How to Fit Learning Into Your Busy Day

So, while you’ve got little ones at home, your life feels like complete chaos.  Am I right?  Of course I’m right.

Even if you are a serious Type A (I am definitely NOT), it is still stressful and tough to find those hours between getting and keeping your house in order, making sure you’re not just feeding your children Cheerios and green beans every meal, and banging your head against the wall as you put your child’s pants back on for the fourth time in an hour.  Sometimes, the last thing on your mind is thinking about setting up a schedule for creative, experimental play for your babies.

And then when you DO think about it, you are wracked with guilt because there is absolutely no way you are going to have the time to set it up.

Ladies, I get it.  No, I really, really get it.  Let me share some experience that I had as a teacher and how it translates to me being at home with my little one.

First Year Teacher Hell

That’s what I fondly call the year of 2012.  I moved from New York with my shiny new teaching certificate, ready to change the Life Skills program for the better.  Little did I know how very little I knew.  During that year, I tried about six different schedules and models of teaching, much to the devastation of my paraprofessionals and my students.  The good thing is that I came away with some very important lessons in scheduling and time management.

1. Keep it short.

First Year Teacher Sarah discovered pretty quickly that young children have the attention span of a fruit fly.  All of the longer, whole group lessons that I planned were absolute chaos (one child under the table, another escaping out the door, one pulling another’s hair, all the while me shaking and trying to hold the attention of the last two students listening to my story…).

When it comes to hardcore learning time, little ones (think 5 and younger) only have a good 10-15 minute attention span.  This is good news for you, mama.  It’s a lot simpler than you think to squirt some shaving cream on your kitchen table and draw some shapes and letters (cleaning the table in the process, I may add), than it is to set up a drawn out lesson like they gave me in Kindergarten and pre-K about the letter people and their bizarre habits.  Young ones learn best through short, fun, tactile-based lessons, so don’t worry about finding time for 2 hours of instruction in your day at this point.  It will be counter-productive, and only cause you stress.

2. Independent Learning is Your Friend

First Year Teacher Sarah learned from her amazing mentor (a wonderful woman in her 29th year of teaching) to let kids explore different types of play and learning independently.  I was not nearly as adept at this as Ms. Lisa was, but I also didn’t have almost 30 years worth of stuff for kids to explore, either.  We were able to set up some great Centers, which we’ll talk about in just a minute.

At this age, your kid is doing a lot of exploring in the environment.  Take advantage of this!  Whether you are making Montessori-style learning trays, Busy-Boxes, or dumping sand and some toys into a kiddie pool, let her get deeply immersed in independent learning, and try to let her play until she comes to her own conclusion (unless you’re on a timetable.  Then your timer is your friend).  This gives you at least an hour at a time to get some of your own stuff done.

The trick to good, deep, independent learning is variety.  If you’ve got the same play Centers set up for 6 months with no changes, you child will get bored with them and start pestering you to play with him.  Adding in some new toys, books, objects in the sandbox, and scarves in the dress-up box every few weeks (I do this based on the theme we are learning about at the moment) will keep your kids interested in continued exploration.

3. Learning Centers are Another Friend

You’ve got LOTS of friends here.  First Year Teacher Sarah wasn’t organized for centers (still something I struggle with), but the good news is that once they are set up, they are easy to maintain.  The idea of a center is a themed spot for a specific type of play or exploration.  They are super simple to set up at home!  Here are a few centers that I have here:

  • Books and Puzzles
  • Blocks (Legos for older kids)
  • Dress-Up
  • Sandbox
  • Water (Kitchen sink with a stool to stand on, or bath time)
  • Themed toys (dinosaur toys, cars, farm set, etc.)
  • Dollhouse
  • Chickens (I am a farm girl at heart, always, and my little one LOVES those chickens).

You can make whatever you’ve got available into a center.  If you’ve got a play-kitchen, there’s one.  If you’ve got a bunch of traffic cones, that could be an obstacle course.

One thing to keep in mind is that the centers are not all available every day.  I repeat: NOT ALL CENTERS ARE OPEN EVERY DAY!  That means that on one day, your kiddo may be able to choose from Books and Puzzles, Themed Toys, and Blocks, and then the next day have access to Books and Puzzles, Dollhouse, and Sandbox.  This helps to keep the variety in the centers, and helps your little one to be able to focus on that play, rather than trying to fit it ALL in in one day.

4. Learning All the Time

First Year Teacher Sarah discovered that those students were learning with EVERY interaction they had with her.  Whether it was 1:1 instruction, whole group, toileting, snack time, or walking in the hallway, those kids were always learning.  Your baby is no different.

One great time to put some math in your day is while you’re cooking.  If you’ve got someone with busy hands, let them help make snacks during the day.  They can count out cheerios, put x amount of raisins in their ants on a log, measure out milk in the cups, and so on.  You probably will want to send your kids to centers or something while you make actual meals, but snacks are a great time for this age to start getting handsy in the kitchen.

When you drag your entourage to the grocery store, have talks about healthy choices vs. unhealthy.  Let them weigh produce, even if you wouldn’t otherwise (I can’t be the only person who just sort of prays it’s less than 5 pounds of almonds…).  Have them read you the prices and decide which is a better deal.

We feed our horses at the boarding ranch every day.  This gives baby a great opportunity to explore new and different plants, bugs, creatures, and rocks.  She gets to run and play, and she gets to interact with her pony, Maxwell.  Just because it’s not written in as a lesson does not mean kids are not taking something away.

5. Scheduling at Home

Everyone is different, but for First Year Teacher Sarah, having a broad daily schedule to generally follow was a huge help.  A schedule at home looks very different from a day in school, though, so just keep that in mind.  Every day really will be different, but I try to keep chunks of time predictable throughout the day for the kids.

Right now, I don’t worry about times.  I mostly worry about order of events.  As they get older, we will start to put some times into our schedules.  However, this is my broad schedule, and we change it as we need to:

  • Morning Routine (wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, feed dogs, all that good morning crap).
  • Reading Lesson (10 minutes, tops)
  • Centers/Free Play
  • Field Trip (usually feeding horses, grocery shopping, stopping by Tractor Supply, whatever’s on the agenda)
  • Lunch
  • Rest Time (we can talk about napping another time)
  • Math Lesson (10 minutes, tops)
  • Outside Play/Centers
  • Dinner
  • Bedtime Routine (bath, pajamas, brush teeth, story, sleep)

Sometimes there is no bath.  Sometimes Outside Play is actually going to the barn or a park.  Sometimes there is no Field Trip.  However, you can see the blocks of time that are generally devoted to what.  Setting up this sort of broad schedule for your day will help you be able to figure out what you’re doing with your kid during the day while you try to get laundry put away or whatever.

In Conclusion

So you see, while you may be desperately thinking that even staying at home with your child doesn’t give you time to get them on the right track or ready for school, you’re actually closer than you know to getting your kid headed in the right direction than any daycare or pre-school program.  Keeping things short and simple, or as easy to run on auto-pilot as possible, are going to be helpful.  Don’t overthink this, and don’t beat yourself up with guilt.  You are doing an amazing job just by being here right now, and I’m proud of you!

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