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12 Tips For Keeping Toddlers Busy While Homeschooling

Keeping Toddlers Busy

Good morning readers! I know many of you are saying prayers for our family today that we have a good first day of homeschooling, I’m so thankful for you! I’ll be praying for all of you, too, for a peaceful back-to-school season, no matter what type of schooling your family does. :) Today Heather was sweet enough to offer to write a guest post on this topic that is a perfect fit for her. While we’re past the toddler stage around here, she’s still right in the middle of it, and I know many of you are, too. I’ll bet you could use these helpful tips, and hopefully you’ll also have a lot of tips to share! Thanks, Heather!

Very. Clean. Armpits.

Are you a homeschooling mom? Did you do tons of research before making the decision to home school? Did you talk to people both for and against, research curriculum options until your eyes crossed, and deck out Pinterest boards with every conceivable craft idea known to man?

Well then, I tip my hat to you. I’m a homeschooling mom, too, but I made my decision based on armpits. Mine, to be exact.

You see, when I was little a family friend told me a “secret” – leaving a film of Ivory soap under my arms would result in a fever by morning. For YEARS my sister and I tried to get it to work using a variety of “film thicknesses” and “soaping procedures.” We hoped and prayed and (most of all) scrubbed in hopes of a sick day at home with mom, but all we got for our efforts were very clean armpits!

So, What Does This Have To Do With Homeschooling?

Well, let’s just say that while the rest of my class was whizzing through multiplication tables I struggled to understand basic principles, and by the time we got to fractions I was a goner! The one-size-fts-all approach of my school district didn’t work for me, and I had Very Clean Armpits (VCA) to prove it. Plus, I missed my mom!

Now don’t worry, I did eventually get that fraction thing worked out. But years later when I became a mama, the VCA experience served as a jumping off point for exploring educational models that fit for our family. Though there are exceptional schools out there (and even more exceptional children in them!), it didn’t take long for us to settle on homeschooling.

The Thing Is . . .

The Very Clean Armpit decision making method does not adequately prepare a mama for actual homeschooling. If you need someone to show you how to peel and declaw a chicken foot I’m your girl, but I do not own a label maker, make flash cards for fun, or have any idea how to occupy my toddler long enough to teach my daughter to read.

Are you in the same boat? Well then, I think I can help you with that last one. Here are some tips I’ve gathered from friends and articles to kick off our school year:

12 Tips For Keeping Toddlers Busy While Homeschooling

1. Give them your full attention FIRST

Before trying to interest them in something, first give them your full attention. This may go a long way to diffusing a sense of rivalry or being left out, and your older child just might learn something via a free online educational game in the meantime! (I’ve heard Starfall, ABCYA, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, NASA, National Geographic Kids and Sheppard Software are all fantastic for younger kiddos.)

2. Include them whenever possible

For example, make sensory tubs about whatever you’re going over in school for your little ones to explore together, then nonchalantly draw aside your older child for more formal instruction. I love this one about weather, this one about snow, this one about the human body, and this one in which kids excavate treasure from a frozen block of ice. I also thought this article about the benefits of sensory play was very helpful.

3. Splash buckets never get old

No time to put together a sensory tub? “A dish tub or large pot or bucket half-filled with water and set on the floor on a folded bath towel provides hours of fun. Throw in some measuring cups, a big wooden spoon and some dish soap for added fun,” says Melissa from HopeSprouts. A stool and the kitchen sink work, too!

4. Play dough and cookie cutters

Play dough and some kitchen tools/sticks/seashells to cut out shapes with – Nearly every article I read recommended this one! Make your own and and color it with blueberries, rose petals, beetroot, turmeric and oak tree bark using this recipe, or use this recipe if your littles cannot come in contact with gluten. You can also find natural dyes at many health food stores if you don’t want to make your own. Quick tip: Add a layer of sensory experience by making scented playdough! Just add a smidge of vanilla, lemon extract or any other food grade scent you have on hand.

5. Hole punchers are amazing.

Hand them one and let them go to town.

6. Find the puzzle pieces!

For toddlers on the older side this tip from Krissy (in the comment section) is fantastic: “Hide puzzle pieces in a tupperware bowl with dry beans. He fishes them out and puts the puzzle together.” For younger kids you could just hide fun items – figurines, cotton balls, maybe even a box of raisins at the bottom.

7. Safe electric gadgets

Krissy also mentioned that her son loves playing with an electric toothbrush. I say if the toddler is old enough to handle it safely, that’s two birds with one stone!

8. Check out Paula’s Archives ideas

This post from Paula’s Archives has TONS of ideas for activity totes, and indoor kiddie pool filled with play dough or rice, and tips for letting them “wash” the windows. Definitely worth reading through!

