Keeping my children of various ages entertained and engaged during the Coronavirus school closure is daunting. It would be one thing if I were a seasoned homeschooler, but most us are not. I have two kids under 5, a kindergartner and a third grader. Everyone needs attention, love and to be stimulated at their own level. Here are some things that have worked for us, some things that have totally failed, and some things that I've bought.
Making a “School” Schedule
First thing I did when I heard school was closing was to make a schedule. I sat down with my older two school-aged children and had them tell me how their school days progress throughout the week. We used a white board to chart out one week of “school”, with the usual subjects (reading, writing, math). Then we added special research projects on topics they chose (Amelia Earhart, Redwood Trees, Weather). They LOVED that they got to choose their own research subjects. We also made sure to keep fun extras like art, dance and garden. We plan to do one week at a time to allow for flexibility depending on how things are going.
This whiteboard learning map is so far the most successful part of our impromptu homeschooling system. It allows the older kids to do a lot of self-guided learning while I play with the little kids. And they appreciate having a certain level of control over what their schooling looks like.
During the times when the little ones need my hands-on attention — like painting and baking — I like to have my older kids busy with their self-guided projects, free-writing exercises, Khan Academy math lessons, LEGO, etc.
Pro tip: Set-up a dedicated area for schoolwork. This work area doesn't have to be fancy; we have a few desks set up, but you might have a tabletop that can be the temporary school. The little kids will learn to respect this designated area as where quiet is appreciated (They will eventually, right? We're still working on it!). It also helps the bigger kids feel more grounded and that they can “leave” school in a specific place.
Entertaining younger children during homeschooling time
Keeping the little screaming munchkins away from the big kid learning time is the most difficult part of my day. I have found the most successful way to do this is with arts and crafts projects, outside play, snack, and yes, the iPad.
Old toys are new again: Putting out a basket of toys that haven't been used in a while has been lots of fun. You know how they ignore a toy until you're about to sell it in a yard sale? It's like that.
Get out the arts and crafts: My little ones really love to paint, draw and play with clay. So I loaded up on paint, paper, markers and clay so they can get their Picasso on as much as their little hearts desire.
Letting the little ones work on their art by themselves while I help the older kids in another room is a messy disaster. I learned that the hard way (sorry, I wasn't in the state of mind to take a picture). When I have the little kids doing things that require my immediate supervision, I need to have the big kids doing self-guided learning.
Play outside as much as we can: Taking the little ones outside and playing with bubbles, sidewalk chalk, a bucket of water, and even an Easter egg hunt has proven successful. Since it can be tricky for me to be outside supervising the littles when a big kid needs help with spelling a word or is stuck on a math problem, we discovered a fun solution is to use is a set of walkie talkies (a $10 toy version works just fine for this purpose). I can be outside and the kids think it's super fun.
Screens for preschoolers: Screen-time is inevitable in this situation, so we try not to stress about it. When the big kids need my undivided attention, maybe during difficult math lessons or the like, that's when I use screens to keep the little kids entertained. My 3-year old adores the PBS Elmo Loves ABC's and 123's apps. I've also let them watch some old Preschool Prep DVDs I have (they're all half off while schools are closed!). My kids LOVE these, and my 20-month old knows all her colors now! Do you have a favorite app for this age? I might need to switch things up soon.
They love domestic chores: Baking and cooking is entertaining for the little kids. I let them stir things in bowls, portion out cookie dough and crack eggs (expect some mess). My little kids also like to sort laundry, dust, and put things away, so I like to leverage that somewhat impulse while giving my older ones some focused school time.
Big feelings are okay: I try to manage my own expectations about how smooth this can go. This is so brand new for all us, so of course they won't just fall into it seamlessly. There will be arguments, frustrations with one another, and yes, tears. And that's okay.
Some Recent Purchases to help engage kids of different ages
You absolutely don't have to buy a lot of new toys and materials to keep the kids engaged and entertained. Indeed, there are so many things you already have at home that you can dust off and use during these shelter-in-place weeks. But a few key purchases have proven key to enlivening our time inside.
Consider buying at and supporting your local toy stores like Five Little Monkeys or Mr. Mopps. Give them a call and work out a no-contact pick-up. Five Little Monkeys is offering free shipping right now.
LEGO: Now is the time add a few Lego sets to your toybox. It's a great self-guided engineering lesson. I bought a space-themed LEGO set and an ocean-themed 3-in-1 LEGO set, both of which are subjects we're researching. I've also bulked up our loose LEGO collection for open building to spark the imagination.
Rocks: Sorting rocks, minerals and geodes is another do-it-themselves activity that involves sitting in one place for a little while.
Science kits: Make sure you read through what's included in your science kit. My boys were very excited to make colorful crystals, then I realized I didn't have food coloring or another key ingredient that wasn't included in the kit (annoying!). We got this new kids chemistry kit and have enjoyed a few of experiments already. Many science projects can be completed without spending money on a kit too, so check out online tutorials or DIY science books.
Interactive Learning Globe: These interactive globes are expensive, but super fun. My boys have learned so much geography from their learning globes. We've gone through a few since someone always breaks something. But when they work, they're awesome. I never thought I'd see them get so excited for a timed geography quiz!
Board games: Battleship is a great oldie-but-goodie game that my 6- and 8-year olds like to play together. Chess, UNO and War are also some great simple games that they like to play without my help.
Books: I loaded up on books at the library before it closed, and I purchased a few new books that I thought would be valuable additions to our home library. For Women's History Month they chose Who Was Amelia Earhart? (the whole Who Is… series is fantastic!) and a few wildcard subjects like The Bacteria Book and The Kids Book of Weather Forecasting.
Doing things together when we can
Gardening, dance, art, read aloud, cooking/baking, and even some science experiments are all learning activities I've been able to include ALL the kids in at the same time. Although each moment can sometimes devolve into chaos, generally these subjects are great for all the kids to meaningfully participate and help each other.
My favorite is dance; we pick out something fun on GoNoodle and just act silly all together. A great way to relieve any tension that's built up and just get the wiggles out. And just going for daily walks after lunch has become a favorite tradition this week.
We'll also take some field trips to close-by nature areas for some fresh air. Point Molate and Tilden are on our list. Check out our super useful guide to outdoor places to go with kids in the East Bay. We'll take along our science journals, boots and compasses to make it worthwhile.
We're still figuring this homeschooling thing out, and it sounds like we'll have many more weeks and months to do so. What are your tips and tricks for engaging siblings of different ages under the same roof? We'd love to hear!