Workbox Update: We’re On a Break

Workboxes continue to be a popular topic on various homeschool forums, websites and blogs and my workbox page is consistently visited on my blog.  So I feel obligated to tell you that my workboxes and I are currently taking a break in our relationship.

Actually, we’ve been on a break for some time now. I’m not really sure when it happened, although I do recall a week some months ago when I said to Firefly, “Mommy, didn’t get a chance to fill your workbox but here’s a list of what we are doing today.”,  hastily scrawled on a piece of paper.”

And he read the list himself and proceeded to get to work. It dawned on me that he no longer needed those task discs with little pictures on them any more.  His reading was proficient enough. And as long as he knows at the start of the day what he is expected to do, he transitions easily from one subject to the next, without whining, fussing or collapsing onto the carpet in a dramatic fashion.

Soon, this “list” morphed into a weekly calendar.  I print out a blank weekly calendar from iCalendar and write his assignments on it. That’s it. Nothing fancy. I do this on Sunday night or Monday morning, copying most of it out of my planner, which also contains stuff for The Queen Bee and general notes to myself on what I want to do that week, learning wise.

At the bottom of each day on the calendar, I write his outside activities: basketball practice, Lego club, a playdate with a friend, a drop off visit to Grandma’s. He looks forward to these things and it keeps him from asking me repeatedly what we are doing later in the day.

The Queen Bee, my 5 year old, never took to the workboxes much. She would pull out the stuff that looked fun and work on it, then refuse the rest. That actually was fine, as it helped me do some “research” into her learning style, what types of activities appealed to her, etc. For now, I just verbally let her know what I have planned for her that day and then we roll with it. She only has 2 or 3 tasks per day, we aren’t super structured since she is only in kindergarten. Plus she spends a good amount of time each day on educational computer sights, bringing me books to read to her and playing with math manipulatives. I think the workbox thing was more structure than she really needed.

When we were new to homeschooling, workboxes helped me to be organized, and to feel good about having a plan:  Yes, my children will learn something this week. I won’t be collapsing under the chaos of a shrieking toddler, a mound of laundry, endless preparations of snacks and meals, and so forth.

Now we have a definite rhythm to our days. I am much more relaxed about their learning. All of the learning doesn’t take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, or whatever. It’s much more spread out. For example, a lot of our reading (both me reading aloud to the kids and Firefly reading himself) takes place in the evening.  Much easier to do that when my 3 year old has either gone to bed or can be entertained by The Husband vs. during the day when he interrupts for snacks, help with the potty, wanting Mommy to play with him, etc. ( I am speaking of the 3 year old here, not The Husband. Just wanted to clarify.)

So there you have it. No more workboxes, at least not right now. Perhaps we will return to them someday. Perhaps my three year old will be a workbox kind of guy when he starts doing schooly stuff. We’ll have to wait and see.

One more thing:  Having a little supply box for each child has been a lifesaver. I’m not sure how or why but my kids keep track of these things. They put their pencils, crayons, erasers, scissors, glue, etc. back in their boxes each day with little encouragement from me and this has made life so much easier when we set to work on an assignment or a project. So we will keep using these wonderful little boxes. So simple, but such a timesaver.

You can read more about my other workbox posts here to see how they evolved in our house.

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Update on Our Workbox System

I’m getting a lot of visitors to my blog on my workbox page lately so I thought I’d post an update on how this system has worked for us thus far.  We use a file folder system in a portable file box.  You may want to read my original post  to see how it works.  Or you can watch this short video that I made:

Firefly, my now-2nd-grader, loves it.  He is very committed to our workbox system.  Probably more committed to using it than I am to filling it, but his enthusiasm motivates me.

It is a chore at times.  I don’t always feel like doing it in the evening because I’m tired or I have other things to do.  But often I have filled them in the morning.  Since I am an early bird and we don’t start schoolwork until 9:30 a.m., this has worked well for us.

The best discovery, however, was filling the workbox folders for the entire week.  This has worked for at least half of the subjects. I just write the day of the week on each assignment and Firefly does the one for that day.  For those subjects that don’t fit or can’t be put in the folder for the whole week, I prep them ahead of time, and leave them in a little pile on my desk, then slip them into the folders each day so it only takes a moment.  Yes, prepping for the week definitely makes workboxes less of a chore.

And I have a child who thrives on this system.  He likes seeing what he has to accomplish for the day. I get much less resistance and whining from him if he knows what he has to do.  He likes to choose the order in which to do his work, and that’s fine with me.  This is another way in which we deviate from the original, highly structured workbox system, as Sue Patrick wrote it.  But it works for us.

