Keeping Preschoolers Busy So You Can Homeschool


Do you have little people stealing your homeschool mojo? I do. I’ve got two of them. They have sent this 11 year homeschool veteran researching how to find ways to keep the little whirlwinds busy so we can get more academic work done with fewer distractions. Just in case you were wondering, my little homeschool “protesters” are three and one. I will say that it has gotten a LOT easier with the three year old (who will be four next spring), but the one year old is still a big challenge. Having both of them, though, has been one of the hardest things I have ever encountered by way of homeschooling obstacles. Not that they aren’t wonderful, mind you. Wouldn’t trade them for the world (even if I have traded my sanity a few days in the past three years).

Let’s be honest; why don’t we? Homeschooling with tots is tough sometimes.

Here below are some tips and snips of advice that I have tried and tested on the battle field of homeschool motherhood. And if you keep reading (I know it’s long), there will be some great ideas from many top homeschool bloggers that I admire – many of them who have more kids than I do.

How to Tame the Toddler So You Can Homeschool

1. Have a goal in mind.

What do you want to teach your toddler to do for himself in a year’s time? It might help to make a little “lesson plan” out for mama to help you set timely goals that will guide you. Make it official – call it preschool! Just be aware that the minute you get the stickers out, they will be all over your house instead of on the “reward” chart. But hey – a pack of cheap garage sale stickers may buy you an hour if you sit still and let them cover all your moles and freckles with them.

2. PLAN ahead for potty training.

If you are hoping to potty train your toddler, it helps to have a plan. You will need to watch for signs that your child is ready physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Then it is a good idea to schedule a time on your calendar when life is slow (not in the middle of a homeschool Drama production) so you can be home more.

A great book on this subject is Mommy, I Have to Go Potty: A Parent’s Guide to Toilet Traning by Jan Faull.

We just got finished potty training my three year old son and it had invaluable advice and tricks (to avoid a power struggle and ideas to prevent accidents) that I never thought of before, as well as tons of stories by parents who had been there before. It’s amazing that even though you have older children, you tend to forget things and it seems that every kid has their own unique parenting needs even though you might THINK you know what works.


3. Teach them to pick up.

If you want your child to learn how to clean up his room or even just the toys he dumped all over the living room floor, you have to start by showing him how it’s done and consistently asking him to participate in the activity until he’s doing it well enough to be unsupervised at it.

Making your toddler clean up his own messes and put away his own toys will slow you down at first, but save oodles of time in the future — and you’ll find that it is an activity in itself to clean up toys or spills, which is in fact, what you are hoping for: to keep them busy!

4. Set boundaries, work on new habits, and expect first time obedience (be consistent with your discipline).

Habits (even bad ones) are learned by consistent practice. If your child is consistently doing something you don’t want him to do, you will have to replace that habit by breaking it over a few week’s time and doing something else positive in its place. It may be a struggle getting a particular child to stop doing a particular thing, but if you stand your ground (even 100 times), you will have won the war. Don’t be discouraged if he/she seems to win a few battles – it’s best to get the war over when the child is small – rather than wait until you are dueling a teenager.

I like this post by Gwen of Tolivers to Texas where she talks about using games to teach first-time obedience: Obedience School. Our unit study curriculum, KONOS, that we used when my kids were little had a great section on teaching obedience. I started it when my big kids were 3 and 5. You would be surprised how smart they are – and able to handle big truths – at that tender age.

Toddlers feel safe and secure when there are rules and guidelines in place – even physical boundaries (ie: don’t go past the sidewalk towards the street, don’t ever touch an electrical outlet, no biting, or stay inside the baby-gate area). We got a used long, folding, plastic baby gate from a preschool that was closing, and it has been a huge help for us during school time. The baby gate keeps the toddlers in our home in the living room where the TV and toys are, and keeps us from having to guard the stairs or kitchen from little climbers and Tupperware cabinet destroyers.

Clean and Crazy

5. Let them move!

Sitting on the couch watching TV will build up potential energy in your toddler that is bound to come out in outbursts. Those little people need to wiggle. Even the very young baby needs tummy time or time moving his chunky little legs. When my big kids were little we used a walker A LOT. My oldest used to do laps around the island in the kitchen while I unloaded the dishwasher. If you have some solid surfaces, move the furniture around so the baby has room to roll (you can use any variety of baby walkers). Allow him to exercise as you work at the table.

If you can’t go outside, you can always put on a wiggly video, too. Yo Gabba Gabba has some fun dancing music and wiggling songs for the preschool aged kid. My youngest is infatuated with robots now, and he looks really cute trying to dance. We watch it on Netflix through our Roku.

