Scrambling to set up your homeschool environment but facing information overload?
This is your quick-start guide for setting up your very own LOW-KEY homeschool.
If you're not interested in becoming your child's full time teacher, if you are interested in a relaxed approach that keeps kids learning but gives you time to work (or sleep), and if you want to do it with materials you have around the house, this guide is for you!
First up, you don't have to follow the 10 part plan sent from your kids' school. You also don't have to buy a bunch of elementary school supplies, download curriculum, or create a minute-by-minute schedule.
I'm a school principal and parent of a six year old, and I hereby give you permission to set up your low-key homeschool the way that works best for your family. The goal is to keep kids engaged, keep yourself sane, and make this time at home together as meaningful as possible.
Yes, it is possible to set this up for the long term AND so you can thrive as a family.
The steps you'll take to set up your low-key homeschool are:
Set Your Homeschool Intention
Your first task is to decide what you want from your homeschool experience.
Want your kids to get a standards-based, high-quality replication of the school environment? This guide is not for you.
Want your kids to keep learning, your family to enjoy their time together, and you to get some protected work time? You're in the right place.
Make your list of your expectations for your time together. Some of it can be academic but some of it needs to meet YOUR needs as an adult and the needs of your family.
Here's a possible List:
The adults in the house should make the list first, and when you set up your low-key homeschool and tell the kids about it, they can add to the list with the things they really want to do during this time.
From your list, you're going to make your daily and weekly schedules and themes.
Remember, this is low-key. We're not trying to hold ourselves accountable for everything, and we're not trying to squeeze everything in. We are making a plan for the long-haul, one that we can live with and enjoy.
Your Low-Key Homeschool: Set up Your Daily Schedule
The adult schedule sets the day
You decide how you want to organize your day, and my suggestion is to start with what the adults need.
Do you need to be online working from 10-2? Then that becomes the time in the schedule for the kids to either have screen time or "works" time (see below for a detailed explanation of what a Montessori-inspired works time can look like).
If you love exercising on your bike in the morning? Set that up as time for the kids to exercise too.
RELATED POST: 5 Tips for Surviving School Closures
If you have a partner splitting parenting and work, work together so that all the adult schedules coordinate well. If your kids are old enough (4 years old is probably old enough) then you might carve out some time where BOTH parents are unavailable to kids unless it's an emergency. That way, you can share some downtime together and actually talk to each other instead of just trading off the kids all day.
Kids can adapt to whatever schedule you give them.
When you look at the best rhythm of the day for you, you can fill in all the places to get the kids what they need too.
Pick Large Time Slots
Instead of making 8:00-8:30 breakfast, then 8:30-9:00 getting dressed and brushing teeth, and 9:00-9:15 morning meeting, group those activities together in one large time slot.
So from 8:00-9:30 you are having breakfast, getting dressed and ready for the day, and having your morning meeting.
That gives your family some flexibility.
Your homeschool does not need to look like school with bells ringing and the schedule running like clockwork. That's only necessary in a school because of the huge supervision needs with the ratio of kids to adults. The teacher can't be late when 30 kids are waiting.
But YOU? You can have breakfast a little late. And you could sleep in one day or let the kids sleep in more. You could have morning meeting WHILE you're eating breakfast one day and AFTER breakfast the next.
Give yourself some large chunks of time to achieve multiple things and you'll give yourself some grace for making life at home work.
Pick Zones of Activity for Meals
Your next step is to designate certain areas where activities are taking place.
In my schedule, I group activities around meals.
At breakfast, we eat on the porch and visit the chickens to collect eggs, do any outdoor garden stuff we want to do, and pour water at the water station.
During lunch we do art. During dinner we play a game.
At meal times, your kids are gonna want YOU and your attention. That might be challenging if you're trying to get food on the table and your kids aren't helpful. (Mine is not helpful).
One way you should put limits around your time is decide what is NOT possible. When the kids are home all day, boundaries start to bleed and anything seems possible at any time.
Right before dinner, your child is likely to say "let's go ride bikes!" or "I want to play Peppa Pig in my room with you." Make it clear: dinner is for game time. You can get out any game you want, but we're only doing dinner and games.
This gives you a mental break from decision-making all day about what you want to say yes to.
