Ah, those toddlers! Those cuddly little bundles of curiosity and energy! For many, many years in a row, I’ve homeschooled with a squiggly toddler on my lap, underfoot, here, there, and everywhere. Then I had a few years reprieve, and now here we are again trying to solve algebraic problems while the toddler pulls the books off the shelf, slings the markers across the schoolroom, and yanks drawers off their casters. And, of course, pulls the keys off the computer.
Somehow, I don’t remember how I managed in years past. I do have recollections of finding all the match box cars in the toilet. But I do have some survival strategies I’d like to share with you that might make homeschooling with a toddler a little more peaceful.
First: The PlayPen. It’s your best friend. Get the extra large one, the one that’s a square. Then, train your wiggly-bugs to play in there every day as part of their daily routine. For us, it’s in the morning. Every day, right after breakfast, Junior plays in the playpen for about a half-hour, (and a blessed half-hour it is!) I keep his favorite toys in there, and he only gets to play with them when he’s in his happy box. I rotate books and toys, and when I notice he’s no longer playing with a toy or reading a book, I put in new ones.
What if your little one doesn’t want to go in the playpen? Make sure you put it in a place where your toddler feels as if he’s part of the action. No one likes to be left out. Then, convince your little one that the playpen is really a happy place by having siblings play in there with him.
If your toddler really resists, start with short spurts of playpen time and slowly increase the duration. The most important thing about playpen time is to build it into your toddler’s routine so he/she expects it. Every day. Eventually your toddler will get accustomed to happily playing there on a regular basis.
Second: the Montessori shelf. Have a low book shelf where you place select activities for your toddler to do. These are not simply toys, but, as some educators call it, “an invitation to play.”
I have learned that if you present an activity neatly on a tray, it helps the toddler to focus on it.
Usually, I demonstrate how to do the activity, and then I let Junior have a try. When we’re done, I encourage him to put it neatly on the shelf. Later, I take the activity from the shelf and present it on a tray on Junior’s table.
Today, he took the tray of boxes and tossed it onto the floor. But then he sat down and tried to fit the lids on the boxes.
Admittedly, keeping the Montessori shelf appealing takes some planning. Maria Montessori once wrote, “When dealing with children there is greater need for observing than of probing.” In order for the Montessori shelf to be an effective tool for education and discovery, you will need to observe your toddler: What activities does he like best? What activities does he find challenging? When an activity lies untouched for a week, it’s time to rotate it out with a new one. Fortunately, there are oodles of Montessori shelf ideas on Pinterest.
Here’s a picture of our Montessori shelf this week:
Third: dedicate some time each day to playing with your toddler. I know this can be really hard, especially when you have oodles of work to grade, multiple lessons to teach, and kids crying out for help with their school work. But if you give your toddler 20-30 minutes of one-on-one play, he won’t hanker after your attention so much. I have noticed that after I play with Junior at his Montessori shelf, he’s usually quite content to play on his own for a while. Again, build it into your routine so that your toddler nows when he can expect mommy time. Toddlers thrive on routines.
Fourth: Sibling Sitters. My children know that one of their jobs is to play with Junior for 20-30 minutes each day. Sometimes I think that I shouldn’t make my kids play with Junior, as if playing with him were a burden. But then I come to my senses. I remind myself that love is not a starry-eyed, gushy emotion; rather it is choosing to do the right thing. My kids love their baby brother most when they are caring for him even though they would rather be doing something else. They may not feel love at that moment, but they are training their wills to love when it’s hard.
But usually it’s not hard. Even though sometimes my kids would rather be finishing their work or playing Lego, they do enjoy playing with Junior. I have a list of activities for them to do with him, but usually they just pull activities off the Montessori shelf. Or, better yet, they make up their own games or play outside.
Fifth: Nap time is sacred. My best teaching happens when Junior is asleep and the house is quiet. This is when I can really focus on making lessons as interesting, memorable, and thorough as possible. So, I do not schedule any activities outside the home during nap time. None. Nada. Nix. Of course, this means that we miss out on some great extra-curriculars. But my husband and I have learned to stick to the essentials. Baby’s uninterrupted sleep is essential. Children having lessons when distractions are at a minimum is essential. Mom’s peace of mind while teaching is very essential. Other things can wait for different seasons in our lives.
By the way, once a toddler stops taking naps, nap time can be extended into quiet reading time. If my second grader finishes her school work while baby is still napping, it’s quiet reading time for her.
Sixth: Get an early start. Junior is a real handful. He loves attention, demands attention, and gets into trouble looking for attention. (Good thing he’s the youngest of six!) Meanwhile, Sparky is easily distracted by every thing Junior does. So we have discovered that a great time to get work done is early in the morning before Junior wakes up. Sparky likes to sneak down in his PJs and get a jump start on his math. In the quiet and stillness of the early morning, he can focus and work efficiently. Once Junior’s awake, we do our morning chores and get ready for the day. Getting an early start also makes our day feel less rushed.
No matter how your toddler is wreaking havoc on your homeschool, keep in mind that the toddler years go fast and furious, especially fast. Before you know it, you won’t be worrying about your two-year-old putting vaseline in his hair or yanking the cords out of the computer. That toddler will soon be learning to read, then riding a bike, then begging for a cell phone, and then learning to drive and looking at colleges. I know because it’s happening before my very eyes.
So as much as your toddler causes chaos, savor these precious years. They are so full of wonder and joy, cuddles and hugs. I, for my part, wish they would never end.