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Homeschooling with a toddler at home : What worked for us

When we were deciding whether to try homeschooling, one of my biggest concerns was how I would do it with a toddler at home.  And not just any toddler.  Iris was a tornado toddler.  She was and is very active, she does not need a lot of sleep, and loves to get into just about everything.   I'll be honest and say I don't believe there are any magical solutions that will make it a piece of cake.  But after some trial and error, we found our rhythm and got into a pretty good routine that made it doable.  Some days were hard, but for the most part, it was manageable and even rewarding.  Here are some things that worked for us.

You don't need to rely of television/screens.
For us, we wanted to make homeschooling work without relying on television or screens.  During the school year, we do not do any screen time during the week.  We do a family movie night on Fridays and the three oldest kids were allowed to watch a program or use the computer while Iris napped on the weekends.   That worked beautifully for us.  Having these clear boundaries meant we virtually eliminated conflict over screen time.  And the kids came up with the most creative ways to fill their time.

iris scopes out the scene

Even though I tried to read up on how to homeschool with a toddler at home, there weren't that many articles out there on the topic.  But the ones I did find shared one unanimous point : Make sure you meet your toddler's needs first in the morning.  I wholeheartedly agree with that.  For us, this meant starting our school day with work the kids could self-start.

Start the day with self-start work.
This would include things like handwriting, journaling, artwork and even math.  The Singapore Math books are very well written and Jude was able to start almost all of his math assignments without me teaching them.  Later in the day, together we would re-work the problems he got wrong or discuss the topics he found confusing.  I know of other families who use Singapore Math and do the same thing.

iris explores

Get outside in the morning.
After the older kids started their morning work, I would take both Tarikua and Iris outside to play. This way they could burn off energy and get fresh air and sunshine.  Indigo was not old enough to do Singapore Math alone so she would often bring her math outside and we'd talk through it while I watched the little girls play.  Then I'd push the little girls on our swings while she worked on her problems.  Being she was only in first grade, the concepts were quite simple and it didn't take long to complete her assignments most days.

tia girl

Try sensory play.
We liked to get outside every morning, but sometimes the weather didn't cooperate with our plan.  Our winter was especially cold (for us).  :)  On those days, the girls didn't always want to stay outside for long.  In that case, I found doing sensory activities to be key.  We made and played with play dough... a lot.  This recipe is our current favorite.  We made slime.  We made sensory bins.  Beans in a tupperware on a picnic blanket indoors were a big hit.  Outdoors and in warmer weather, ice and water in buckets with cups and spoons were something that kept Iris entertained for a long time.  We would sometimes add food coloring or glitter to the water to make the ice more exciting.  (And making it is part of the fun, too!)  Iris loved to play with this pegboard.  Coloring, dot painting and watercolor painting were also popular choices.

Think about using a pre-packaged curriculum... if it's easier for you.
We tried the Little Acorn Learning package during our winter months and I was amazed at how much Tia and Iris loved the songs, finger plays and stories.  (I liked their 5 day package best.)  We didn't follow the suggested routine or do the verses, but there were some fabulous - and special and memorable- crafts.  We baked a Three Kings Cake on Ethiopian Christmas and made fairy food for the fairies in early spring.  The girls loved it and I liked not having to scour the internet for craft ideas.

tia girl

Enlist the help of your older children.
Don't be afraid to enlist the help of your older children.  There were times when I needed to work with Jude or Indigo individually to explain an assignment or project.  On those days, I would ask the one I wasn't working with to play with or read to Iris for a short time while I explained a lesson to their sibling.

tia girl

 Use nap time... but not all of it.
Our routine was for the three older kids to have time to page or read through books while I nursed and rocked Iris to sleep for her nap.  This was when I would catch up on my own reading, too.  It gave us all some quiet time.  Afterward, Jude and I would spent 15 minutes or so on his language arts program (Grammer Island).  When those 15 minutes were over, we often individually had some quiet/down time to work on our own things.

