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By James Clements, posted on 24th March 2020

Learning at home: Organising the day

The children are going to be at home for a while and as parents, we’re going to need to keep their education ticking over. So, what’s the best way to organise the day?

Thankfully, the whole world seems to have an opinion. Friends, relatives, and strangers on social media are keen to share their well-meaning advice, advocating everything from a strict timetable with everything planned in detail to the need for children be left to follow their interests, learning what they need through play and games. And that’s before we note the advice to forget about schoolwork altogether and snuggle down under a comfy blanket until all of this has passed.

While some of us might have strong opinions about the right way to do things, for most of us it’s about trying to find the right balance. The truth is that, like almost every aspect of parenting, what works best will be different for every family. Here are some suggestions to help find the best way to organise things for you, moving from the most structured to the least:

1. The Formal Timetable

For some families, setting what’s going to happen when in a timetable will be the best way to organise home learning. Setting out all the activities that need to be done for each member of the family and allocating times to them means that everything will actually get done.

It might be that there are different children of different ages who all need a share of adult attention and a turn on the computer or tablet to access work from school. It might be that two adults are taking it in turns to work and to care for the children, and who’s in charge needs to be planned in advance. If a timetable might work for you, here are some things to think about:

  • You probably don’t need a school timetable. schools are wonderful and teachers know exactly how to plan a school day, but we’re not running a school. What takes an hour for a whole class to learn might only take twenty minutes if you’re sitting with one or two children. Watching a film or football in the garden wouldn’t be on a school timetable, but they’re great ideas for a home timetable.
  • Plan in broad brushstrokes. Planning twenty-minute sessions for painting, junk-modelling, cooking, and drawing across the week might be too much detail. A slot for ‘arts time’ every day/every couple of days might be better. They’re desperate to make models? Great, raid the recycling box for junk modelling. You can’t face clearing up after painting? Crayons it is!
  • Trial it and see. It’s not cheating to change your timetable as you go. Some things will take less time than you think and will some will take longer (mostly the clearing up!). Some things will be at the wrong time at first – for example, when they’re too tired or too hungry. Adapting as you go is sensible.
  • Build in some empty spaces. It’s tempting to plan every moment of every day in minute detail, but it’s guaranteed that the real world will get in the way of your plans. There’ll be things that don’t get finished, things that take longer than you think, or times when children don’t understand something and need a bit more practice. Building in catch-up slots means this can happen without messing up the rest of your plans. And if you don’t need a particular slot then it’s an extra session of free play – something that is guaranteed to be popular!
  • Be flexible. The half an hour of reading is up, but they’re really enjoying the story? Carrying on is the best thing you can do. Planned to do some maths, but your child is tired or wants to talk about something in the news? Do that instead. It might be best to think of a timetable as an aspiration, rather than an obligation that you’ll come to resent.

2. The Semi-timetable

Not every moment of every day needs to be timetabled. For some families, planning some aspects and leaving the rest of your time free will be the best approach to take. This might involve:

  • Timetabling part of the day. Perhaps you could timetable the mornings. Home learning is likely to be quicker than school, so you might be able to fit some reading, times tables, writing, time for running around and some online activities before lunch, leaving the afternoon free to follow children’s interests and play. A timetable doesn’t have to cover the whole day.
  • Timetable opportunities. There are so many online events and lessons that are being put on at the moment: live-streamed PE lessons in the morning, children’s authors reading their books in the afternoon, educational TV programmes being shown. You might also want to build in slots every day to talk to friends or family online. These can be placed on a weekly timetable and everything else can be fitted in around them.
  • Timetable your time, not theirs. The timetables that circulate on social media always seem to show the best way to organise the children’s day. Another approach is to timetable your time. If you’re balancing work and family, block in the slots where you need to work and the times when you can give them your undivided attention. This might work better than trying to play with them while also checking emails on your phone. If there’s more than one of you at home trying to balance work, children, and household jobs, planning in advance who’s responsible at different times might save some stress.
  • Timetable the technology. If you’ve got more than one child at home and they all have online work to complete and all want to talk to friends on the tablet, and they all want to play games too, drawing up a timetable allows you to be transparent and fair – everyone knows in advance where everyone’s slots are so (in theory, at least!) there can be no complaints.

3. Lists

One approach that sits in the middle of a full timetable and an entirely free day is having a daily list. Written the night before, it simply lists the jobs to be done that day. It might look something like:

Ali’s list: Tuesday

  • Make beds and tidy bedroom floor
  • Read aloud to an adult (25 mins)
  • Online spelling game
  • Write a letter to Grandma
  • Online maths exercise from school
  • Dancing until we’re out of breath (30 mins)
  • Watch a family film

Everyone in the house has their own list, with some shared activities and some that are unique to them. With younger children, you can work though the list with them, but allow them choose the order (and let them tick things off – there’s nothing more satisfying!). Older children can be responsible for working through their list on their own – great for helping them to become independent. And when the lists are done, everyone’s time is their own.

4. Flexible days

At the other end of the spectrum from a timetable is an approach where there is complete flexibility over what children do and when they do it. For some families, this will be the perfect approach. If this is for you, you might want to think about:

  • This approach still needs some planning. The child-centred approach used to great effect by lots of nurseries and EYFS settings requires huge amounts of thought and expertise. Even though it might look like learning is occurring spontaneously, opportunities have often been carefully planned and resourced. Building in an opportunity to practise their maths though cooking is wonderful, but having the right resources ready takes some planning beforehand.
  • Monitor what you’re all doing. If a flexible approach works best in your home, it’s still worth keeping an eye on how everyone spends their time. It’s easy for certain activities to slip through the net. Perhaps there’s been lots of reading, but there hasn’t been much exercise for a couple of days? If so, you can try to adjust the balance for the next few days.
  • Repetition is fine (and likely). For parents, it’s not unusual to end up reading the same bedtime over and over again. Following children’s interests can be a similar experience – painting for three days solid and then no interest in painting for a week, or an obsession with the same tables app until every level is unlocked and then no desire to play it again. Remember that with a flexible approach things will probably even out over time. (And if there’s something that children never seem to want to do, you’re not being a bad parent to insist they do it sometimes – quite the opposite in fact!)
  • Give children choices. A flexible approach doesn’t have to mean giving children a completely free reign over their time. Offering them the option of two or three activities or letting them choose the order that they do things still gives them ownership, but it means you’ll be able to do the things you want them to do too.
  • Factor in some time for you. While it’s wonderful for the children, this approach can be hard work for parents. Work or jobs around the house might mean that you can only schedule certain times for this. Even if home learning is the only thing you need to focus on, building in some time when they are getting on with something on their own – playing, watching something, or colouring – will give you some space. There’s a lot to be said for letting children get a bit bored and have to learn to occupy themselves too. There’s likely to be lots going on in everyone’s lives at the moment, so no one needs to feel guilty about taking some time for themselves.

However you choose to organise things, it’s worth remembering that parenting can be a tricky business, especially in these extraordinary times. Now’s the time to be kind to each other and not to judge each other’s decisions. Just because someone has a timetable to follow, it doesn’t mean that they’re setting up a Victorian school with children sat in rows handwriting in silence all day. Joyful, creative, child-led activities can all be timetabled, too. Equally, just because someone hasn’t planned any schoolwork activities, it doesn’t mean that their children aren’t learning lots through the thinking, talking, building, creating, reading, and writing they are doing by choice.

It’s tempting to look at what other people are doing and make comparisons, but what’s right at the moment will be different for every family. And, of course, your situation might dictate that you can’t do exactly what you’d like to do. Go easy on yourself – we’re all doing our best at the moment.

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