How to keep your child busy (and learning!) while you work

I'm guessing you're feeling somewhere between 'just keeping it together' and 'sheer panic' right now.  Perhaps you previously had one or some of your child(ren) at home with you…and now they’re all around all the time. Or maybe you work outside the home and now you’re trying to do that inside the home…while being attacked by hyenas.

Hyenas that save their loudest screams for the most important conference calls.

And these hyenas don’t ever seem to want to play by themselves.

Why don’t all those lists of free activities keep my child busy?

I've seen so many blog posts online recently containing some variation of "300 Amazing Activities For Your Child!"

Probably some of them were a hit, and some took 10 times as long to set up as they kept your kids busy. Why is this?

It's because they didn’t engage your child’s current schema.

What’s a Schema?

Schemas are patterns of repeated behavior that allow children to explore and develop their play through their thoughts and ideas. It’s sort of like an innate urge to do a certain kind of activity or movement over and over again. These can show up in children’s play just before or around their first birthday.

Some of the most common schemas are: connecting, enclosing, enveloping, orientation, positioning, rotation, trajectory, and transporting.

Take a look at a list and short description of the schemas here.

How schemas are going to help you free up time

The key to using schemas right now is that if we can match the activity we offer our child with the schema they’re currently exploring, they will naturally be drawn to do it. We’re not just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks (doodles with Mo Willems! Cosmic Kids Yoga! Math worksheets!). We’re observing our children and offering activities that they will probably really like.

Which means they'll play longer.

By themselves.

So review the list of schemas, and ask yourself which you’ve seen in your child’s play. They may have only one, or perhaps several – either is fine!

Once you’ve identified your child’s current schema, choose an activity or two. I put together a set of really small, tightly curated Pinterest boards, organized by schema, so you don’t have to wade through thousands of activities to find one that will work. Just click on your child’s schema below and go right there:

If none of those catch your eye, there’s a longer list of potential activities here. Any activity that seems like it will connect with your child's schema is worth offering.

How to present the activity to your child

It’s possible that when you present an activity that matches their current schema exploration, your child will JUMP right on it with no encouragement.

Here’s my 5.5YO, Carys, reenacting her reaction when I asked if she would like to sort out her crayons and markers. (She’s deep into a positioning schema right now.)

Bingo: I just bought myself an hour of of work time.

You can bet that sorting approximately 5,000 fuse beads is going to be something she returns to over and over again in the coming days; here they are in-progress:

​If your child doesn’t immediately latch onto the idea and you’re sure you’ve accurately identified their schema, sit down with them for a few minutes and start the activity. Once your child is engaged, gently withdraw yourself.“I’m just going to check on dinner in the oven,” or “I’m going to be sitting [unstated: working on my laptop] right here next to you.” Gently withdraw yourself, and start on your own tasks.

Whatever you do, do NOT interrupt your child. Don’t ask them how it’s going. Don’t ask them if they need help. Don’t engage them at all until they engage you. If they get stuck, return them gently to the task, offer the smallest amount of help you can, and withdraw again. Rinse and repeat until it’s lunch time or you’ve finished your task or you can see they’re REALLY ready to move on.

Yes, this is supporting their learning (your child’s daycare/preschool teachers are trained in using this methodology).

Yes, it’s going to help you get stuff done.



Learning Membership reopens in September

I invite you to join the Learning Membership. Enrollment isn’t officially open yet, but we’re doing a special pre-sale this year: you can sign up anytime between now and the official enrollment window of September 12-22nd and get a 10% discount on whichever sliding scale pricing option works for you. We’ll get started on October 1. Click the image below to learn more.





If your child is old enough to ask questions, they're old enough for you to start supporting their intrinsic love of learning using schemas - and so much more. Join the FREE You Are Your Child's Best Teacher workshop - pre-work goes out on August 25; workshop starts August 29. Click the image below to sign up!


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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