Now that my baby is getting a little older and does not want to sit in my lap as much, I frequently place him in his high chair and let him eat Cheerios and goldfish crackers or I let him crawl around the room.
Schedule nursing times with reading times. I usually try to nurse my baby while I’m reading with my children and when they are reading to me. It’s a time that we’re already sitting down anyway. If you prefer to be discreet, you can always use a nursing cover or cover up with a blanket.
Create multiple diaper changing locations. I currently have 2 children in diapers, which means I am changing diapers frequently. I don’t know about your children, but my children do not work as diligently when I am not in the room. I set up a small basket in our homeschool room that has diapers and wipes so that I can change diapers and monitor my children at the same time.
Make the most of your diaper changing time. I also usually sing Bible songs and the alphabet while I change diapers. I sing the songs created by Greater Joy Ministries that has a verse for every letter of the alphabet. Using the letters of the alphabet as a theme helps me to remember each of the songs. My babies really love singing, and my older children learn the Bible verses as they hear them sung over and over again.
Use bedtime for reading time. Starting when my baby is around 6 months, I try to make a point of having one-on-one time with my baby. I love to read baby board books to them. My babies especially love touch and feel board books and books that show babies. I always read 3 books before bed, and some mornings I read 3 books just after they wake up as well.
My babies (and older children) love the Touch and Feel books. This is one of our favorites. You can touch the teddy bear's soft tummy, lift a cotton "curtain" to see butterflies, and more.
Now I’m going to move on to toddlers. I’m going to start by describing what our typical homeschool days looked like for one of my girls, "Spring," when she was a curious but cooperative toddler and then for my current toddler, "Tornado," when he was almost 2. At that point he was trying to get into just about anything and everything and he also h-a-t-e-d sitting still and would loudly protest any of my attempts at keeping him still. After I describe what our schedules look like, I’ll try to go into a bit more detail about why I do what I do.
My curious, cooperative daughter
With most of my children when they were toddlers I just incorporated them into whatever we were doing. The youngest one would sit in my lap as we read together for some of the time. They would color when their older sibling(s) did seat work. They would paint, draw, sculpt, create, act, sing, bake, etc. right along with everyone else when we did projects.
When I had 2 young girls, I would frequently allow them to run off together and play after they lost interest in what we were doing. They eventually started getting into lots of mischief together. I realized I needed to set boundaries. They could play while we read or did work, but they had to stay in the same room with us. I put 1 bin of toys on the carpet & told them they were not allowed to get off the carpet while we read. After getting disciplined a few times for getting off the carpet, they stopped trying. I rotated between a bin of blocks, Mr. Potato heads, hot wheel cars, plastic animals, & Legos.
My favorite toy sets I use for my children to quietly play with by themselves
My family loves Lego sets. They can build for hours with them. If your children are still at the stage that you might be concerned that they will try to swallow the Lego pieces, buy the Duplo set like this.
We love Melissa & Doug products and own quite a number of their products. They are durable and my kids love playing with them. I have used many of the games, puzzles, and toys for 5 or 6 of my children, and they are still in good condition because they are so durable! They are educational (which I love), and they are fun (which my kids love).
My Rambunctious, On-the-Go Son & Reading Time
We start the day by reading the Bible and picture books together. When we read out loud, Tornado has to stay in the same room as us, though he plays with toys. No, he did not automatically agree to stay in the room with us. For a while he would try to leave the room and would scream when I would insist he had to stay in the room. I would tell him that he needed to be quiet, which didn’t have any effect initially. I would then stop what I was doing, explain that he could not disturb the peace of the household by screaming, would carry him to his bed and tell him that I was going to come back in a few minutes to get him, and then I’d set the timer for 3-5 minutes so that I wouldn’t forget to get him. It took a few weeks, but he finally did agree to stay in the room with us and would stop crying when I told him to stop.