And a caveat: if you are that mom who has a "yes!" attitude to everything and enjoys rolling with a child's desires at every hour: PLEASE KEEP DOING THAT. I am not that parent. This advice is to protect the sanity of those of us who can't do what you do. If you are happy rolling with it, live on!
While I'm making dinner, my child chit- chats with me in the kitchen (where I know she'll be anyway) and she can be picking out and setting up the game she wants us to play.
This means the art and games live by the kitchen table. I don't have to go in the basement to get materials for art-- they're there already.
And if you get to talking with the family and no one wants to play a game, no big deal.
Other ideas for paired areas and activities:
-breakfast and tv time
-lunch and math homework with mom
-lunchtime outside in the backyard after exercise time
-dinner time and quiet reading
-dinner time and family Zoom with the grandparents
Make a Paper Schedule
Need a schedule? I got you.
The editable schedule below copies right to your Google Drive and you can edit the clocks, times, and activities. Enter your email to get the link in your inbox right away.
If you're including a Montessori-style large block of works time, include 2-3 hours of time in one of your schedule blocks. If you don't know what that is, keep reading!
Get this Relaxed Schedule and Checklist to get started setting up your home for school closures yet retain your sanity as a family!
Your Homeschool: Set Up the Environment
Now your job is to set up your environment.
Don't get intimidated by those parents on facebook who named their new school, installed a blackboard in the living room, and created school rules. You CAN do that, but if you don't want to, it's not important.
The important thing is that you have a loose schedule you want to follow to make the day go well, and you have your house zoned out so you all agree on how it's going to be used.
Number one, decide among the adults where the off-limits areas are.
Chances are, your kids have never been home this much. Normally, they're not interested in going into your office but NOW it seems like the world is their oyster and they're exploring it all.
Set it up from the beginning which areas you don't want them to explore, and decide which areas you're going to designate for their "work" time.
In the meal areas, place all the materials you'll need for your grouped activities. In the outdoor spaces you have access to, put the equipment you want to use there.
Everything is not always available
This is another area I encourage you to operate your homeschool a little bit like a regular school: everything is not available all the time.
By setting up your environment with needed materials ready, you don't have to worry too much about always searching for stuff. When you're outside, you don't have to search the house for what you want. It's already there. And if it's not there? It's not available.
It will be tempting to run around after your kids finding everything they want for their activities. But you have to realize we're in this for the long haul.
It's no big deal if today, jump ropes are not available but the soccer balls, the kiddie pool, and hose are. You can get the jump ropes out another time.
At dinner, maybe the dominoes are not in the stack of games. If your child brings up the idea of dominoes, you can decide they will be available the NEXT day. (Of course, if you like that idea too you can go down to the basement and get them. But the point is-- you don't need to be your children's version of amazon.com.)
Your Homeschool: Pick Your Activities for Independent Work
On your schedule, you hopefully have created a 2-3 hour time period where kids are expected to work independently.
Depending on your kids, on how much academic time and/or screen time you want, and their capacity for independent work, this will vary.
I encourage you to determine a block of time for kids to work independently, and find a space where their "works" live.
What is a work?
In Montessori-speak, a "work" describes a collection of items that go together to make an activity. Children in the Montessori environment spend their day working, so the activities they are working on are called "works." This terminology lends a respect to the effort and purpose of childhood play and engagement.
RELATED POST: Montessori Basics for Every Family
In your house, you will select 8-12 individual activities for your child to work on while they are expected to be independent.
For each work, you will need a container: a tray, a shoebox, a basket, or a box. That container holds all the necessary items needed to complete the work.
You can repurpose your materials around the house to make engaging works without too much effort.
The point isn't to replicate the classroom setting but give your kids ways to stay mentally engaged and continue their learning.
Locate Your Works Together
In one place in your home, find a shelf, table, or cabinet that makes a good spot for a series of trays and baskets to live.
In our house, we have four or five works on the coffee table in the living room and another six works (plus her office) on shelves in the same room. We're a Montessori family so we have all of her toys and activities organized like this and a huge closet where I pull works in and out of the rotation.
That level of set up is not required right now. Pick an area where you can set 8-12 work trays or baskets, and designate that as the works area. This should not be in the same place YOU are trying to work.
For us, it's in the living room on the coffee table.
Select 8-12 works for the week
Your next job is to gather up materials to put out in the work space.
If we look at a close up of this week's works, I have seven items here.