Chalk at the Doctor's Office

6. It’s never too early to learn to draw!

We have white bookshelves in our dining room area and I can’t tell you how many times I have had to re-paint them. A great idea would be to put chalkboard paint on the doors and let them have at it. Dry erase boards work well if you can make sure they aren’t inhaling too much of the ink. In our house, the color box just gets dumped out, so in nice weather during the fall or spring (Texas summers are ugly), we utilize the sidewalk or driveway for chalk drawings instead. A flat roll of butcher block paper or the backs of paper grocery bags are also good for toddler drawing projects.

Never a dull moment. ❤

7. Get some sun.

Sometimes just being outside can give the big kids a much needed dose of Vitamin D and change the mood of our homeschool day. Letting the little guys play with toys and dig in the dirt makes them tired at nap time and gives the big kids a break from distractions. If you don’t trust your teens to actually get a lot of work done inside while you are managing the tots in the yard, take school to a park instead. Pack a picnic and read under the puffy clouds. This is a great way to change scenery for your students if you are on a budget, too!

8. Don’t underestimate the power of a car seat and change of scenery.

This might sound a bit crazy, but we often take school on the road at lunch time or when we have errands to get done. If it is pretty out, we can get fast food and eat in the car, and then park somewhere in the shade and roll the windows down. The little kids enjoy watching movies or reading their books while the big kids read aloud or to themselves. Usually, the little guys end up napping and we get a lot of reading accomplished.

9. Motor skills are king.

You can set up all sorts of fun activities that will keep little hands busy for hours. Beware that most of them create a mess… but if you plan ahead, you can gain a few hours of undivided time with your big kids or to get teacher duties done all while looking like the coolest mom on the planet to your tiny people. Think wet (shaving cream on a high-chair tray) or dry (scooping grains/rice/beans).

My friend Lisa Baldwin of Chaos Appreciation (love the title of that blog, right?) shares a list of ten crafty motor-skills enhancing ideas to keep toddlers busy working hard while you do the same:

My Top Ten Homeschooling Chaos Tamers

A great resource I have found are books for early learning teachers. One that I have is called ‘Work Jobs’ and was written back in the 1970’s – back before every 2 year old already knew how to play Angry Birds. The book lists a ton of activities and many of them are simple and cheap: jars and lids, buttons, pegboards and washers, keys and locks, threading hole-punched cards, matching block patterns on flash cards with actual blocks, dressing up, texture games, threading beads, stacking from shortest to tallest, pouring from pitcher to cups (using rice or gravel)… the list goes on!

There are a lot of things you can do – brave things – like getting out that Lite Brite that is in the top of the closet collecting dust (even if you have to pick up a gazillion little colored pieces of plastic for the next week). Just imagine how much fun your little ones will have when they start having REAL activities to do instead of repeated episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba (don’t judge me).

Puzzle play. #toddlers #preschool #puzzles #nofilter

10. Consider moving the ‘home’-school to other locations.

We often utilize the library (especially since ours has a children’s section with designated rooms you can school in with permission). Ask if your library has rooms set aside for school study projects that are enclosed and have plenty of floor space. You can pack a toddler toy bag and bring your books for the big kids.

11. Delegate some of the teaching.

Sign up for one-day classes and allow yourself to NOT be the teacher for a brief period. This year we are taking Spanish, Drama, Art, Biology, and Writing at a co-op school taught by other moms and hired professionals. This can get expensive, but a worthy alternative if you are struggling to keep moving forward.

Another idea for delegating is to chose a program that is based online, on video, or is self paced and self-graded. I taught my big kids to swap math books and grade each-other’s work for a time, and you can find programs that will do all of the grading for you. Ask your homeschool friends about what programs they use to minimize teacher involvement if you need a break from the paperwork and oversight for a season.

12. Simplify your cooking.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: your crock pot is a time saver. You don’t have to sacrifice nutrition and family meal-times when you have a kitchen helper that can work FOR you like the crock pot can. I have a number of crock pot recipe books and the internet is full of great recipes – some with only 5 or 6 ingredients. A rotisserie goes a long way to providing a quick meal, a secondary casserole from the leftover meat, and then a broth for soup made with the bones and skin.

