Working and Learning from Home with Young Children

My partner and I both work from home, and here are the most important things I’ve learned as we’ve attempted to balance two careers and an inquisitive, extremely energetic child with much less than full childcare coverage, first in NYC and now in rural Oregon. 

NB: I drafted this very quickly, there are probably mistakes. (Also the rest of this site is an ancient blog and probably full of broken links and pitfalls, good luck.)

Plan for chaos

Your WFH days are never going to go as planned and your school-at-home days aren’t either. Resilient rhythms and routines will help you recover faster. Treat it like you’re in a new time zone in which you are only available for certain hours of the day, and remember that the whole world is dealing with this right now—your employer will get it soon, if not right away.

Don’t be Captain Homeschool on day one

Especially if you’ve never been home with kids before or if your kids are used to school schedules, just spend the first week or two of your kid shifts playing and hanging out and making things together. Make whatever you and your kid(s) like—crafts, models, block buildings, Lego, pies, art, videos, beats. (If you have tiny kids this is the time to bust out the fingerpaints in the bathtub.) Building routines and tolerance for extended time together is way more important than doing worksheets or rolling out a math curriculum right away.

Our all-time most important homeschool resources have been alphabet magnets, number cards with simple operator symbols, and a million books.

Load up on handwork and books

Paper, paints, craft boxes, puzzle books, reference books, LOTS OF BOOKS, small scissors, a case of scotch tape, glue sticks, pipe cleaners, wooden beads, googly eyes, popsicle sticks, stickers, more paper, cardstock. Circuit kits and robots are great for slightly older kids as well.

Gradually add in learning stuff that suits your actual kid(s)

Falling behind is truly not a thing to worry about for the first couple of weeks of school closures. If your school is running online learning, be supportive of your kids while they do it. It can be weird and isolating for them, too.

Especially if your kids are younger than middle-school age, you probably have enormous freedom in HOW you help them learn, so this is your chance to play to their strengths rather than holding them to strict expectations. There are a million curricula and resource sets, but I strongly recommend adding in one thing at a time, watching how it works, and adjusting from there. 

If the worst thing that happens in a global pandemic is that our kids get more time doing creative play and get a little off Common Core, we’re going to do great.

When you’re with your kid try to be with your kid

We’ve found that switching parents and managing routines works better for everyone if the person running kid-watch at any given point is cognitively and emotionally present with the kid. That means not looking at phones except in emergencies, using do not disturb mode, and maintaining parental focus and brain health by working together on projects we all enjoy and spending a lot of time outside—in city parks, in yards, in trees.

Rhythms > schedules

For meetings, you’re probably going to have to schedule things on the clock. For almost everything else, I’ve found that rhythms are better than timed schedules, in large part because a simple rhythm is resilient, so when something goes sideways, recovery is much simpler.

Our rhythm is based on a two-parent household and attempts to alternate periods of big expanding energy and calm contracting energy so no one burns out on a single mode. Single parents or families with at least one person who will be out of the house are playing on Max Difficulty, I salute you.

Here’s a rhythm we use, as an image and as an ugly table I haven’t had time to format.

Work triage for parents for child emerges
Food, coffee, showers, morning meetingAll fam
Playing, making, learning together (outdoors if it’s nice)One parent
Lunch (noon), followed by quiet time (45-60 min of quiet alone time for everyone)One parent
Afternoon snack, regroupOne parent
Playing, making, learning together (outdoors if it’s nice)One parent
Tidying, screens or reading, cookingOne parent
Dinner (6pm) and Bedtime routine (7pm)All fam
Cleanup, parent working and human time

I’ve found it helpful to actually write out our rhythm on a big piece of paper and post it somewhere central.

Dividing up the one-parent slots is something that takes trial and error, but I’d highly recommend trying to give each parent at least two slots in a row when possible to consolidate brain focus. Calls will move things around, as will surprise barfing, poop incidents, emergencies, etc. 

Hold a morning household meeting

After coffee and first breakfast, we circle up, get scheduled things on the whiteboard for the day, assign child-captain shifts, and list 3-5 top priorities for the day for each person. Over the course of the day, we look at the whiteboard to remember important timings and try to make sure everyone gets their top priorities taken care of. 

Once one parent heads off to work/go for a run/stand alone in the woods and scream, it’s useful to revisit the rhythm and priorities with the kid(s) so that everyone’s aware of what’s happening next and what’s coming up later.

Time your screen time carefully

For us, screen time works much better in afternoon than in the morning (when it results in crankiness that goes for hours) or evening (when it makes spinning down for sleep harder). This varies by kid, but if you notice post-screentime crabbiness or spaciness, maybe try moving that in the routine.

Build household work into kid time

This is super obvious for people who don’t have much childcare, but maybe less for other people: Some things you can learn to do with kids, depending on age and temperament. Exercise, collaborative cooking, tidying and household chores, video calls with friends and family—shifting your expectations for those things to include kids will open up time for more solo-focus things in the day. Our six-year-old cuts veg and fruit with her own real knife, knows how to mop, can load the dishwasher, and is getting real good at surface disinfection protocol, so we can work together. Getting a kid involved takes longer but makes our home happier.

Resources I love

How To Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way by Tim Seldin

I hate this book’s title, but the contents are wonderful. This isn’t a homeschool book, but it’s the first one I recommend to parents with kids younger than 5-6 who are looking at learning more at home. We’ve especially benefited from the Montessori emphasis on work as a big part of a stable routine for children—the idea that play is real, valuable work, that kids should mostly have simply designed toys and real tools, and that including children in the physical upkeep of a household and family is helpful for everyone.

Exploring Nature with Children by Raising Little Shoots

Web-based resources for looking and learning outdoors with kids—you can even run this as a curriculum, gently adding in age-appropriate reading and STEM activities as you go, or do nature journaling, or just add some structure to daily walk outside. (FYI: These resources are connected philosophically to Charlotte Mason methods of homeschooling, which are informed by a Christian philosophy, but the Raising Little Shoots resources have not been weird for our non-Christian household to use, and there’s no anti-science bias.)

Lavender’s Blue Homeschool resources

So, Waldorf schools and Waldorf-inflected homeschooling both need disclaimers about their link with anthrosophy and a lot of extreme woo, but I’ve found the overall emphasis on rhythm, nature, storytelling, and a peaceful home to be A+++ for keeping our family life uncomplicated and our household of high-strung people emotionally healthy. Lavender’s Blue has a lot of great, chill resources for structuring family life with young children who are not in school, and I’ve used some of the curricula, though I mostly tend to roll my own.

Children’s audiobooks are lifesavers for keeping frenzied small brains occupied while hands are tidying or drawing or bathing. Our favorites include Pippi Longstocking, the Narnia books, Paddington Bear, and Fortunately, the Milk.

Adventure Academy and ABC Mouse

The learning in these learning apps is alllll over the place in terms of interface quality, but ABC Mouse comes highly recommended by friends and Adventure Academy is largely friendly, fun, and solid for kids over the age of about six or seven, and the RPG experience is fun for screen time.

The Raising Free People podcast by Akilah B. Richards

For something complete different and wonderful, check this out. Deschooling and liberation centered on BIPOC families, an absolute brain-rinse. We don’t do what I think of as traditional unschooling (although I was raised that way myself) but I get so so much out of Akilah’s work and perspectives.