Image Credit: http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/69/fb/8d/69fb8d2b080e8a34241db06c7b443d29.jpg
After reading out loud, we do seat work. I need my full attention on Spring who is learning how to read. Tornado goes into his pack ‘n play which is in the same room with us. Inside the pack ‘n play are board books and a few toys (both of which I rotate every few days). He stays in there until Spring finishes reading her phonics book, which typically takes 20 minutes. Having him stay in his pack ‘n play also took a couple weeks of training. He now knows that his turn is next, so he’s more cooperative.
We then do flashcard time. While the older ones work, my younger ones sit on the floor, and we go through alphabet flash cards together. My girls tell Tornado what each letter is, and he repeats the letter after them. Then we sing the alphabet song, and everyone gets a high-five. (We’ll eventually add in number flash cards.)
Next we do blanket time. The kids are excited about this because I use an excited voice when I announce it is blanket time. We each sit on kitchen towels with our hands folded and legs crossed. We sit there for 60-90 seconds. Everyone is supposed to be quiet and still, and no one is allowed to get off their “blanket.” This is simply training for sitting still. After we’re finished, I whisper (so the kids stay quiet) that blanket time is over, and everyone again gets a high five for sitting still.
Snack Time or Lunch
After that Tornado either gets a snack in his high chair or he helps me prepare lunch if its lunchtime. Meanwhile the older children continue to work at the table. If it’s lunchtime, the kids eat lunch.
Board Books & Bed Time
We then all go up to his bedroom and I read 3 board books to them, with Tornado in my lap. After we read, it’s his nap time. By the time he wakes up, school time is over. He gets to play with his siblings, who usually help to monitor his activities.
Outdoor Playground Time
I try to make sure we always include lots of time for playing outdoors. Sending the children outdoors at the end of the school day is usually ideal so that I can prepare dinner and pick up a bit before my husband comes home from work.
Toddlers & Homeschool Co-op Time
Once a week we have a homeschool co-op time. Tornado participates as much as he desires during that time. He especially loves doing any food or art projects we do.
Why I Do What I Do
Include your Toddler as much as you can.
Now let me focus a bit more on why I do what I do. I completely agree with Lora Lynn who wrote, “Homeschooling is a choice you make for your entire family for your current season of life. This means you’ve chosen homeschooling for your school age children and your babies. Do not view the Littles as a deterrent or an interruption. They are part of your family and part of your school. A day spent with Littles is, perhaps, the most interesting and diverse 'curriculum' you have to offer!”
I do try to include my toddler in what we’re doing as much as they are willing to participate. As I mentioned earlier, I try to have my toddlers sit in my lap as we read together. They can color when their older siblings do seat work. They can paint/draw/sculpt/create/act/sing/bake right along with everyone else while we do projects. When my older children created play-dough sculptures of the Statue of Liberty, my toddler played with the play-dough and toothpicks. When we experimented with which items floated, my toddler enjoyed dropping items in the water. When we created bridges using toothpicks and grapes, my toddler stabbed and ate grapes. Whenever we baked anything, my toddler was right there with us. When we were painting African birds, my toddler had the watercolor set right there painting random strokes as well. Their projects won’t really look at all like they are supposed to look like, but your toddler will be learning that learning is fun; plus, you won’t have to be planning any extra preschool projects just for them.
I can honestly say that I am frequently surprised at how much my toddlers pick up by just being in the same room with us while we learn. My 2nd daughter knew many of the phonics rules when I first started teaching her to read because she’d heard me repeat them over and over again with my older daughter. As a toddler, my second son incorporated quite a bit of what we were reading about in our unit studies into his play time. I remember when we were learning about Westward expansion, he had his bowl of stones and was pretending to cook a pot of beans in a campfire. When we were studying bridges, my toddler girls were building the various types with their blocks.
Including your toddler will teach your children to also value their younger siblings and other young children as well. A brief article entitled "The Baby Is the Lesson" describes how a homeschooling mom realized that she was teaching her children to view the baby as an interruption and disruption. Her children were looking to her to learn how to respond to others, and she was failing miserably until she realized how she is teaching her family character traits (both good and bad) through the way she treats her baby.
