Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mid-Semester Progress Report II

Subtitled: Homeschooling with Little Ones, or perhaps Barriers and Baskets

As previously mentioned, each year of homeschooling has brought new challenges. While I have had to entertain little ones in years past, this year new strategies were needed to corral four young children eager to play and interrupt me or their older siblings while we attempt to learn new grammatical concepts or pursue mathematical endeavors. In order to succeed this year, I desperately needed a solution to the question, "What do I do with these rug rats?" (I do mean that very affectionately)
Our newest challenge is under the weather. Poor guy has his first cold.

I have tried many solutions. Fancy toys, play doh, moon sand, switching out toys, playing with the little ones first, finding crafts for them to do. In the end, these strategies left me exhausted and further behind in schooling the older children. The fancy toys lost their luster, the crafts left me with more mess than I could handle, the little ones still cried for my attention when I left, and, honestly, who has time to switch out toys on a schedule? I was still left with a messy house and not enough time to devote to schooling my older students (who, btw, are steadily becoming more independent learners), and an overwhelming sense that I was failing everyone.
Bophie is my ultimate Little People town builder. These toys keep her imagination busy for hours.

My solutions:

1. My philosophy has been simple-- to contain. Contain the little ones and the havoc they seem to wreak on every room they entered. I put up a barrier that corrals them in the family room. They are free to play with whatever they like in that room, but they must stay in the room. I put up gates that block them from escaping to other areas in the house. Yes, they are capable of climbing my barriers. The barriers are placed as a visual reminder to them not to leave the room. They know there are consequences to moving outside their humble confines. I use a Super Play Yard to accomplish this in my house. I pull it out after breakfast and place it between my kitchen and living room. A smaller gate blocks off the other entrance to the room. Both are easily placed and easily taken down so that at the end of the school day my house returns to normal.
Please ignore the laundry on the couch. I wanted to quickly show my gate, no time for cleaning :)

No, I am not suggesting you cage the little ones, but rather find one area in which they can play. Our living room suits this purpose for me. There are enough toys in that room for twelve preschoolers. They may play with all of them to their heart's content. Since school mostly occurs in the kitchen and our first floor school room, I am able to attend to any other need they may have. I just can't have them all over the house. Since employing this system, I have found it much easier to maintain a basic level of order in most of the house. The living room may be a disaster, but I can handle one room.
Before corralling the kids, this room was a disaster every single day. Now I can snap a picture without picking up first.

2. Baskets, buckets, containers, and more baskets. The truth is, the living room being the primary play area on a school day is a necessity not a preference. In my ideal world, the living room would be a picture perfect room to relax, grab a good book, play a board game, or converse with a loved one; not an obstacle course of dolls, rocking horses, balls, and puzzle pieces. This compromise has been accomplished through fancy baskets and containers. Basically any toy that has multiple parts is stored in some type of container, even if it is just a ziplock bag. Experience has shown me that kids are more interested in playing if there is some organization. If everything is just thrown together, they lose interest quickly.

My living room can be quickly returned to an orderly "lived in" but not "ransacked" state in a few minutes using the basket system. In my living room there are bins for Little People (a favorite staple in this house), baskets for Leapster equipment, a basket for books, another basket for baby toys, a bin for the tea set, and a rather large bin for the extra toys that seem to accumulate. Just to name a few. There is even a shoebox in a cupboard for diapers so I have them on hand when needed. I also have one corner dedicated to the few toys that won't fit in the bins, the doll stroller and rocking horse. Each morning the little ones destroy that room, but as I am making lunch, I challenge the older girls. If they can pick up the room before lunch is made, they may have a piece of candy after lunch. It works.
They all delight in a bin of old toys.

3. Some rotation and special toys. I have enough going on in my day that I do not want to put the demands of a toy schedule on my plate. However, there is some benefit to new toys. It is amazing how something new or special will keep the attention of toddlers. The basket and bin system really helps me with this. Even the toys in our basement are organized into bins or baskets or even bags. This allows me to occasionally pull something new out to be played with on a rough day. I may not want to put all the puzzle pieces away on a daily basis, but bringing up the bin of puzzles on a day I need some extra time to teach long division to a Math-despising fifth grader may give me the time necessary. It might be worth picking up all those pieces.

Every house needs a high shelf or closet to store toys that are painful to repeatedly pick up. Toddlers like nothing more than to dump out any nicely organized bin of toys, and so it is necessary to keep them out of reach. Otherwise, countless hours will be spent sorting toys into their appropriate bins. I am fortunate to have a closet in our basement play room and a well-placed high shelf in the play room (it was one of the first updates we made to this house). In the closet and on the shelf I have bins of building blocks, a box of alphabet blocks, a container of stringing beads, a box of counter pegs, giant floor puzzles in bags, you get the idea. These are things that I don't want to pick up all the time. I keep them out of reach and pull them out one at a time on particularly rough days. The kids get a kick out of a toy they haven't seen in awhile, I get a few extra minutes. Pulled out one at a time, these things aren't the chore to pick up.
The shelving in our basement playroom.

4. Lastly, every little one craves a schedule. This one requires you find a balance that works for you. I am not able to follow a minute by minute guide to what should be done. I don't even want to be bothered with an hour by hour guide. I simply need an order or flow to my day. We have breakfast around 8, the girls help tidy the kitchen then begin their schoolwork, the gates are put up and the little ones play through the morning, we pick up before lunch around noon, after lunch I put little ones down for a nap and we finish school, then after 3:30 or so, the girls have some free time and I try to tackle housework. It doesn't go this smoothly everyday, but it is what we strive toward. If I tried to add more, I would be overwhelmed. However, the kids need at least this much to be comfortable. They know what comes next. They know what to do and when to do it. It works for us.
Banana diligently working on Math.

It isn't just my toddlers who needed this. This year is the first year as a homeschooler that I put into place a specific start and end time to our school days. It has been wonderful. In the past, we schooled until Dad was on his way home, or until I felt we accomplished enough, or until one of the girls folded under the workload. None of this was good, dh comes home at a different time each day, some days early others late. I quite rarely was able to accomplish all I wanted to finish any day, and I had a tendency to demand more and more out of the girls. With a set end time, we do what we can, but at the end of the day we're done. The girls work harder knowing they will have some free time. I have some time to recover and finish some housework. We all are much happier. I tend to want to cover more and more material, and this system has put balance back into our schooling.

Balance. That's what it's about for me. Striking the right balance and again reminding myself to do the best I can right now and offering that, and the rest that isn't done, to God.

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