There’s no question, homeschooling with a toddler or preschooler (or both!) underfoot is challenging. But with a little thought and planning you can pull together a variety of activities to keep your little ones busy and entertained.
When my kids were young, I designated a little area to keep all the special school activities separate from their toys. We called it the School Closet. They only had the opportunity to play with these items when I was working with the older children. It worked like a charm.
*Some of these activities do involve small pieces, so you may need to have them close while they play, depending on their age. Many of these ideas can be done right at the same table with you while you are teaching.
Everyone loves this one! You will need an ice cube tray, food coloring and a child’s medicine dropper (the kind that looks like a miniature turkey baster). Fill the ice cube tray half way with water. Put a drop of food coloring in the corner holes, so that you have a different color in each corner. Show your little one how to suck the water up with the dropper and deposit drops into each section. They can experiment with mixing colors till it is a murky mess. Then dump the water out and start again. Every time this came out all my kids wanted to play! This activity always bought me the most time by far.
Practice Scissor Skills
Little ones can practice cutting with child-safe scissors and cooked spaghetti, play dough snakes or paper that has one end taped to the edge of a table.
My little ones loved stickers! If they couldn’t yet peel the stickers off the paper, I would get it started for them or just let them do as they pleased. You can also draw a shape or design on construction paper and let them fill it in with tiny stickers.
Connect the Dots
Put stickers or dots on a page and have your child draw lines to connect them. This is an easy one if they are sitting right there with you but want their own “schoolwork” to do. You can also buy a few Dot-to-Dot books to keep tucked away in your School Closet.
These were my child’s favorite. There are specific Do-A-Dot activity books you can buy to teach letters, numbers, and basic shapes or you can just unleash their imagination on blank paper. Every time they needed to make a birthday poster, this is what my kids used.
Color Sorting and Matching
Put together a bin of little different colored small toys (block, Legos, etc.). Find coordinated colored construction paper. Have the child sort the toys by color and put them on the matching colored paper.
Lacing beads in different shapes and colors are a great way to develop fine motor skills while experimenting with patterns and numbers.
These are another great way to practice hand-eye coordination.
Store this in a small tote with a tight fitting lid. Little hands love to swish and mold it. To make moon stand you will need 8 cups of flour and 1 cup of oil (I used cooking oil in case they put it in their mouth). Mix well. You can color it with food coloring and/or scent it with essential oils for additional sensory fun.
Wooden puzzles are great for little fingers. To buy yourself some extra time you can do a puzzle hunt where you hide the pieces around the house for your child to find and then put the puzzle together.
Number Writing Practice
A reusable mat like this is nice to have or you can make your own practice sheets on lined paper.
Pattern blocks where each shape is a different color are great for making designs and sorting.
These large blocks are perfect for introducing little hands to creative building.
You can easily make your own play dough at home in about 5 minutes. Combine 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of water, ½ a cup of salt, 1-1/2 Tablespoons of liquid cooking oil, and 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar with few drops of food coloring. Put all the ingredients in a sauce pan over low heat, stirring constantly. Once the mixture thickens and becomes dry, turn it out onto a cutting board to cool. Then knead until smooth. You may need to knead in some extra flour to get the right consistency. You can add essential oils for extra sensory fun. Store the play dough in an air tight container.
Be sure to give your child some interesting tools to use. Cookie cutters, rolling pins, plastic knives and safety scissors are fun for shaping and cutting. Your little one might also enjoy stamping with wooden blocks, plastic animals, or even a potato masher. You can even give your child a wooden skewer to practice tracing letters and numbers in the play dough.
Magnets and a Cookie Sheet
Alphabet magnets are great for this! See if your child can spell their name. Colored, circle magnets were a favorite of my children’s, too. You can even your own out of pompoms. For something extra special you can get farm, vehicle, princess or animal magnets and let your child construct their own imaginative scene.
White Board and Dry Erase Markers
These are great to have on hand if you have a little one who wants to imitate older siblings.
Drawing in Salt on a Cookie Sheet
This is another great way to develop those critical fine-motor skills. You can color the salt by putting it in a resealable bag, adding a few drops of food coloring, and mixing in the sealed bag. Your child can practice tracing letters and numbers or writing their name with their finger.
