Wondering how in the world you will homeschool with a baby or young toddler at home? Here are some obvious and not so obvious tips for homeschooling with babies and toddlers competing for your attention.
- Use nap time wisely. Think carefully about how to best use that baby's precious nap time. Is this the best opportunity to work with your other children without distraction? Or is it better for Mom to get some sleep or downtime, so all the kids should have quiet time when the baby is sleeping? Give both ways a try to see what works better.
- Invest in a sling or carrier. Consider using a baby sling or baby carrier to hold a young baby close and make nursing convenient even when you need to be out of the house. If you're not sure how to nurse with baby in a sling, ask an experienced mom to show you. Older babies or toddlers may graduate to riding in a backpack, making them more portable for field trips and errands. Many squirmy toddlers are actually happy from their perches in a backpack, since they can see what is going on. This keeps them "contained" for shopping and library trips.
- Create special experiences. Create "special" indoor play experiences for the toddler for times you want to work with your other children at the same time, but need to keep the toddler nearby and underfoot. For example, I found I could open the dishwasher door and put water in a few plastic bowls and give my little one a wooden spoon and some funnels to play with while the other kids worked at the proverbial kitchen table. I also kept a large plastic box of rice handy that my toddler could scoop in and drive his trucks through on the kitchen floor. We also set up the "play kitchen" right in the real kitchen, so once he was toddling, the little one could cruise around the pretend stove, banging away at his own pots and pans. I also had a high tolerance for finger painting and painting at our sturdy easel. Your mileage may vary.
- Invert the play yard. Consider reversing the use of the playpen or play yard. If the older kids have a project that needs protecting from little hands (or small parts that are choking hazards), consider having them build it in the play yard or beyond the baby gate. We never did this at our house, but I have visited several families with complex Lego master pieces or Rube Goldberg contraptions that were built within the confines of a baby play yard. Baby stayed outside, big kids were inside the play yard with their project!
- Consider unit studies. If you have a large family with multiple ages of children and a baby or toddler (or both), consider homeschooling using the unit study approach. You can do large, months-long unit studies or multiple smaller unit studies that last a week or three. Basically, this means the whole family is learning about the same thing at the same time, with each child comprehending the material at his own level. You can use commercially available unit study curriculum, you can find free unit studies on the internet, you can plan your own unit studies, or you can let unit studies evolve by following your own interests and the interests of your children. For each unit study, you might have a field trip, hands-on project, read-alouds or reading assignments, art work, video, and interactive website or app.
- Get older children to help. Older kids can take turns watching or interacting with the baby or toddler while you work with the others one or two at a time. Often, read-alouds work well during this time -- the older kids may be able to listen with one ear while playing with blocks or toys with the baby, and this sets up the baby to become a listener to read-alouds, too.
- Get a mother's helper. Young homeschoolers from other families who aren't quite ready for independent babysitting jobs may be available to be your mother's helper a couple of times a week. You can pay a bit less than for babysitting (but remember, you're grooming a future babysitter, so don't be too stingy!), but you get an extra pair of hands to keep the baby or toddler busy but still well incorporated into the household. A mother's helper might also accompany you on field trips or regularly scheduled library excursions. It might be worth paying a small amount to know the toddler is occupied with your mother's helper showing him picture books, while you select books with your older children. Remember, this can be a mutually beneficial relationship, as you are also modeling homeschooling and family life for a youngster who is interested in learning to nurture little ones.
- Improve the biggest challenge. Determine the most difficult thing about your situation that may be able to be improved, and work on that. For some moms, it's preparing meals, grocery shopping, getting enough sleep, or protecting learning time for the kids. Sometimes it can be a huge relief to just work on one thing. If it's meals, focus on a commitment to better menu planning, getting help from your partner or kids, cooking ahead, or using the crockpot. If it's grocery shopping, invest in making a map of your grocery store so your list can be made in the order of the aisles and you can get in and out quickly. If it's learning time, ask yourself whether the interference is coming from television, telephone, Facebook, or something else. See if you can embark on a campaign at home to improve One Big Thing instead of stressing over all the things that make life feel chaotic.
- Remember the kids are learning all the time. Watching Myth Busters and discussing the physics principles "just because" can be just as valuable as a planned lesson. Writing in chalk on the sidewalk is a great way to practice spelling and letter formation. A nature walk with the baby in the stroller, the preschooler on the scooter, and the others running and jumping may scare off the most timid birds, but you can still see spider webs, wild flowers, pine cones, and birds and squirrels that are more used to human commotion. Talk about what you see and encourage kids to draw pictures or tell stories about what they encounter.
- Give a toddler a tote bag. My little guy always had his own bag of "take-alongs" that were just for the days we piled into the van and drove the older kids to the university for music lessons. The bag included fat, toddler-sized beeswax crayons, a Waldorf-style main lesson book, colored pencils, markers, construction paper, stickers, a couple of read-aloud books, glue, scissors, and tape. We often sprawled on the floor in a hallway, cutting and gluing and taping our way through our own illustrations of the ABCs or 123s. Sometimes I wrote out rhymes one of us made up, and my little one got busy decorating the pages. Not a reader or writer himself yet, he nonetheless felt like he was in the world of literacy, and he was indeed emerging into that world, with just a few focused hours a week while his brothers were busy with other things.
- Organize logically. Take time to arrange the homeschooling stuff so the right age kids have stuff at the right physical height. If you invest the time to get the non-toddler stuff up higher in the cabinet or closet, but place it where the older kids can reach what they need, you prevent a lot of problems.
- Glean from veteran homeschoolers. Ask other homeschooling friends and acquaintances their hints for homeschooling during the baby and toddler years. Request that "homeschooling with babies and toddlers" be a topic at your upcoming park day or homeschool group meeting. Ask questions on your email list or Facebook group. Keep in mind that all answers will not meet your parenting style or homeschooling style. It's okay to try what might work for you and ignore the other ideas.
- Use time-outs... for mom. Take a break -- time for yourself, whether that be regular walks, evenings at a coffee shop with a friend or your spouse, exercise, a book group (for grownups -- not another one for the kids!), or some other interest. If you have a nursing baby or non-separating toddler, look for activities where that little one is welcome, but you can leave the older children at home so you can get a refreshed perspective.
- Remember that this too shall pass. Your youngest children, treated respectfully with both love and guidance, will grow to a new stage that is physically easier to manage. What you are doing now, to keep them busy and interested in things, to keep them part of the flow of homeschooling, is an investment that will pay off in future years.
Parenting a young family is challenging. Babies and toddlers are needy, and homeschooling can feel like a huge responsibility. However, keep in mind that your kids have years to learn what they need to know, and as they grow older, they will also grow in their ability to learn independently. Seeing you love and care for their younger brothers and sisters is also an important part of the older children's education, and it will probably be one of the more memorable aspects of their young homeschooling years.