Homeschooling with preschoolers

Homeschooling older children with little ones in the house can be a real challenge. Toddlers and preschoolers are energetic, inquisitive, and mobile. They make things happen. Woe to you if you’re not watching them while they’re making things happen. But how can you occupy them in a way that will still allow you to also teach older ones?

One of the things that has helped me over the years is an idea adapted from Montessori preschools. “Play stations” are independent activities set up in designated spaces on the floor. Children stay with one activity for 5 to 10 minutes. When a timer rings, they rotate to another station. Good activities include: dollhouse and people, Cheerios to string, blocks, stacking cups, Legos, simple puzzles, and stories on tapes.

Play stations require a little bit of training. At first you may want to be flexible with the time. With young toddlers, you’ll want to keep the time short– maybe 2-3 rotations of 5 minutes each once a day. Or you can let your child do an activity for as long as it holds his interest, and then pull out the next thing.


As kids settle in and their attention span increases, you can gradually increase the number of rotations, and the amount of time at each activity. If play is going really well, I’ll sometimes just turn the timer off rather than interrupt the child when he is really engrossed in an activity.

Vary activities often to suit your child’s interests. To keep several kids occupied at once, 4-6 activities are adequate. Set up stations a few feet apart to avoid squabbles. The time it takes to set up play stations will be rewarded by the sight of your little ones learning to play happily— and independently — near you.





1.) Indoor ‘sandbox’: Put uncooked rice into a large bowl on a bed sheet on the floor. Add cups, funnels, and spoons. Afterward your child can help clean up with a small broom and dustpan.

2.) Toy Dump: Suspend a plastic bucket from the ceiling about a foot off the floor. Put a plastic dishpan under it full of small toys. Toddlers fill the bucket and dump it back into the dishpan.

3.) Ball Toss: Use a bucket and aluminum foil balls, and make a masking tape ‘free-throw’ line to stand behind.

4.) Sewing Cards: Glue a picture to cardboard, then outline the picture with a hole punch. Your child ‘sews’ the picture using a long shoelace.

More homeschooling posts

Homeschooling: how we began

Homeschooling: why we stuck with it
Holy Experience: Pros and cons of homeschooling
Raising Five: Shelter is not a place

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  1. I’d love to homeschool in the future, but this in one of my biggest concerns. (Keeping little ones occupied when needed.) Thanks for the tips! Great ideas to remember, homeschooling or not! 🙂

  2. I also do these kind of things with my little ones. It is always nice to read what others do that is helpful!

  3. These are great ideas Mary! I’ve always wondered how women homeschool with little ones. I started out with my youngest in kindergarten and didn’t have a preschooler to occupy.

  4. The only thing I would add is to take the opportunity for the bigger kids to play with the preschooler(s) on their breaks from schooling. I often trade who I am working with at the moment and ask the one I’m done working with to play with his little brother for a short while. It builds the relationship and gives him an opportunity to be a good example as an older sibling.

    It works well for us. Great post. I use several of the ideas you posted, but now I have several new ones to use this year!

  5. Sue from Buffalo says:

    These are fantastic ideas!! Thank you!! I am excited because now I have some definite ideas on how to entertain my 3 year old without resorting to the television.

  6. Love this post – thanks for the ideas! I’m starting ‘tot school’, like pre-preschool, with my little one next month, and we’ll be using some of these ideas, I’m sure. 🙂

  7. Thank you for some great ideas! And, by the way, I have LOVED your posts on homeschooling! Thank you for taking the time to write it all out.

  8. Though I don’t homeschool, I think I need to try and implement a station system for my 2 pre-schoolers still at home. I find that if I’m busy with ministry work or writing, they are either snacking non-stop or watching too much TV. But maybe if I spend a couple weeks training them in this system, they will engage in more play and less laziness. And I can still get some work done a couple days per week. Thanks, Mary!