9. Special school-time-only crafts

Bring out a special box of stickers, stamps and paper that are only available during class time (or in the case of my tattoo happy toddler, just stickers and paper).

10. Bath time

They may not work for you, but my littles don’t get baths everyday so they pretty much think it’s like going to Disney Land. For a day when you REALLY need some quiet time this ocean themed bath with blue water and spaghetti for seaweed looks awesome! I’d use natural food coloring.

11. Make a rice tub

This tutorial calls for vinegar instead of the more commonly used rubbing alcohol. I am going to make mine with natural food coloring.

12. Make an “I Spy” Bottle

Use some of your leftover rice to make an I Spy Bottle! Feel free to duct tape the lid on if your toddler is the type to pour it all over your freshly vacuumed carpet. :)

Bonus Tip:

Many mamas hold classes during their toddlers nap time. My kindergartner still takes a nap, but this might work for some of you!

Do You Have A Tip?

Lovely mamas, I’ve seen the comments you’ve left on Kelly’s previous posts and you obviously know your stuff – how do you keep your little ones occupied during school time?

Not everything works on everyday, but with variety, most days SOMETHING works!

~ Melissa from HopeSprouts

About Mommypotamus: Heather Dessinger, aka The Mommypotamus, is a wife, blogger, and mom to two amazing kiddos, both waterborn at home. She loves all things fermenty, talks to sock puppets, and dreams of owning a backyard flock of chickens.

Her e-cookbook, Nourished Baby, is a simple guide to first foods that explains why the birth experience affects cravings for life, how to decode nursing cravings, what the latest research says about introducing peanuts, eggs and other “allergenic” foods, and more.


  1. We did the school-only crafts tub, but we had three of them on a weekly rotation so there was something new to do all the time. I also switched things out in the tub with Goodwill finds often.

    We also employed the “each one teach one” method, so when an older sibling had a break or was waiting for me, they’d go sing and dance or play a game with the younger one.

    There was a book we used, “Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready” that had an age-appropriate weekly activity from birth to age five. Now that my kids are teens, they will often borrow that book to take on babysitting jobs!

  2. As much as possible, we include the two oldest together and gear activities towards their levels. While my 4.5 YO is mastering sounding out words, my 3-year-old is still working on the last of the letter names and learning their sounds. We can sit together and they’ll take turns telling me an answer.

    Of course, the trick is the 1-year-old. Hands-on or independent activities for the older ones work best. They like to do some worksheets or workbooks of their choice to practice naming shapes, colors, or writing letters. The baby plays alongside, sometimes scribbling with crayons, or playing with a separate toy. Sometimes I’ll bring them all in the kitchen, and they can do this while I’m cooking and the baby is entertained by pots and pans and wooden spoons, just happy to be in the middle of it all.

    Going on outings is good too. The 1-year-old can look at things, touch things, help us “find” things, etc.

    Snacks always work. :) Sit the toddler down with a small snack and they will be entertained for a good 20 minutes. That’s about as long as a typical 3 – 5 year old can focus on something anyway, especially if you’re really working hard. If you have older kids who can and do work longer, either set them up for independent lessons, or ask one of your older children to play with the toddler for awhile so you can work with the other one.

  3. I can totally relate to how you felt about math. I actually loved school in general, but I distinctly remember crying during math starting in the 3rd grade because I just. didn’t. get it. Coincidentally (actually probably not coincidentally…), 3rd grade is when I started having anxiety related stomach problems.

    But honestly, the idea of homeschooling, just in our particular case, makes me want to scream. I have never been able to successfully do any structured teaching with my daughter (lots of casual and incidental teaching) without one of us ending in tears, and I am not ashamed to admit I enjoy the hours they spend at school (granted I only have one in full time school, the other only goes to preschool a few hours a week- I may be bored beyond belief when they are both gone all day… but I doubt it!). HOWEVER, if there is ever a time when either of my kids don’t enjoy and get the most out of school, I won’t hesitate to seriously consider homeschooling. Luckily, so far Izzy has had amazing teachers and LOVES going to school, and Oliver asks every single day if he can go to preschool. Here’s hoping that lasts!

  4. For those of you who need a more creative and fun way to teach those higher multiplication tables look into Times Tales. Our boys are dyslexic and it made a world of difference in less than an hour!!!