Be flexible.
I'm most comfortable having a routine but not a strict schedule.  There were days when I was struggling with terrible morning sickness or Iris was having a particularly challenging day and we tabled what we were working on until Dan got home in the evening.  Especially in my first trimester, we had quite a few days like this.  We would accomplish what we could and save the more intense one-on-one work for when Dan was home to supervise the other kids.

Another way in which we were flexible was that we somewhat regularly did school outdoors.  I would work with the kids individually at the table on our back porch or on a picnic blanket on the grass while the other kids played.  Being outdoors somehow makes everything better.  :)

In general, we were often re-examining our routine and tweaking it as necessary.

iris walks her horse

You own the curriculum, the curriculum does not own you.
We found it helpful to be flexible with our curriculum, too.  When we had some water damage to our floors last winter, we took a break from science and social studies for a few weeks until our life was less chaotic.  It was easy to make it up when we were settled in back home.

ready to go
Consider incorporating 'school' into your bedtime routine.
One thing I loved about Indigo's curriculum (Oak Meadow) was that they ask that you read all of the language arts stories at bedtime as bedtime stories.  The next morning Indigo would do artwork and some writing about the story (and it was good self-start work).  This supplied us with months of wonderful stories to read and I didn't have to squeeze them into our school day.  Jude liked to listen in, too.

We also did most of our social studies and science stories at bedtime as well.  I had my kids rapt attention, I think because they knew the more interested they seemed and the more questions they asked, the longer they could delay bedtime!  :)  But I'm a sucker for my kids' enthusiasm for learning  - ulterior motives or not -  and I'm a night person, so this worked for us.

Work together.
One thing that I learned through a Waldorf course on rhythm (which I'd highly recommend) as well as through various Waldorf audios is to make sure to have all of your children help you with chores.  There are only so many hours in the day and when you are homeschooling instead of sending your kids to school, you have less time to do housework.  Also, having your kids at home means your house probably gets messier than it would if they were at school.

By Jude and Indigo's ages (9 and 7) there is a lot that they can do to help out... most things, in fact.  Even five year old Tia is great at picking up.  Iris is a little young to do much more than pick up after herself, supervised, but she is seeing her older siblings model that we all work together.  We started with something we called the '15 minute clean up' near the end of each day where we would set a timer, turned up some music and all clean for 15 minutes.  If the house looked particularly messy, we worked together for 30 minutes.   After working together for over a year now, it's less formal and the kids are in the habit of all picking up together, without needing to set a timer.


Consider outsourcing.
There are many ways families do this.  Some hire a mother's helper to offer support.  Others have their older kids attend a co-op one or two (or more) days a week.  Some families have their younger children attend a preschool or mother's day out program.  Last year, we chose to hire a babysitter to help us with driving.  Every Tuesday afternoon my three older kids went to a playgroup with our babysitter while Iris and I stayed home to preserve her naptime (and give me some blessed quiet time).  I would often go to Jude's piano lesson alone with him, while the babysitter stayed with the girls.  Then the babysitter would take Jude to his children's chorus rehearsals and I would hang out with my girls.

Homeschooling does not have to be all-or-nothing and you don't have to do it alone!
summer 2014 - bathtime

Repeat after me: Self-care is not selfish.
My husband and kids are the most important people in the world to me.  But I don't want to model to my children that taking care of myself is selfish.  Because, truthfully, when I feel depleted, I am not the kind of wife and mother that I want to be.   For me, part of staying balanced given I'm with my kids so much of the time is to have regular time alone and to do things that help me to grow personally.   Being a wife and mother is a big part of who I am now, but it's not my entire identity.

Being my time is so limited in this stage in my life, I found it helpful to evaluate which activities rejuvenated me and which ones left me feeling depleted.  Personally, I found limiting my time on social media (and limiting my online time, in general) to be essential.  Facebook almost always left me feeling drained and Instagram felt like a time black hole where time evaporated before my eyes.  So I quit them both.  I rarely watch television or movies.  There are too many other things I'd rather be doing. 

On the other hand, I do, however, love reading blogs. They often leave me feeling inspired.  I mostly follow them on Feedly.  Sewing projects leave me feeling energized and recharged.  I often listen to audio downloads while I sew.  Doing these things help me feel like I am growing personally.  I want to model for my kids that I have my own interests, too, and that I live a passionate life.