  9. Linking up, kay? 🙂

  10. Thanks for the great ideas!! This is my first year homeschooling with a preschooler involved. He requires structure but I think he would really love the different stations. I love you blog (only recently started reading) and I have you in my blog roll!! Thanks again!

  11. I won’t be starting homeschool for another 2 years with my oldest, but these ideas are great! I’m bookmarking them!

  12. These are great ideas! Thanks

  13. Thanks Mary! I homeschool my older 3 and am just getting ‘my ducks in a row’ to keep the 3 and 1 year olds happy. I love the idea of the bedsheet under the rice to make clean up easier! I also appreciate the other creative ideas that are not expensive, but definitely fun!

  14. Hi. I’ve been homeschooling my oldest (6) for two years now, and I’m going to begin with the 4 y.o. this fall. There is a very active just-turned-2 y.o. in the house, and we’re considering adding another to the family in immediate future. I know I got through this once with a baby and a (way less active) toddler — although not with my being pregnant, but I am also looking for strategies to entertain the 2 y.o., who is used to always having someone to play with.

    I love your ideas, but when I read suggestions like these I always wonder: How do you keep the older ones on task while the little one has something “interesting” to do? And how do you get the youngest one interested in playing alone? I can just imagine bringing out a tub of rice and some toys — even if the little one stayed engrossed in it forever, I think it would cause battles that would end the actual “school” portion of everyone else’s day. With three this close together, even the 6 y.o. usually wants to do what the little one is doing.

    Thanks for the blog (and books!).

  15. Hi Pamela,
    It can be tough to keep older ones on task, but I just handle it by gently insisting on obedience and reminding the older child that their turn will come when their school is done. Delayed gratification is a hugely important life lesson to learn, so don’t feel guilty about insisting that the work happen first.

    The really nice thing about a 6 year old’s school, though, is that it truly does not have to take more than 60 minutes a day. For that age, I would probably do 20 minutes of math, 10 minutes of phonics drills, 10 minutes of reading, and maybe 15 minutes of handwriting Some of it can even be planned to happened during the 2 year old’s nap.

    • I find that nap time is a great time to work on more structured learning. I have 5 kids (in a 5.5 year span) ages 6 1/2(boy), 5 (girl), 3(boy) and my youngest are twin 15 month old boys. Out of necessity we are very relaxed and we have fun together. We read lots of books aloud and I am not putting pressure on skill and drill. Kids learn all the time my three year old learned the alphabet and recognizes letters already. I have not “worked with” him at all. We read a lot and don’t use much media (TV and Computers). Find what works best for your family and make it fun.

  16. Mary, you are so right–finding something for preschoolers to do while teaching is extremely difficult and can cause strain and stress for everyone if not handled immediately upon the start of school.
    Routine, routine, routine is paramount. I discovered my first year of schooling, that if I was not diligent everyday with the same activities, before I knew it–two and sometimes more days had gone by before we found ‘time’ to do. Knowing the routine was the same every day of the week was best for us. Also another great stress reliever for me was preparing the same lunch every school day—tomatoe soup, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, apples and orange slices with milk and glass of lemonade.
    One of the longest enjoyed ‘toys’ for my preschoolers was a plastic pool brought into the house (with plastic under it) and filled with a different item every few days or if really enjoying stayed in the entire school week, ie: plastic balls, popcorn, bubble wrap, water, corn, hay, rice, beans, etc. with all items stored in concealed containers for future use. This not only was a time of fun but also a sensory event for me as a parent to discover the children who had adversions to different textures. The kids can sit in the pool and play or sit along the outside and play.

  17. Mary- thanks for linking all this! I am very seriously praying about homeschooling my oldest for middle school starting in the fall of ’12. I loved your article for A Holy Experience. Great insights, great links! Very inspiring!


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  3. […] and was delighted with some of his decisions) a post from Owlhaven that I read just yesterday on Homeschooling with Preschoolers came to mind.  In it, Mary shared an idea for play stations for kiddos my son’s age […]

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