In this past three years we have found that it helps to have a “breakfast night”, a “Mexican night”, a “Pizza night” and a “Leftovers” night on our dinner menu plan. This means that quite a few nights out of the week, I have an easy meal ahead of me and don’t have to slave in the kitchen. Every second counts when you have multiple kids in multiple ages and stages. Breakfast night is cereal, eggs, bacon (which we bake instead of fry), or oatmeal (daddy makes it). Pizza night consists of flat crusts (HEB makes whole wheat versions), a sauce, and a bag each of pepperoni and mozzarella cheese. Mexican night could be enchiladas (which freeze well) or tacos and usually comes with a can of refried beans and my home made Spanish rice. I could make these dishes in my sleep – and although I know how to re-fry beans myself, it is not the end of the world if I have to resort to a can every now and then. There will be time for gourmet cooking later.

Chicken soup in a straw #incourage #whateverworks

13. Take advantage of technology.

Invest in a Leap Pad toy. Use your Smart Phone, Kindle or Computer to teach them while they play games. Teach them how to play Angry Birds (no, really – my 18 month old can play a little and it will buy us 20 minutes – just long enough to get Math done). For some iPhone fun, check out all the educational and early learning apps we reviewed at the Homeschool Post.


14. Let the TV babysit every now and then.

We do have to turn to the TV set for a break most days. I try to limit the TV time they get, but we usually watch at least 2 shows during the day. If you ARE going to use the television, make sure you are picking quality shows and not just slapping up Cartoon Network.

There are some great baby-friendly TV shows available, such as: Pingu, Thomas the Tank Engine, Curious George, Martha Speaks, Bob the Builder, Cat in the Hat, Oscar’s Oasis, Shawn the Sheep, Blue’s Clues, Busy Town, My Little Pony, Color Crew, and you might even get used to Yo Gaba Gaba (the songs really do grow on you after a while).

My kids have a large movie and short video collection, too. Our favorites are too numerous to list, but the babies in particular love Finding Nemo (the one year old calls it “Fishy”), Wall-E, Veggie Tales, Despicable Me, Megamind, and The Incredibles.

15. Remember that the baby-toddler-preschool season is SHORT.

The littlest people grow up. Space gets farther between hugs and kisses as the children become independent. Their NEED for mama to help will eventually be replaced by their desire to do it all on their own. One day they will suddenly be too big to pick up and tote around. Most of the time these changes, even though they are gradual, will feel like they happened over night. Haven’t you heard older moms say, “Enjoy it. It doesn’t last.” Sadly, it’s true. Don’t wish away these sweet days of cuddling and napping together. Take a deep breath and lots of pictures. One day when the schedule gets easier, you’ll find yourself missing these days so much!

My number one tip for moms with young ones is to MAXIMIZE YOUR SNUGGLE and READING TIME TOGETHER.

I found a baby in the pillows. Sweet little dreamboat.

… BONUS TIP: Search for others who are in the same boat and get more ideas.

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so I am going to share quite a few links to other articles written by other homeschool moms who are in the trenches or beyond them…

Apparently, though, I’m not the only one who has been struggling with this issue. While doing some research I came across Julie of Creekside Learning. She wrote a post called Things I’ve Done (this week) To Keep My Toddler Busy So I Could Do Schoolwork With My Other Kids. She’s funny, y’all.

A quote from her post:

Considered installing a Velcro wall and fashioning a tiny Velcro suit. Did not follow through: Velcro too expensive.

Tee hee!

I love that she calls her youngest son the Homeschool Terrorist.

A quote from her post:

Our resident Homeschool Terrorist*, otherwise known as the adorable 2 year old, Love Bug, has amped things up a few notches. Not only does he rarely nap, but at the mere site of me and his siblings attempting to read a book, do a math problem or attempt a science experiment, he immediately stops whatever quiet, playing with trains or whatever he’s doing, and begins climbing on me, shrieking loudly and demanding snacks. Nevermind that I have just played trains with him for half an hour or that he’s had literally 6 breakfasts or that Mommy has fun toys for him, or the exact same things his siblings are using. He goes into full warfare and frankly, I am exhausted. So we are doing a very lite version of schooly stuff this week and lots of unschooling.

Sound familiar? I’m nodding YES.

Naptime #zzz

Erin Walton of Calling it Progress shared these tips on Simple Homeschool:

1. Spend time with the toddler first.
2. Teach your older kids how to self start on at least one subject or activity.
3. Have premade toys or activities ready to go.
4. Consider providing a separate workspace for your toddler.
5. Cultivate a hidden stash.

Terri Johnson (a homeschooling mom of five who owns Knowledge Quest, a homeschooling company that provides materials such as maps, timelines, & timeline figures) shares a ton of tips for homeschooling with toddlers Heart of the Matter.