Now The Queen Bee, my newly-crowned-kindergardener, not as big of a fan with the workbox.  She likes to find the super fun stuff in her workbox and ignore the rest.  Which has not been an issue since she was doing preschool stuff and most of her “work” was actually play.  It has helped me to figure out what kind of learner she is, what types of things peak her interest.  I’ve considered much of what I’ve put in her workbox “research”, a way for me to gather information about her learning style before we get a wee bit more structured for kindergarden.

And Love Bug, my 2 1/2 year old.  Is there anything cuter than hearing him say, “Where’s mah wok box?”  He loves to discover the toys that I rotate through his workbox for him to play with while his siblings are doing schoolwork.  And often I’ll put household things in there that thrill him even more:  a bunch of wooden spoons, a container of toothpicks to stick into playdough, empty little spice jars filled with screws and bolts, a pile of coins and a sorting tray.

Are workboxes working for us?  Yes.  Will we continue to use them?  Yes.  It definitely makes our day run smoother when mom is not scrambling around trying to find the math manipulatives or copy something out of a book.

And one of the best parts is their supply box, which fits right into the back of the workbox.  This has saved us so much grief.  Pencils, erasers, scissors, crayons, markers, glue, etc. are all right there and everyone has their own so their’s no fighting over what belongs to who.

I love the portability of this system, too.  The kids can grab their boxes and we can head to any part of the house, go outside, or even get in the car and go somewhere with them.  We haven’t done that last one yet, but I’m sure we will.

A word about the task discs.

I love these and the kids love these but we don’t have one for every subject and it’s kind of a pain to make one here and there (find the clip art, laminate them, circle punch them, put velcro tabs on) so I’ve taken to just using these:

Tabbed paper clips for folder labels. Easily removable, since we don't do all the same subjects every day.

Of course, post-it notes or an index card paper clipped on the folder would work just as well. Crafty and fancy are fun but sometimes easy and convenient are my friends.

Keeping Toddlers Busy While Homeschooling

Author’s note:  The post that follows is the one that people come to most on my blog after typing “how to keep a toddler busy while homeschooling”, or something very similar, into a search engine.  For a list of all my posts on how to keep your toddler busy while homeschooling your older children, click here.  I am, by no means, an expert, but this is what has worked for me at various times over the past year and a half. When it stopped working, I moved on to another solution.  And I am glad to report that it does get easier.   ~Julie

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I am on an ongoing quest to keep my very active two-year-old busy when trying to do math, reading, etc. with my older two kids.  One way that I’ve done this lately is to scour thrift stores and children’s consignment sales for interesting, activity based toys that are, most importantly, cheap.   I usually don’t pay any more that $5 for any one item.  I keep them stashed in a closet where the kids can’t get to them, because they are only for school time.

Some of the things I've found recently.

Each day, I try to put one or two things into Love Bug’s “workbox”.  It’s more like a play box, really, but it looks just like his older siblings workboxes.  When they delve into their workboxes each morning at 9:30, Love Bug can open his and find something fun to play with.

My goal is to be vigilant about putting the toys away at the end of each school day and then reintroducing them at some future point. We’ve had a few tears shed, (although mostly from my preschooler) about the toys being put away but I haven’t caved so far.  I figure the key to my homeschooling sanity is keeping Love Bug occupied and if I have to dry a few tears from my preschooler over toys, then I can live with that.

Other things I’ve used to occupy Love Bug include toys designed for older children.  For example, he loves our Connect Four game and will sit for a long time putting all the checkers in and then dumping them out. I’ve taken board games, like Monopoly Junior, removed the board, paper money and cards. That leaves him with the box and the little houses and other game pieces.  He thinks this is great fun.

When I embarked on our homeschooling journey last summer, one of my biggest concerns was how to keep my youngest child occupied.  Most of the advice I found was to keep crayons and play dough handy.  I thought, “That’s it?”  I knew that would keep my kiddo occupied for about five or ten minutes.  What, I wondered, was I going to do the rest of the day?

Of course, I took full advantage of nap times, but now that he is not napping much anymore, I’m on a quest to find new and creative ways to keep him occupied. What creative ideas do you have for keeping toddlers busy? If you’ve written about it on your blog, put a link in the comments section below.

Our Workbox System

I’ve decided to try workboxes again.  We haven’t been homeschooling long, still in our first year, but I keep thinking there has to be a better way to get organized.  I feel like I’m all over the place, looking for the math book and Firefly’s handwriting workbook every day, and even if he puts them back where they belong, nothing seems to be located in the same place.  This will be our third major re-organization, but each time it gets better and makes things easier.   As always, the first requirement is that our new system must be toddler-proof.  Here’s what I’ve come up with.  We’ll see how it goes for a while and I’ll update my blog and let you all know how it’s going in the future.

