Friday, July 17, 2015

Productively Occupying Young Children

In our homeschool we strive to not just occupy non-school-age children, but to include them; to not chase them away, but to draw them in.  Children need to know they are a valuable part of our family, and not just to be tolerated until they’re older.  
    Three of the girls having "water play" time.
    “Moomyyy, Tyler is standing on the kitchen table and he’s poured salt all over the place!”  …The entire table which seats 10 is completely covered with salt.  I proceeded to wash this off 4 or 5 times before it was clean because I chose to use a wet sponge which turned the table top into the saltwater Puget Sound (huge mistake obviously, should have used the vacuum – mental note for next time).  This child needed a parent directed  occupation – not one that he came up with (I rarely like the choices children make when they’re bored or need attention) but one that he was guided in to.

    It is also invaluable practice with focusing their attention, sitting, and having limits on their freedom in preparation to begin homeschooling with a little curriculum starting at kindergarten age (age 4-6 depending on the child).  We learned several strategies for including our littlest muffins along our homeschooling journey and many people inquire as to how we do this, so here are some of the ideas we implement regularly:

    • Towel Time (or blanket time)
    • Table Activities
    • Play Yard or Pack-n-play
    • Crib Play
    • Play Stations
    • The Jumper
    • Computer Learning
    • Nap time


    We implement this activity for preschool-age children between 3 and 5-years-old, when they’re not old enough to join in the homeschool curriculum but are certainly able to be actively learning with their time.

    Set-up:  I ask an older child to spread out 3 large beach towels on the family room floor.  This is done when they are completing their morning charts (Carts and lists that save my sanity).  That child chooses 5-7 books to put on one towel, then I look at my list and pull the next 2 activities to put on the other two towels.  I just go strait down the idea list, checking off what they play with each day, so there are no repeats until the list is completed.  Also, if I note that an activity is not played with at all that day, I do not check it off but put it out again a day or so later.  Messy activities (water, rice, beans) I do only once in a while, usually on the day I know I will be vacuuming anyway (or the child may like to get out our little vacuum and help clean it up).  

    The child is required to keep all of each activity on its own towel.  He can wander from towel to towel during this time, but he must remain on one of the towels, and each activity must remain on its towel.  

    When first training a little one for this activity it’s usually necessary to start off with only 10 minutes and then increasing the time gradually from there up to 60 minutes, making the experience a positive one.  To highlight their success we may give a Jelly Belly each day while they’re learning.  I do allow an older child to join the preschooler for 5-10 min. of towel time at the end if they have completed their assigned work.

    Three of the girls having "water play" time.

    Incentive:  For one son who has had a particularly hard time remembering to contain himself to the towels, we started setting the timer for 10 minute increments and giving him a cracker for every 10 minutes that he was obedient.  I would put 6 crackers in a small bowl (6 ten minute increments to equal one hour) and which ever older child was sitting near him doing school would just offer him a cracker every time the timer went off until the bowl was empty.  *smile*  Worked great.

    Variation:  Blanket Time
    This same son had a hard time keeping activities on their own towels (after many months of trying to train it) so we changed the plan a bit for him.  He uses one large blanket with 3 activities:  always books, then one activity with lots of pieces (like Duplos) and one without lots of pieces (like a Magnadoodle to draw on).

    It’s such a blessing to a mom to know that her child has just been learning for a whole hour without her attention, while she has been educating the older ones.  Towel time is such a simple idea, but it has been one of the best activities I have ever heard of for young children at home (even after graduating with a B.A. degree in Early Childhood Education).


    We use this for children ages 3 and up.  They can have a 30 minute block of time at the table doing table-appropriate activities (not too big or too many pieces for their area).  For a younger child or one who was just learning the skill of sitting and learning at the table we would choose two activities for 15 minutes each, developing their attention span gradually.  They can choose to play with that activity or not, but they stay at that table spot for the whole half hour.  If they choose to drop the activity on the floor then they don’t have it any more (we don’t play the I-drop-it-you-pick-it-up-game too many times *smile*), but they’re still at their table spot the designated amount of time.  They learn pretty quickly to keep it on the table *wink*, and when they’re new to this plan, after a few days of pouting because they don’t have total freedom any more, our children have always settled right in and really enjoyed this time.  

    Now parents do need to be faithful to the time limit and encourage them to clean up when the 30 minutes is up; don’t take advantage of this time and let them stay there too long because they’re doing so well.  It’s tempting, I know, but it won’t foster their trust.  We practice with all children’s activities something we call, “Kill it before it dies.”  This means quit the activity while they’re still enjoying themselves and before they’re whining or complaining.  We also require that they keep the activity in what we call their “Dinner plate space”, which means in the area directly in front of themselves where their dinner plate goes.  This prevents the activity from spreading all out in to other students spaces, disrupting their school work or being launched across the table.  If the child would like to do an activity with lots of pieces then we require that they keep the pieces in the box and draw from it rather than dumping it all out; or they can tip the box on its side and access it or see inside it better.  