Starting at the bottom left, there's a set of Montessori counters and cards. You can make this yourself with a set of notecards and counters made out of any material (bottlecaps, corks, paper clips, etc).
Moving up you'll see a blue letter set from Insta-learn. I love this set and we've used it since she was 3. Don't try to buy something like this. I encourage you to find toys/activities you already have that meet the educational needs of your child, so this can be a language game, memory game, or some other intellectually stimulating toy you have around the house.
There are four white plastic trays. In the first one is her composition book, which is where she's writing and illustrating a story. I also put a bag of crayons there so she has all the materials she needs to complete the work.
Also, there is a packet sent home from school on number bonds, a photocopied worksheet of lined paper for her to write a story, and a hundreds chart.
Finally, there's a moveable alphabet and two word work boxes. This is super specific to Montessori instruction, but the moveable alphabet can be replicated with a set of magnetic letters. Using this alphabet to spell out words is a great activity. You could write 10 words on cards, put them in a box, and have your child spell the words with letters.
The point here is not to replicate school, but to put a variety of works out that are engaging, educational, and will keep your child occupied.
You can make work activities from regular materials around the house pretty easily.
In addition to these works I have a few other things in the room, including an invention station where she likes to tape cardboard together, a pegboard for her to use rubber bands to create shapes, and a tray with our geography work from the morning instruction.
There's also a computer from school where she can do online math instruction.
Create Your Child's Checklist
Now that you've created 8-12 works for your child(ren), create a checklist that you can use for customizing their work plan for the week.
You can download mine that you can edit into and make perfect for each of your kids. (It's bundled with the daily schedule, so if you put your email in above to get that schedule, you have it!)
The key here is that the child's checklist belongs to them. They use it to manage their worktime.
On the left are all the available works for the week. In the morning, we sometimes cross off a work that has become uninteresting or add one that has become available over night.
There is a box for each day, so when they complete a work they can check it off. I put my initials when I've seen their work.
Double checking their work has three purposes: one, it's accountability to ensure they're doing the work. Two, it gives you a chance to give them some feedback on how the work is done. I would keep that to a minimum. Three, it gives your child some good attention from you about the important work they did today.
Decide IF you're going to teach anything
I decided to pick a theme and teach a little bit every day on that content area.
You don't have to do this.
BUT if you want to do this, it can be nice to start the day with a 30-60 minute period where you are giving them a lot of attention for ONE learning activity.
You could go one of two ways: you could pick an actual content area (we picked geography) and you teach a little bit every day.
OR you could decide that you will supervise works time and give support where needed for 30 minutes. After that time, the children are on their own to do their works and cannot bother you every time they have a question.
If you're going to do some teaching, here are my tips:
Your Homeschool: Pick Your Incentives
You might have incentives already set up in your home for doing basic things like chores. If you don't, you might want to consider an incentive system for your homeschool.
Being at home all day with your children means that there will be times they need MORE than just your relationship with them and their cooperation to go along with your program.
Unless you're okay with them doing whatever they want all the time, you might need some backup.
For example, if you want to ensure that the independent works time is TRULY independent, you might put some incentives in place to make sure that your child doesn't bother you during the entire 2 hour block.
At our house, my daughter uses a sand timer to time 30 minutes. During her 2 hour block she can check in with me in my office every 30 minutes. I give a quick look over to a work, help her where she's stuck, or give a quick squeeze, and she's back to working. If she respects that boundary and completes 8 works in 2 hours, she can have an hour of screen time.
You also might want to put this in a visual chart for everyone to be clear on those expectations. You can scroll down to the bottom of this post and download mine. Included are an incentive chart that links activities to rewards as well as a chart for a token economy.
In the first case, you could decide the evening activities that would allow your child to have screen time. Put anything on there that is challenging (like brushing teeth).
In the token economy, you link the activities not to activities, but to tokens. You decide what they need to do to get a token and what the tokens are worth.
Long Term Planning
If you want to do some long-term planning, go for it.
If you're setting up your homeschool for 4 to 8 weeks, you can create some loose themes for yourself to break up the monotony but still make sure you're giving yourself flexibility.
Within an afternoon you can have everything set up for your very own low-key homeschool, and by tomorrow your kids can be working their checklist, staying engaged, and leaving you alone for a second! Happy homeschooling!