  5. With 11 children, I’ve learned a few tricks. The one that works best is to assign the older children on a rotational basis to watch the younger ones and keep them busy, freeing Mom up to work one on one with those needing the help. Call it home economics or early childhood education (or just family). It is also helpful getting the kids as independent with their schoolwork as possible as soon as possible. Get them to read their own lesson, do their own lesson, correct their own lesson with the teacher’s book. This teaches them valuable lessons is learning, something my kids have been able to use at university. They should be able to do this by grade 4. Then you can include ALL of the kids in unit studies for history or science or french or art or music…. Learning doesn’t start or end with school. That’s only a tool to keep Moms on track and give us a gauge to know what’s working.

  6. I can’t agree more with Melina:) Though I do not have 11. I do have 4, my oldest in highschool and my youngest being a people oriented 2 yr old boy who is throwing my homeschool for a Big loop this year:) With, what feels like, hundreds of things to be motivated and accomplished…every day, the most effective tactic I have found is to have the older children take 30min rotations playing with him. And they love to do it, so its a no brainer:) This doesn’t help with a young family, but then, when your students are young, school is not so time consuming either.

  7. That was a REALLY interesting rabbit hole, thanks “Alice”!
    I just spent about three hours following links through your post, and I got the most wonderful ideas for fun things to do with my kids this year! I have 6 kids, 9, 6,5,3,1,new in November….They are going to LOVE some of the cool stuff I just found. Thanks!

  8. Thank you Heather!!
    I am looking into homeschooling our kiddos as well and can use all the advice I can get! This looks awesome!

  9. Had to share this with my friend who’s currently in this same situation! Love all these ideas… Is it bad that a “splash bucket” sounds fun to me as an adult?? LOL

  10. This was super helpful – thank you! I have two kids – kinder and pre-k3. My 3-year-old is completely ready to jump in with her big brother, but her brain isn’t quite ready for that. Love the ideas for both older and younger and plan to use the bath one tomorrow (and the youngster is gonna LOVE it!)

  11. Thanks so much for these tips. They’re wonderful! I’m going to be using many of them at home and at work with my kids.

    One thing I wanted to add is that a safety stool like the Learning Tower or Kitchen Helper is indispensable. It lets your toddler be up at counter height in full safety, and they love it! My nephew comes over just to use ours, and he also converts it into a puppet theatre and castle. Worth every cent.

    I like this article which explains the pros and cons of different brands.

  12. I am going to try the splash bucket. I am homeschooling my oldest for pre-k this year and also have a 3 year old and 17 month old. Rainbow rice works great for the 3 yr old and she does most our school with us I just don’t expect her to learn it all. The baby is the challenge! Finding something that she won’t eat…Well window markers are very distracting but I have to make sure she doesn’t eat them. Best thing I have found so far is large decorative rocks from the dollar store. They are too big to swallow and you get a whole bag of them for a dollar. I put them in a container and she spent 30 minutes taking them out, putting them in, setting them on the table where we were working. The big girls were actually jealous and couldn’t wait to play with the rocks after our school time was over…go figure!

  13. Good ideas but my baby is like Tiffany’s – I can’t find ANYTHING for baby girl to play with that she won’t EAT! I have 5- four left at home. My oldest moved out at the beginning of June so that’s one less to watch the baby. My next is 15 and she takes *all day* to do her school work after her chores. Then there’s the 9 year old. He has language delays of about 2-3 years and needs a lot of repetition on certain things. Other things, like math and science he’s really good at. Next is the 5 year old. She’s about to turn 6 and we’ll be starting her kindergarten curriculum as soon as we can afford the updated teacher’s manual for her. May not be till next year though. :( The baby is going to turn one in two weeks and like I said, she eats *everything* I don’t have anything that’s safe to give her to play with other than her teething toys and she won’t play with those for long.

    My five year old hurts baby every time I have them play together so it’s really hard to do school with my 9 year old. My 9 year old wanders off when it’s his turn to watch the baby so… yeah. I’m really at a loss here.

    I will be checking out the Slow and Steady… book and I was thinking of picking up some things out of the Timberdoodle catalog to keep put away until school time after doing some activities with baby girl. Hopefully she’ll get through this eating everything stage soon because it would be really nice to give her something to play with on her own for 15-20 minutes.

  14. Sad to say, after two months of homeschooling my first grader, I feel like giving up at times because of my INSANE two year old. It kills me too, because he is flourishing at home with me. I came here looking for distractions for her, because all other ideas have failed at this point. I think the splash bucket is a winner though, and will continue to try other things until we find something that works, or she grows out of it. lol. Thanks so much for this post. I really needed it, since today ended with me yelling and in tears…

    • Hi Rachel,

      I’ve had a day like that, too, today mine was due to 7th grade math – I just can’t seem to help it click for her!!! The boys teasing and distracting didn’t help, ahhhhhh!

      So just know that you’re not alone, but what we’re doing is worth it.

      Big hugs!

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