  1. Thank-you, Rachel, for putting together such a great and detailed post. So many links and ideas to try out here. I especially liked the parts where you explained how real-world interruptions (floor damage, pregnancy nausea) effected your flow and how you made adjustments. People often think things have to go perfectly and like clockwork to feel successful, when actually being flexible and making changes is so life-giving. I hope to have a reason to come back to this post a few years down the road =)

  2. Iris is the CUTEST tornado I ever did see! I love that last photo! As Maggie likes to yell at the top of her lungs, "BUBBLES!!!"

    I was reading along with this, thinking, yes, all and good, but I don't know how she finds the time to sew! I do my sewing while largely ignoring my children, a tactic that works well for me but often leaves me wondering how other people manage to be such *involved* parents! Haha. But probably if I spent less time on Facebook, I would have more time for that as well! I swear I do do fun things with my kids on weekends! Sometimes!

    Next year we'll be reading "how to homeschool with a tornado toddler AND a newborn!" It's enough to make me need a nap just thinking about it!

  3. I don't homeschool, but I've thought about it from time to time and always enjoy posts like these. If anything, I think there are lots of great ideas for surviving those days when I'm home with my 3 all the time (like now). I, too, have a cute tornado toddler, and she has turned my world upside down. Appreciate all the tips and the positive, yet honest nature of your post. : )

    1. Thanks so much, Laurel. I really appreciate that feedback. A few people asked me what our routine was/how we made it work. I wasn't expecting to be so long-winded. ;) Before we started homeschooling, I enjoyed reading homeschooling blogs and posts for that very reason - I loved getting ideas of things to do with my kids. And I still do! Have any ideas for me? :)

  4. Rachel, Your devotion as a mother is really beautiful. I don't have children but my sister has 4 daughters. She has shared with me her desire to also practice self-care as a model to them and to help her keep her own identity. My cousin homeschools her 3 children and the oldest just graduated high school. She was in a homeschool coop and played volleyball. She recieved a full 4 year scholarship to play volleyball for a university here in Oklahoma and starts in the Fall.

    1. Wow, I love hearing those kinds of stories. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Thank you so much for this post. Please please please keep posting updates (when it feels right and makes you feel happy, of course). I love reading your posts as they make me so excited for homeschooling my future minis. Hang in there - it sounds like things are falling into place. It is definitely important to ask for and get help when you need it.

  6. wow !! you are inspiring!! I don't homeschool but I work full time outside the home and I find some of your tips very inspiring. Just like you I need some me time and I think our kids (especially our girls) need to know their mother is taking some time off just for herself. I don't wattch TV either and minimize my time on FB. Sewing is my therapy ! thanks for this post and beautiful photos.

  7. What an amazing job you are doing Rachel! Well done. It sounds like you are giving all your children a great start in life:))

  8. What a great post! I'm kind of dreading starting up school again after the summer break. We are going home to Denmark for 4 weeks. Lucy is a bit of a tornado, always getting up to mischief when you turn your back! Quite frankly, it's exhausting! We don't have much a network to call upon for help, and there are no outside activities here. We really miss a gentle playgroup like we had in Denmark for our girls. The upside is that the three of them have finally started playing together :) Hopefully we can get a good rhythm going after the summer break. Your tips are really helpful! Would you care to share more about your daily/weekly rhythm? Hugs xoxo

    1. Fiona, that sounds really tough! I’m sorry. It would be so hard to homeschool without any support.

      Sure, I’d be happy to tell you about our daily schedule.
      We usually start our mornings with our spiritual time as well as practicing any memory work that we are working on over breakfast. I get Tia, Iris, and my breakfast and Jude and Indigo normally get their own breakfast so we all work together. Jude and Indigo can even scramble eggs, with my supervision and direction. :)

      After that, they start their self-start work and in the mornings we try to finish math, handwriting, any journaling and Indigo’s language arts which includes artwork and some writing. Math takes a very long time in our house.