    We often have all of the older kids doing table activities simultaneously if we have a window of time where we don’t want them all getting out tons of toys again.  This could be before we go in to nap time and play-alone time (when all 10 of us are either in a nap or in a play-alone time for 2 hours, including mom’s alone time – see below), or before leaving the house.  I also like about this activity that it is sort-of with me, because my home-base is in the kitchen right by the table, and is where we do most of our schooling.

    Anna having table activity time with letter sewing.

    Children can learn go play for 30-60 minutes peacefully in either a Pack-n-Play if they’re younger, or a Play Yard (see photo below) which is a larger contained space for walking toddlers or young children.  This not only gives them a contained space that doesn’t require parental intervention, but it really can foster growing a child’s attention span as well.  They will learn to focus on a single activity and develop skills that they wouldn’t normally sit down to learn when they have access to the whole house.  For example they can learn zipping, buttoning, putting shapes into the correct holes, turning the pages of a book.  

    It’s important to put only 4 activities in a play area at once, one for each corner, and not too many pieces (just like at “towel time”).  It may seem logical that the more toys the more occupied the child will be, but we’ve not found this to be true at all.  If there are too many toys the child seems to feel overwhelmed and will either not choose any activity from the mass at their feet, or may start throwing them out on to the floor.  Just 4 items fosters learning.  Again like towel time, we always include some books (plastic, cloth, or board books, as “one item”), an electronic toy that rewards their involvement, and something with pieces, like shapes.  

    This activity can be done in a family room, or in a separate room for practice in playing alone, but safely when too young to play in their bedroom unsupervised.  If a child constantly throws their toys out to get other’s attention, we don not give the toys back.  This is often times a motivator to keep their toys inside so they have something to do.  If they still throw toys out then they need some training to keep the toys in; if they try to climb out of the pack-n-play or play yard, we teach them that they must stay sitting down the whole time.  This is also an excellent way to begin training the child for “play-alone time” (see below).  Usually we had a pack-n-play or two in the family room with everyone, but sometimes we'd put the additional pack-n-play in another room by himself and he'd have some quiet time (but he can still hear or see the family near by).

    Collapsible play yard

    Another great, safe play area for young ones is their crib, with similar plans for how it’s used like towel time or pack-n-play time.  For this play space we just strive to use toys that can’t fall through the crib rails.  We keep a basket of toys in the toddler’s bedroom underneath their crib, full of larger toys that are only gotten out when playing in the crib.  Examples may be a xylophone, electronic toys (not one the child could stand on as a stool!), or music toys that clips on to the side of the crib.  We keep the window blinds open and the lights on so they’re sure to feel the distinction between bed time and play time.  We do not plan this time for a child just before a nap time or they tend to go to sleep; or a meal time, as they seem to run out of calories and fall asleep.  *chuckle*  It is also nice for the child to sometimes have an audio book playing in the room, or music.  Just being in different rooms in the house, and with varying activities, really seems to add variety to a child’s play times.  Even simply moving a toy that’s usually in the family room, out to the bedroom can add new appeal again for that child.


    When we had only young children and no older ones I still desired to structure the children’s day a bit and not allow them so much freedom that they got in to a lot of trouble back-to-back.  Children also only have the maturity to manage their relationships with each other for so long before problems arise.  So I would have certain times of day when they had “play station time” and each child would be in a separate play area with their activities.  It gives them a break from one another, too.  You may see the list below for ideas of areas in your home that can be used and what types of activities can be played there.  I usually don’t let the child choose which play station they’d like to play in because they often don’t give themselves enough variety, and they forget how much they actually like that play area over there which they haven’t chosen for a couple of weeks.  So I choose for them and ensure they have variety, and the time feels fresh and fun each time.


    We hang this in a door jam in a populated area (not alone or they’re often too bored) and let the child get some exercise for 30 minutes! *laugh*  Our kids have always loved jumping and jumping and jumping in this non-stop. (Bumper Jumper) And it serves to  strengthen their core muscles, neck and leg muscles as well. We've had some kids still try to climb in to it after they’ve exceeded the weight limit and aren’t allowed to use it any longer. *chuckle*


    This can be an excellent source of learning for children!  Our kids play preschool (which is just learning to mouse-over things on the screen, they don’t even have to click when they’re real young), phonics, Spanish, kindergarten, reading, typing, first-grade, and second-grade.  We have found that learning DVD’s third-grade and up are pretty much just video games, so we don’t have any of those; for third-graders we purchase curriculum for them to learn from on the computer. Our favorite is Switched On School House, by Alpha Omega Press.  

    Some of the younger DVD’s have maybe one activity in them which we would consider a video game (i.e. not learning anything except how to drive a car around a track) but mostly the whole DVD is very educational.  When one of our sons was 4 or 5 I allowed him to use a typing activity he really wanted to try, not thinking he would actually learn anything, and surprise!  He not only learned his alphabet from the keyboard (when he had zero interest in learning his letters with me!), but he also learned to do some typing!  *laugh*  He even switched easily between lower-case letters in the program to uppercase on the keyboard itself.  