Some of my favorite tips from their list were:

– Having a special set of toys or activities they can ONLY use during school time
– Doing “High Chair School” – messy activities that can be done on a plastic tray like shaving cream, beans or rice trays, water pouring, puzzles, snack art
– Letting dad teach some subjects so mom can spend one-on-one time with the tots
– Swap school time duties with another homeschooling mother who has the same issue
– Hire another teen in the summer to babysit for certain times
– Teaching the older tots to wash dishes by giving them suds, plastic dishes, water and a stepping stool to reach the sink
– Sitting next to your bathroom door to see the little ones playing in the bath while you read with the older kids
– Doing school OUTDOORS in the back yard so the littles can run wild (consider picnic tables, sand boxes, outdoor toys, and a shaded area for your yard — or just a safe nearby park)

Some things they listed that I already do a lot of:

– Letting older kids manage independent work
– Involve Grandma in babysitting when possible
– Maximizing nap time for school (when we can get the 3 yo and 1 yo to sleep at the same time! – more rare than a blue moon)
– Combining subjects to save time (Literature and History)
– Catching up work on Saturdays when dad is around
– Breaking up school in smaller chunks, more often through the day
– Reading at the breakfast table when the little dudes have their pie holes stuffed
– Audio Books (Libravox has become a friend of ours in our carschooling adventures)
– Being OK that our homeschool day looks NOTHING like it did before they got here (read: Accidental Unschooling)

Another resource for homeschool moms with preschoolers that I highly recommend is Kendra’s (of Preschoolers and Peace Blog) Preschool Resources (MP3’s and Printables). Here are some of her titles…

Preschoolers, Preparation, and Peace
Circle Time (planning the best part of your day)
Organization and the Homeschool
Preschool at Home Where they Belong

(these cost a little bit – like $3.00, but trust me, she’s a lifesaver!!!)

Jolanthe of Homeschool Creations shares a Friday Preschool link up for those with little ones. It’s called Preschool Corner. I bet you could get lots of ideas and find friends who have children the same ages as yours to glean from there!

Carissa of 1+1+1=1 has a fun program she calls Tot School for ages 12-47 months. Check it out on her site!

He loves his big sis. #kiss

Ok, so now that you have some resources… and so do I… lets start incorporating the small people in to our day, rather than seeing them as a nuisance.

That pretty much says it all (like I’m sure you can’t read this in one sitting). These little homeschool “Terrorists” are actually huge blessings and a source of fun and joy. They are helping you teach your older children how to treat others — by your example towards the toddler — so that they can become good parents one day. Humbling, no?

What better lesson is that: that people are more important than stuff – even of the academic sort.

{I’m preaching to myself here; can you tell?}

In Him,


Subscribe to Sprittibee by Email

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate and sponsored links, and the potty training book was given to me free as a review item.


  1. says

    Gosh, thanks for the shout out, Heather. What a great post and I am so glad to find your blog and explore it more. Appropriate social network stalking has been employed, so I can continue to follow along. 😉

    In hindsight, I worried waaaaaay too much that my other kids were missing out on schoolwork when my toddler required so much attention. I wish I hadn’t stressed so much over it. My oldest reads grade levels above now, he’s a math rock star and my middlest is creating amazing art every day, writing and reading and so much more. Now the toddler is a preschooler and he is all about learning alongside his siblings. This is our 3rd year homeschooling and it is sooooo much easier. I wish I would’ve known that when I wrote those two posts about my homeschool terrorist. Live and learn, right?

    • says

      😉 Yes, you do live and learn. Too bad that your oldest kids are your guinea pigs. Remind me who you are when you talk to me on social networking. My brain cells are old and tired. 😉 Just make a note that you are the mom of the other homeschool terrorist!

  2. Amanda says

    Great info! Another thing my friend and I do is switch off babysitting toddlers! It really helps on days my son needs help. We also get a lot of school work done while sister is in her 3 year old Ballet and Tap classes. :)

  3. says

    It’s always refreshing to hear other mothers struggling with preschoolers during school time! They zap the energy out of me before math arrives some mornings! Love the ideas! I’m bookmarking this so my husband will understand why I’m doing some of the things I’m doing based on this post :). When the kids tell him they were trapped in the car for school (love it!), he may begin to question me on a number of things!

    • says

      LOL – yeah, I get some looks from the husband, but now that my eldest is 16, he figures I’ve already ruined them. Why start an argument when it’s too late.