I can point to certain years in our homeschooling journey as turning points, and this has been one of them for us! Our oldest officially hit ninth grade this year, which meant we had one child in each level: high school, middle school, elementary, and preschool. It’s taken me nearly all school year to tweak our program to meet everyone’s specific needs, but as the year has progressed it’s become easier.
One solution that eased my load was using a workbox system for my preschooler. As she’s gotten older, the contents of the boxes have changed according to her needs, but the system hasn’t changed, which is helpful. There are multiple descriptions of workbox systems available online, some very complicated, but today I’ll share how we’ve made workboxes fit into our lives successfully.
First, a confession: I have failed miserably — multiple times — at systems resembling chore charts and anything requiring daily labeling and reorganization. So, my system only requires *refilling*, and we don’t put cute stickers on to indicate the boxes are complete, or move numbers from the boxes to a laminated chart. She simply finishes the boxes. My preschooler is entertained and learning, and I am free to help the older kids while she explores her “independent” boxes. It works for us.
In our homeschool we try to finish all school work (besides high school) before noon so that the warmer afternoons are reserved for free activities and outside play. Usually my preschooler has finished her boxes before 11 a.m. and has some time to play in her kitchen or color for the hour before lunch. I have found that once her emotional and learning needs are met, she is much more willing to play by herself quietly.
So here are the nuts & bolts of a workbox system:
- I have a stack of five lightweight plastic boxes/bins that are a good size for my preschooler to handle all by herself, and that also fit most preschool activities nicely. For activities that don’t fit in the box, I put a reminder note in for myself that my preschooler brings to me. A drawer or file box system works well, too, but I have found that the boxes are bigger and work better for preschool; once a child hits elementary school, the drawer or file system seems to work better.
- The boxes are labeled numerically in the order I wish her to complete them. Each box is filled the night before with either an “independent” project or a “work with mom” project. I put a star by the number on the box if it’s a “work with mom” box. That way she knows to come and ask for my help before starting. I try to have three to four independent boxes and only one or two boxes/day that she will need my help with.
- When planning what order I wish her to complete the projects, I consider what I will be doing with the older kids when she gets to, say, “box #3.” That way the preschooler’s independent boxes will hopefully coordinate with the time slots for my older kids’ language arts or other subjects where they will need my help. (If the timing is off, I simply change the numbering in the morning or tell her to skip certain boxes until I’m able to help her.)
- In the morning after chores, breakfast, worship, and violin practice, my preschooler knows she can start working on her boxes at her own pace, staring with box #1.
- We keep a large plastic tray in my preschooler’s area, and she knows to keep all the components of the boxes either in the box or on the tray to reduce the mess. This is especially important when using craft materials or kinetic sand!
Ideas for Workbox Contents:
- The internet is peppered with many fun ideas for “sensory bins.” These work wonderfully for younger preschooler kids or 4- to 5-year-olds. I would suggest having a closet shelf or bins designated for supplies for these types of bins. The supply list can be overwhelming unless you have items on hand that can be used multiple times for various projects. An example: Plastic animals or greenery can be used with sand, uncooked corn or rice, “easter” grass, water, beans, confetti, or with pictures of live animals to match with, etc. I stock up on items from dollar stores that will work for multiple projects so I’m not purchasing constantly.
- We are using the Adventurer program as a part of our preschool program. One day every week or two, our bins are full of items to complete the requirements or awards for that day. I usually choose a day when my other students have mostly independent work to do.
- Kinetic sand and molds.
- Items from nature: leaves, large nuts, moss, etc. This is more of an exploratory/sensory bin, but older preschoolers can be encouraged to create little “houses” or “play areas” for small creatures or dolls.
- Tongs, egg cartons, and items for sorting and counting.
- “Find it” bottles filled with rice and small items. They shake the bottle and try to find what’s hidden.
- Magnets and items that are both non-magnetic and have magnetic properties. Let them explore what does and doesn’t attract.
- Water in a container and items that float or don’t float.
- Craft items: feathers, paper plates with holes cut on the sides, pipe cleaners, felt, buttons, glue, etc. See what they can create with what’s provided. We usually have one of these bins once or twice/week.
- Finger puppets.
- Story book with a CD so they can follow along with a story (for older children) OR a book you will have time to read with them.
- Play-doh and tools. Online there are many printable “mats” for play-doh to reinforce counting skills and the alphabet, or to develop hand strength and dexterity making shapes. (I laminate these printable mats.)
- Measuring spoons/cups and items to measure such as rice, beans, water, etc. Funnels are fun to play with, too.
- Fingerpainting supplies — and a smock!
- “Paint with water” sheets and a paintbrush.
- Pages from preschool books (coloring, “follow the line,” copy letters). Kumon books are a good option, too, especially the ones to help develop scissor or gluing skills.
- Wikisticks (there are wikistick kits available for purchase that work great for boxes).
- Cuisenaire rods (or another math manipulative). I love the Cuisenaire Alphabet Book: Problem Solving from A to Z. “Inchimals” is another wonderful preschool math tool, similar to Cuisenaire rods (which are in centimeter increments); Inchimals are divided into inches.
- Puzzles: a page of dot to dot, a large floor puzzle, wooden puzzles.
- Lacing cards.
- Items to stack (cups or boxes) or sort by size (wooden blocks, shells).
- Duplos or bristle blocks.
- Pipe cleaners and pictures of items to make with them, beads to thread on it, or a colander to thread the pipe cleaners through.
- Magnetic numbers or letters for the refrigerator.
- Coloring page with only WARM color crayons. (Or if they’re old enough, put all the colors in the box & instruct them to only use warm or only cool colors.)
- Counting bears. We found a set with a plastic balance/scale for comparing weights at a thrift store.
- Bean bags and buckets to toss them in, or balls.
- Potting materials & seeds.
- Toy cars, trains, planes, etc., and sand or dirt and blocks of wood to create paths, etc.
- Plastic fruit & veggies (especially those that come apart and can be “cut” with a plastic knife)
- Beans (or any small item) and a card with a letter of the alphabet on it to put the beans on, “tracing” the letter.
- A kids’ music CD and instruments or scarves (if you have a room where they can play and not disturb everyone else).
- Items to make musical instruments with.
- Felt or magnet sets.
- Dress-up items.
Enjoy! I love these preschool years, though they are BUSY! Pretty soon my preschooler won’t be interested in the activities above, and I’ll miss this stage. For now, the workbox system is one of my strategies for attending to my older kids’ needs while giving my preschooler something educational to “chew on.”