    We don’t allow the children to work or play on mine and Bob’s computer, but we’ve had a couple of older computers available for the children’s learning activities.  Often times you can find a computer that a family member or friend doesn’t want because it doesn’t work for their advanced functions or college work, but it works just fine for playing Reader Rabbit, Jump Start, or Magic School Bus . I would not suggest that you purchase these children’s learning DVD’s used, however, because the computer industry changes so very fast any used ones you find are almost guaranteed to be out of date for your computer whether it’s new or older.  We’ve purchased some at garage sales before, or have been given some from friends who no longer need the younger-age activities, and they can’t play on the computer.  

    New computer activities can be a great gift idea for your child as well.  We also do not have the children’s computers internet-accessible. If they need access to the internet we go on line with them on our computer in the family room.  We did eventually purchase laptops for our 11 and 12-year-old’s school work (which they still use today at ages 15 and 16), however we’ve not yet determined how to protect them from internet dangers so they do not have access to it – if any of you have any great solutions for protecting your young people we would really love to know about it!  *smile*!

    For a whole post of details on how and why and what we do with computer learning you can see my post, "Computer Learning For Kids: How We Utilize It."


    We have our young children take a 2-3 hour nap until or through age 5.  Children usually seem to think at age 3 they shouldn’t have to nap any longer, and they may even seem like they really don’t need it any longer, however it is very good for them to keep that nap time – and good for mom, too!  But with perseverance on the parent's part they have nearly always cleared this hump and then they rest deeply in nap time again.  The child feels better the rest of the afternoon, and behaves better when they’ve had a nap.  

    If necessary you can work the child’s night time sleep to help them maintain that nap time during the afternoons.  When one of our sons was 3 he would stay awake at night until 10pm, when we had put everyone to bed at 8:00 pm.  Needless to say this caused great problems with other tired kids, and a lot of problems with his behavior – such as turning the bathroom into a science lab out of boredom.  So we let him stop napping, which brought me to tears after 2 days!  A 3-year-old cannot occupy himself for 2 hours alone of course.  So when all the children go to bed at 8:00 pm we started keeping this little son awake with us at night until 9:30 pm, and he played quietly by himself in the family room; he knew this was mommy and daddy’s time together.  I then woke him up in the morning at 6:00 am and he stayed with me while I was getting ready for the day (the other kids woke up at 6:30 am at that time).  With this plan, Riley then needed a 2-hour hap every day.  *smile*  It was so worth it.

    Children after age 5 are often reading and doing more advanced activities than a 3-year-old can do, so they are perfectly capable of learning to have a play-alone time during that 2-hour block instead of a nap.  In our family every one is either napping or having play-alone-time every single day from 2:00-4:00 (or until 5:00 for the littler kiddos).  It is good for children to not have someone entertaining them all the time, but to be able to play by themselves as well, which they often don’t get especially in a larger family where there are so many precious people to be with.  It’s surprising how many adults do not have this ability to be alone and actually enjoy themselves.  It’s good to be alone with one’s own thoughts, to not have anyone taking their things, to not have to share, to sing to themselves, listen to an audio book quietly, have their thoughts uninterrupted, to use all of the Duplo Leggos in the whole set for their own giant structure, or to read a book uninterrupted.  *smile*  And it’s so, so good for mom to have that break.  

    I am a new woman in the afternoon after this time!  I usually had a nap myself during some of this time – even for just 30 minutes – so that I also felt my best (and behaved my best *chuckle*) when my husband came home.  After a rest, I was not scowling, snapping, impatient, or tired; I would have a smile for him, and I have words left for him, the ability to serve him and enjoy him, and not feel like all I want to do is collapse into bed.  It was and is a gift to him.  It’s actually a discipline I for a long time maintain for my husband’s sake even if I didn't feel the need for a nap one day or I’d rather continue in my project that whole block of time, because without it I didn't have enough of me left when he came home later.  

    During alone-time I am not managing anyone’s relationships, or giving any directions, and no one is talking to me.  The children are required to have everything they need in their play-alone-time space, and they are not allowed to walk around the house to get additional things because then others hear and see them and pretty soon all the children are out and about.  I am very strict about this time for all our sake.  On the weekend we allow a couple of the older children to play quietly together, but during the week everyone is totally alone.  And we all love it, including the little ones.

    For all of these productive occupations for young children it is very important to be sure and alternate the independent times with being-with-people times.  I alternate young ones time with me, then time alone, time with an older sibling, time alone again.  We strive for inclusion, not exclusion from the families activities through out the day.  Also, not all children may be willing to participate in this kind of structure, but all are capable.  *smile*  It does take training, but the fruit is so very sweet, and so good for the whole family.  It takes time to do the training – but it works.  If you find yourself thinking that you could never schedule like this, remember that we did not start off doing these ideas, it’s been a journey of learning and implementing a little at a time.  But I hope to give you a vision for what home life can be like especially if you’re homeschooling.  Having a plan and some direction can give peace in itself, compared to just surviving the younger years.

    If you’re just starting out with child training and would like more teaching along those lines, there are several books we would recommend in our “Recommended Books” list on the blog home page.

    If you would like to have any of my charts, lists, or schedules that I've shared you can download those from this link.

    Blessings in your efforts,


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