A Few More Tips
Encourage play but have geographic boundaries.
Include your toddlers when they want to be included, but don’t always force them to participate when they would prefer to play. Play time is incredibly important for their developing minds. At the same time, toddlers do really need to be monitored and you, the mom, can only be in one place at one time. At least for me, during our homeschooling hours, I need to spend large chunks of time at our table in our dining room. When there is not another child around to monitor my toddler, he has to stay where I can see him. I mentioned a few of the ways we do this: using the pack n’ play, keeping him in the room with us, and using a rug as the limited play area.
Assign an older child to play with a younger child.
During some seasons of our homeschool journey, I have scheduled in time for my older children to entertain/teach the younger children. Everyone had an activity they were assigned to do for 15 minutes with my toddler. The activities were rotated for each day of the week. One sibling would read. One would do puzzles/games. One would play with toys, and I specified the toys:
- Monday - train set
- Tuesday - army men or dinosaurs
- Wednesday - Lego's/Duplo blocks
- Thursday - Hot Wheels cars or train set
- Friday - puppets
I prefer to do this in 15 minute segments. Your “older” child really doesn’t have to be that much older. I’ve assigned my 4 year old to work with my 2 year old. They can play together for 15 minutes. Sometimes you’ll need to be specific on what they are supposed to do with the time. I have found that assigning one activity/toy set helps keep multi-toy chaos at bay. Sometimes you’ll have children who will create their own activities and teaching times. Sometimes you’ll have times of pure playtime, and other times you can have an older child teach a younger child. Last summer when one of my children was learning addition and subtraction, each day someone was assigned to play Sum Swamp, a math board game that teaches addition and subtraction, with her. Sometimes one of my children was assigned to go through flashcards. Not only does this keep the toddler busy and engaged, but it also fosters relationships between the siblings and it helps your older child learn great babysitting/parenting/teaching skills.
Set a routine for everyone.
Years ago I bought “Managers of Their Homes.” It shows you how to schedule everyone in 15 minute blocks of time. That worked really well for us when we implemented it. I’m not that good at keeping to a strict schedule, though, and our days vary quite a bit. I now give each of my children a list of what they are supposed to do every day. They cross off each activity as they complete it. My older kids know what they should be doing, so when I have to discipline or change a dirty diaper, my kids can continue working. My toddler also has a routine, so he knows what is expected of him and he knows that he will get in some “me” time as well.
Include toddler time in your daily schedule.
Even when we’re in the season of life when some of my children are entertaining and teaching my toddler, my toddler still needs individual toddler time. It doesn’t have to be much, but it needs to be scheduled in to your daily routine so you don’t forget about it. As I have found, if I start forgetting about it, my toddler’s behavior will start to unwind. Right now our daily toddler time consists of the flash cards, alphabet song, sitting still practice, helping prepare lunch, and some books read before naptime.
Sometimes I’ll prepare special projects for my toddler to do while my other children do seat work. Many people swear by "busy bags." You create lots of sensory activities for your toddler to do, and then bag up the individual projects so that you can pull them out at a moment’s notice and have them ready to go when you need them. You can find loads of ideas on pinterest and numerous blogs. I haven't had success with those yet. Maybe when my toddler is a bit older he might enjoy those for more than 2 seconds. I find that I spend 20 minutes creating an activity that holds his interest for 5 seconds. When my toddler was about 11/2 years old, I did have success with him stringing Cheerios onto pipe cleaners and also with him pasting things to paper. He’s now starting to enjoy (and be responsible with) Play-dough.