      In the afternoon, the kids would all have reading time. Jude had some assigned reading and I’d ask him to read a certain number of pages per week. At Iris’ nap time, we would do his grammar. I’d correct math in the afternoons and we would spent quite a lot of time working through those problems, especially Jude’s. Sometimes we’d finish that when Dan came home.

      We would do science and social studies at night (usually) along with Indigo’s language arts reading assignments.

  9. oh even as a non homeschooling mom i loved this post! the part about everyone pitching in to clean at a certain time is especially great - even though i do have my kids clean up the messes they've made when they're done with that activity, it still feels like i can spend all morning cleaning with very little to show for it later (meaning it's just as messy again that afternoon/evening; especially the kitchen). getting them to pitch in more significantly around the house (and having fun while doing it) sounds great. i also agree about screen time - it's so easy just to put a show on, but if i DON'T do that and just tell the kids to go play, they always find something creative to do. works best when Em isn't at school. If it's just O (and the baby) home, I am playmate #1 and it's hard to get anything household related done. ;)

  10. You rock, Rachel! I know you'll be all humble and say "oh, no! Not me!" but you do,. you should probably just accept it ;)
    And these pictures are just always!

  11. I also home school and have a very very busy hurricane Titus. I decided to send him to a play group in the mornings just from 9-12 and it has helped a lot. He loves it and there are only 9 kids in his class, his teacher is lovely and it has really helped free up time. I was going crazy before. My 9 year old is very high needs and still does not like to work alone at all so schooling time is demanding and Titus was not getting the attention he needed. So far this works. I hope as he gets older and hopefully calmer that I can start incorperating him into the home lessons.

    We also have tidy time but I just have made peace with a Home school house being more mess. Motivation to own less

    Sally-Jane aka PinkHairGirl

    1. That's so awesome that you found something that works well for you! Iris (our 2 year old) will be 3 this fall and I am strongly considering sending her two mornings a week to a play/art-based preschool, especially since we will have a new baby. Iris had some separation issues pretty much since she was born :) and she just wasn't ready last year. But she has grown leaps and bounds in her independence and I think she will really enjoy it this fall.

      I completely agree with you about de-cluttering. We are pretty ruthless about giving away what we do not use and getting rid of clutter as best we can. And also, my house is far from perfect nor is keeping a perfectly clean house my aim. But it's much cleaner than it used to be and a big part of that is because I used to do everything myself. I'm so thankful for the Waldorf courses I listened to encouraging me to break that habit. :)

      Thanks for letting me know what has worked for you! :)

  12. What a fantastic summary of your year! And of course done with great pictorial additions:) Not only do your thoughts serve as advice and help for those who also homeschool (or are considering doing so), but they also serve as a great diary of sorts for you and for your kids. So often our lives pass in a blur and we neglect to take the time to document it well - you have slowed down enough to capture such an important part of your family life and will be a great reminder of this chapter in your lives.

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    \outl0\strokewidth0 \strokec2 Thank you for writing this post! We don't do screen time during the week anymore because of all the begging and conflict over it. Saturday is our family movie night ^_^ \
    I like the idea of having one older kid play with the toddler while you work with another. Hopefully we'll be able to do that someday. Right now violet is almost 4 and between being a real participant in activities and 100% chaos and disruption. Hawthorne is a mobile and needy and curious little one. If we had a real yard with a fence, I would definitely be releasing the kids to just play out there while we do activities and lessons. But a tiny townhouse yard right next to a street doesn't really cut it. Lol. Gotta set the deck up better to be a fun free zone. }

  14. I am a homeschooling mom as well, I have 3 that are Henry 12, Ilyana 8, Acheron 8 and a sneaky toddler Tabitha. I am so glad I read this. I face a lot of criticism over not doing School like the public school does with each subject timed form 8-3. We are free flowing with ours. In the morning we do workbooks, my kids hate language arts. We use History Channel and National Geographic dvd's for our history lessons during Tabitha's nap time.And afternoons are for individual interests or reading. Seeing others that are just as free flowing with school helps me remember why I do it. I will be reading more of your posts!


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