Fill a shallow plastic tote with a big bag of cheap rice. Hide some special treasures in the rice like shells, rocks, little toy cars, or plastic animals. Then give them some measuring cups or sand toys and let them go to town digging and pouring. Yes, there was a mess, but it was easily cleaned up with a dust pan and broom and it was so worth it for the fun they had. I used a tote with a cover so I could slide the bin behind a chair when not in use.
As an alternative to rice, you can also use dry pasta noodles (a mix of pasta shapes is fun), pompoms, small rocks, or oatmeal. I had 4-5 different sensory boxes set up in plastic shoe size bins so that they had a different one for each day of the school week. I kept a separate box for the scoops and containers that were used to play with the bins. This made changing out sensory boxes very quick.
Giving your child a special collection to explore like a button jar or a container of shells can be entertaining.
Magna-tiles were a favorite with my kids. These are the perfect special toy for only bringing out at school time.
Stringing Straw Pieces Onto Pipe Cleaners
All you need is a few colorful pipe cleaners and some straws cut into one-inch lengths. Just enough of a challenge to keep little fingers occupied.
Math manipulatives like counting bears are great for sorting, counting, and imaginative play. These are some of our favorites.
There are so many fun things you can do with pompoms!
Make a pompom bank. Cut holes in the top of a recycled container with a plastic top. Little fingers love to put the pompoms into the “bank” one at a time.
Give your child two plastic bowls and an ice cream scoop. Your child can use the ice cream scoop to transfer pompoms from one bowl to the other.
Freeze a pompom in each cube of an ice cube tray. Little ones can use a bowl of warm water and a ladle, spoon or turkey baster to free the pompoms. Fun for outside too.
Little ones can suck through a straw to pick up a pompom and move it from one bowl to another or across a line.
And of course you can always have your child sort pompoms by color or size. A muffin tray is perfect for this.
Run a sink full of water or fill a bucket outside. Sponges, ladles, spoons, and turkey basters are all fun tools for little ones to use. Keep the mop and towel nearby, and enjoy their help in cleaning the kitchen floor.
Fill a resealable bag with all the materials needed for a simple activity or craft. These are easy to store and perfect to grab and take with you for on the go. You don’t need to do all the work yourself. Hosting a busy bag swap is easy, fun and a blessing to share!
Scarves or Play Silks
Kids love throwing these up in the air and watching them waft down. They’re a perfect springboard for imaginative play whether it be dress-up, dancing, or acting out a story.
Keep a Balloon in the Air
This is great for an active kiddo who needs a non-destructive pastime. Have them count how many times they can tap the balloon before it hits the ground.
Edible Finger Paint
We always did finger paint outside, but this edible version is easy enough to clean up inside. Just mix together 1/4 cup of Greek yogurt and a few drops of food coloring. You can mix different colors in a muffin tin or in small containers. Perfect for a toddler in the high chair while you work at the table with your big kids.
Paint with Water
Fill a bucket with water, and give them a big paint brush. Let them paint the sidewalk, porch or patio and explore how the water evaporates.
Make your own bubble solution using 6 cups of water, 1 cup of dish soap, and 1 tablespoon of glycerin (or 1/4 cup of corn syrup). Stir gently until combined. Then use string, a wire coat hanger, or pipe cleaners twisted into different shapes to test out your bubbles.
With a small shovel, a rake, and a little patch of earth, children can keep themselves happy for hours. You just have to be prepared to deal with the mess.
A butterfly net is great fun! Even if your little one doesn’t find any butterflies, they’re sure to find some sort of bug to pick up with their little net.
I’ve never met a child yet who doesn’t want to bring home a caterpillar, ladybug, or worm for closer inspection. Have them make their own bug jar as a temporary home for their finds so they can observe them for a bit before releasing back into the wild.
A magnifying glass is the perfect springboard for pretend play or for exploring a corner of the backyard.
Draw a hopscotch game with sidewalk chalk. Or create an obstacle course with prompts like skip, hop on one foot, walk on the line with one foot in front of the other, spin, and jump. If an older sibling is available, have them time your preschooler to see how fast they can complete the course.
Teaching with little ones around definitely requires forethought and planning, but we hope these ideas will give some good options to work with.