Alphabet theme once a week
If you or your child has a desire to do a more concentrated learning activity time, you can add that in too. For a while I did that once a week. My second son, "Tigger," and oldest daughter, "Kanga," loved and craved doing all the stereotypical toddler/preschool activities. The two words “craft” and “project” made their eyes twinkle with delight. I just could not fit in toddler/preschool time every day, though. I decided to do it once a week. I did preschool time once a week for an hour while my oldest son did a weekly Latin lesson. Alphabets tend to be the most common theme for preschool activities. Each week we learned a letter, read a book about an animal that started with that letter, made a simple craft related to that animal, and had a snack related to that animal. There are loads of free ideas on-line. It really is okay to just do something once a week.
If planning something like that sounds overwhelming, you can easily use one of the many blogs and websites that list what other moms do. Do you need something even easier? Go to library story time on Tuesday morning or craft time on Thursday afternoon at the library. All the planning is done for you!
Use nap time judiciously.
I laugh when I read parenting magazines that speak of nap time as the time for you to clean the house, spend one-on-one time with the older sibling, prepare dinner, pay the bills, take that leisurely shower, make appointments, catch up on your blog, and bring about world peace all during that one hour afternoon nap.
Nap time can be a pretty productive time if you plan ahead. I use nap time for different things at different times. When I’m pregnant, I will use my toddler’s nap time for my nap time and quiet time for everyone else. Yes, mommy nap time can be very beneficial for the entire family. Don’t feel ashamed about it. I know of quite a number of homeschooling moms who wake up at the crack of dawn and take a nap right along with everyone else in the mid-afternoon. They wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take children to lessons, prepare dinner, milk the cows, or whatever else happens in their afternoons.
Right now I usually use my toddler’s nap time for some work time with my oldest daughter for the work she cannot do independently. I can focus on her without interruption. I also use part of nap time for daily chores/cleaning time. It’s not that I don’t include my toddler in chores. He helps me around the house. He also does an amazing job of dumping out 10 items for every one item we put away. That’s why right now Tornado’s nap time is also clean up/chore time.
Love much; laugh often.
Do not forget to delight in your toddlers. Laugh with them and enjoy them. Write down all the fun stories about them covering your walls and floors with pudding, them flooding your bathroom because floating a boat in the bathtub wasn’t good enough, and all the other delightful adventures they get into while not monitored. You will laugh together about them one day. It might be while you tell your husband about it that night over dinner or it might be years down the road when they tell you about how their toddler did the same thing.
Lora Lynn phrased it well when she said: “There is no greater comedic relief than a toddler. Don’t forget to enjoy your Littles, laugh with them, and revel in the knowledge that your older kids are getting to enjoy them with you. This is such a gift, to laugh together and enjoy the babies. What precious memories you are giving your children when they spend the days with their siblings!” A toddler should never be viewed as an interruption to homeschooling, but a door that opens the heart to love and joy, accompanied with a large dose of comic relief.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from “Motherhood as a Mission Field” by Rachel Jankovic: "Jim Elliot famously said, 'He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.' Motherhood provides you with an opportunity to lay down the things that you cannot keep on behalf of the people that you cannot lose. They are eternal souls, they are your children, they are your mission field."
Want to see my daily homeschool schedule in detail?
- My Current Homeschool Schedule (Videos Included!) - Have you wondered what homeschooling looks like when you are teaching multiple ages? I have been asked a number of times what our homeschool day looks like, so we finally created videos showing what a typical day looks like for us this year. I have seven children, ages 13 and under. I not only try to show our daily routine, but I also focus heavily on what I do with all my little ones since I currently have 3 children who are ages 3 and under.
- Homeschooling Preschool and Kindergarten - Are you considering homeschooling but don't know where to start? Do you have a preschooler who is eager to learn but you have no idea what to teach or how? Are you feeling overwhelmed by all the options? I have laid out what I do to homeschool my children when they are ages 3-5 and have also included my favorite resources for preschool and kindergarten learning.
Ready for More Toddler Training Resources?
If you have friends with toddlers, plan a Busy Bag Exchange Playdate!
What is your favorite way to keep your baby or toddler occupied?
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