I like the idea of my preschooler having endless unstructured time to happily play alongside our homeschool activities. But let’s keep it real. Sometimes homeschooling with preschoolers—not to mention adding a baby and/or a toddler in the mix, if you have them—can seem like you are trying, unsuccessfully, to supervise a three-ring circus.

While small children do need unstructured time to learn to be creative and confident, they also need some structure too. The problem is that, if you’re like me, you don’t have endless time to entertain the preschoolers by pulling out lots of different rotating activities for them and cleaning up the ensuing messes as you go.

So what’s the solution? Well, I wouldn’t say there’s a single, all-encompassing fix, but here are some tips that have helped my family. (The last one is something new I am trying—and it’s working fairly well.)

  1. Give your preschooler time and attention early in the day. It may seem counter-intuitive to start the day focusing on the preschoolers when the older kids need so much more help than our little guys. But I have found when I give my preschooler some time and attention first thing in the morning, he is usually happier to play by himself for a longer period of time. When I put him off and rush ahead with my older kids, that is when he senses that he is being ignored and starts acting up more. Reading books, cuddling, and (if your preschooler is older) doing simple school workbooks together are great ways to connect with your preschooler early in the day.
  2. Reserve special toys and activities for your preschooler during school times. Pulling out some special toys—like a Calico Critter set or Duplos, for example—that are only allowed during certain times, or on certain school days when you need to be more productive, can work well.
  3. Capitalize on nap time. This may be a no-brainer for most people, and that’s because nap time is golden time. Whenever there are school activities that need more focus and attention, do them during your preschooler’s nap or afternoon quiet time. For a long stretch, I taught my older girls their reading lessons when the toddler was napping, because I knew that was the only time of day I could guarantee we wouldn’t be interrupted.
  4. Have older siblings take turns playing with the preschooler. This can be a great solution to give you one-on-one time with certain school-age kids, by having other school-age kids take turns playing with their younger sibling.
  5. Use a preschooler to-do list. Note: This is my latest strategy with my son, who is an older preschooler—he just turned 5 at the beginning of the month. This wouldn’t necessarily work with toddlers. (Sorry, parents of toddlers. Hang in there . . . it will get better, I promise!)

I started using a to-do list because my son has gotten into the habit of constantly asking me for the iPad or a movie. On days when we really need to focus on homeschool work or my school-age kids are busy with other activities or classes, my son knows he can get me to give him some “down time” with the iPad.

While there are certainly many awesome, educational apps for children, I really hate for him to spend too much time looking at a screen. And I definitely don’t want him to feel entitled to get it whenever he wants.

Often when I tell him in advance, “We are not using the iPad or watching TV today,” this helps. He has been forewarned and is more willing to accept when I tell him, “No, do you remember what I said earlier about the iPad?”

On days when I do let him play with apps or watch a show, I now make him work through a to-do list first. I have  Preschooler To-Do List, in case it is also helpful to some of you!

The items on the list are all in pictures so my son can easily understand what he has to do and then check off the box. I have laminated my list and he uses a wet erase marker so we can wipe it clean and re-use it the next day.

These are the activities I ask that he does before he asks about screen time.

  • Make his bed.
  • Do his school workbooks with mommy, including reading his Bob Books.
  • Do a puzzle.
  • Draw or color something.
  • Build something, with blocks, Legos, etc.
  • Pick up toys and put them away.
  • Listen to an audiobook.
  • Play outside for 30 minutes.
  • Do 20 jumping jacks, while counting.

I hope these tips are helpful to some of you! If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.


Photo Credit: Graphic design by Anna Soltis. Photo courtesy of author.