In Target stores, this is the R.E. (Room Essentials) Organize brand Large ShowOffs Box by Sterlite. Holds letter-size hanging files.

We have a new, hanging file type of workbox system in portable file  boxes.  The file boxes fit easily on our already existing shelves (Expedit from Ikea), they have handles on top so the kids can easily carry them to wherever they are working, and if Love Bug just can’t keep his cute, pudgy hands off of them, I can easily move them to a secret, undisclosed location.

It also enables me to easily carry them to my desk in another room where I fill them prior to the next school day.

Here is our former, short-lived workbox system.

Old workbox system. A bargain, the rack and boxes were purchased at a yardsale for $10. Unfortunately, they didn't work out as workboxes but are great toy bins for small cars, action figures, and apparently, rocks, as I discovered the other day.

The problem with this workbox rack and boxes were that (a) we had angled boxes, which did not fit some of our books, abacus, etc. and (b) Love Bug kept dumping them so we had to keep them behind the gate that was at the bottom of our stairs. Not terribly convenient. And I was carrying the whole heavy rack back and forth every night from my home office to refill the boxes, and then back to it’s place behind the baby gate. Yeah, that got old kinda fast.

So anyway, back to the NEW system (click on the images to make them larger).

Next to the workboxes, there are activities containers, which hold educational toys and games for each child.  This is their go-to place when I am working one on one with a sibling.  They can also choose to pull things out of their workboxes and make a go of it independently or use the computer for educational sites during these times.

If you’re reading about workboxes, you’re probably familiar with how they started.  Sue Patrick is the creator of the original Workbox system and author of the book by the same name.  If you ever get an opportunity to attend one of her workshops, I recommend it, because Sue has a lot of really great ideas not only about workboxes, but lots of other creative educational ways to make learning activities for kids.  And she has a great deal on Velcro dots on her website (and, no, I am not getting anything for saying that).

If you do a search on workboxes, you’ll find as many variations of workbox systems as there are homeschool blogs out there. Here’s how the rest of our system works. We’ve actually been using these task discs for some time now and they’ve worked well.

My master sheet of discs. Easy to find, so I don't have to sort through a pile. These attach to the front of each file folder. Tasks that don't involve paperwork, books or supplies are attached directly to the front of the workbox. Discs made with Microsoft clip art, then laminated, and cut with a 1.5 inch circle punch from the scrapbooking section at a craft store (Another addictive tool. I've worn out one and am on my second. Oh, the many uses of the circle punch.).

Coordinating supplies boxes hold pencils, scissors, glue stick, crayons, etc. They fit inside the front of the workbox when not in use. Available in Target stores.

I went ahead and made a workbox, an activity bin and a supplies case for my two year old, too because (a) I wanted all the workboxes to match and even though he isn’t doing school stuff yet, it would bother me if, a couple years down the road, Target stopped selling these boxes or changed the design or color. I’m OCD like that; and (b) When Love Bug starts digging through one his siblings’ stuff, I direct him to his own boxes, etc.

Supplies box, file folder and lid to workbox all fit with plenty of space for more. Larger books and other items go on the shelf next to the workbox.

Each child has their own colored name labels, which coordinate their workbox and supplies box and whatever else I can stick a laminated piece of cardstock with velcro dots to. (Have I mentioned that I am kinda crazy about my laminator and my velcro dots?)

I was inspired to re-organize and try the workboxes again by a couple of other blogs I’ve read lately. Check them out, they have some great information.

Peace Creek on the Prairie I got the idea for the “Look What I Did Today!” page and also putting some discs on the outside of the workbox here.  Thank you, Peace Creek Mom!

Heather at Blog, She Wrote.   Heather’s blog has a great update on how workboxes have worked for their family after using them for some time.  The comments that readers are left are interesting as well.  One thing that is mentioned here and other places over and over again is that workboxes can often be used to fill with busy work and seem to be more of a “school at home” approach rather than a flexible, meet-the-learning-needs-of-your-particular-child approach.

I can see how it would be easy to fill workboxes with busy work.  But who says you have to fill all the boxes/folders every day?  I only put the number of folders in the box that need to be done that day. If we are doing reading, math, science, handwriting and art on Monday, that’s what goes in the workbox.  On Tuesday, if we are only doing reading, math and Five in a Row, there’s only 3 folders that day.

So there you have it.  Workboxes, take two.  I’ll keep you posted.

***An update on our workboxes can be found here.  This includes a video of how our workbox system is organized.