Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers

Twin's tot school activities

Whether you like to call them Montessori tray activities, tot school, preschool, workboxes, workjobs, shoebox tasks or Ziploc bag activities, providing younger siblings with engaging, educational and worthwhile tasks to do while you homeschool older siblings is vital for a smooth day with well occupied children.

While you can get some schooling done while little ones are napping, I prefer to get the bulk of our formal schooling completed as early in the day as possible when the children (and I) are freshest. Last year we had around an hour while the younger ones were in room time (playpen time for littlies) and we could also use mat time (or blanket time.) Now that we have older children though, this is not long enough to complete all of their workload and the twins are turning 3 so a new era has dawned!

The twins will be “starting school” with the big kids. They will now be included in our morning circle time, followed by table activities before they go off to room time. The list of possible table activity ideas is almost endless but our “school” trays will be more Montessori in style.

As I have done in the past, I have chosen a list of categories for each tray and put one example of each category out on the shelf. When it comes time to update the trays in a couple of weeks as interest declines, I will simply swap out the materials but keep the type of activity the same. (See starting out.) This term our trays are gluing, cutting, stickers and drawing, tong transfer, spooning/teddy play, scooping/teddy play, threading. Duplo copying and water pouring. 

The best thing about this year’s preparation is that in the past I have taken photographs of all our tray activities along the way. This meant that I could simply hand the older children a couple each and ask them to go and get everything in the photo and assemble the activity. I pointed out that this was an opportunity to bless their little brother and sister. They quite enjoyed doing it, especially as I gave them latitude to change the activities a little with different pretty pots and equipment to suit their own tastes. In about an hour we had a whole term worth of trays set up and ready to go. (Plus the extra half hour to put away all the mess that the children created as they were collecting the gear but I wont mention that!)

Learning letter names and sounds

Whether you are homeschooling or have a young child at school, most of us will at some stage be helping our children learn their letter names and sounds. There are many different ways to do this, from rote learning with flash cards to games and hands on workjob style activities.

I use quite a few different methods depending on the child, their rate of learning and preferred learning style and the time I have available to teach them. One of the more hands-on approaches I have employed is an alphabet chart. Again, this is something I made way back in my Uni teacher training days that has been useful through 7 years of teaching and now has made it’s way to the third child in our family.

I do not introduce the letters for the first time using the chart – there are too many all at once and it is too overwhelming. We go through the alphabet one letter at a time, adding more as the child is ready. (I’ll post about this another time.) Once the child knows quite a few letter names and most sounds I introduce the pocket chart. It can be used in many different ways. Here are just a couple:

  • Matching lowercase letters to uppercase letters.
  • lucky dipping letter cards from a pillowslip, naming them, saying their sound and then sliding them into the correct pocket.
  • sorting small objects by their initial sound (first sound you hear when you say the word) into the correct pocket.
  • setting up a word bank system with picture and word cards that begin with each letter “filed” in each pocket for children to use during creative writing.
  • find the hidden toy games where the child checks the pockets for a hidden items and must name the letter and sound to be able to keep the item. (Just for the duration of the game though, although you could include a little treat surprise every now and then.)

These objects are one set I use for initial sound sorting.

A second set of objects for initial sound sorting.

To begin with, all alphabet chart work is done one-on-one with me, however once the child begins to grasp the concept of initial sounds, I give them a bag or box of objects to sort into the correct pocket as an independent activity. It is self-checking because there is never more than one object for each pocket so if they find one already there, they know they have made an error and can self correct.

If you are not able to sew a chart, you could make one using cardboard and add Velcro spots to attach the letter cards or large sturdy envelopes to act as pockets for the items. If you plan to use it for any length of time or with more than one sibling it would be worth taking the time to sew one up. It might be a nice project for Grandma perhaps??

Materials and storage for workjobs and Montessori tray activities

Plastic Chinese food containers fit neatly into my drawers and are a cheap and easy storage system for the items I use to make home-made workjobs and Montessori tray activities.

If you are setting yourself up for workjobs  or Montessori style tray activities for the first time there are unlimited numbers of materials that you could buy. Commercial Montessori products are beautiful but very expensive and particularly for the toddler and preschool ages it is relatively easy to make your own activities  for a fraction of the cost.

I generally source my materials secondhand form op shops, swap-meets and markets and buy the rest cheaply from discount variety stores or gather them from around the house. Each tray activity or workjob usually costs no more than $4.00 and many of the items can be re-used and presented with a different combination to make other “new” and interesting activities.

Some useful items to collect include the following:

Materials to count, transfer or manipulate:

  • Feathers
  • Buttons
  • Spools & film canisters
  • Jar & milk bottle lids
  • Pasta, macaroni, dried beans & rice
  • Corks
  • Sea shells
  • Popsicle sticks (popsticks)
  • Jewels & beads
  • Rocks, stones & pebbles
  • Straws
  • Fancy toothpicks
  • Golf tees
  • Stirring or cocktail sticks
  • Costume jewelry, bangles & strings of beads
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Rubber bands
  • String, twine, yarn, wool,shoe laces & cottons
  • Oversized metal or plastic needles
  • Paper bags, plates & cups
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Ribbon & bows
  • Hair clips & lackies
  • Magnets
  • Pompoms
  • Wedding favours eg. fake rings, mini doves, glass slippers etc.
  • Plastic & wooden pegs & dolly pegs
  • Dog clips, over-sized paperclips & other fasteners
  • Cardboard shapes
  • Number and letter tiles, cards & pieces from old board games
Materials for storage or presentation of trays and workjobs:
  • Glass, metal, china, cane & wooden bowls, trays, baskets & containers
  • Plastic tubs & lids
  • Cardboard tubes, boxes, egg cartons & food containers
  • Plastic containers & lids
  • Material/fabric scraps
  • Wood scraps
  • Shoe boxes
  • Ice-cube trays, dip trays & other divided containers
  • Plastic & glass jars
Utensils & tools for manipulating materials:
  • small hammers
  • Tongs, scoops, spoons & ladles
  • Tweezers
  • Measuring cups & funnels
Stationery:
  • Pens, pencils, textas, scissors & crayons
  • Glue, staplers, masking tape, sticky tape
  • Rulers, stencils, fasteners
If you have other ideas, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

Other posts you may like:

Montessori style tray activities; starting out

Montessori overview

Workjobs & learning styles