The Toddler and Pre-School Circuit

Lace-up Cards, great for motor skills and sequencing with numbers and letters

Homeschooling moms are routinely overwhelmed with how to occupy the little ones while the big kids are doing their schoolwork. (And since many families opt to keep their toddler and pre-school aged kids at home, this post isn’t just for homeschooling mothers.) Like many of you, I was overwhelmed as well, until I started a daily toddler circuit, and now our mornings are flowing much more smoothly. I have only one child of actual school age (Gianna–1st grade), and while Charlie is now ready for a small amount of seatwork and writing, he is still pre-school age, so I like to include him in our daily circuit prior to his workbooks.  I have spent the better part of this year working on a circuit system for my two boys (Gus, age 3 and Charlie, age 5). The goal of the circuit is twofold, (1) it should provide fun and educational activities for kids ages 2-5 and (2), it should keep order and structure in the school room. All this leads to a sane mom, happy kids, and productive older children.

Letter puzzle cards. Older children can make words younger ones will identify and connect like letters. This concept also works with magnet letters and a magnet board.

The concept is pretty basic. I gather various age appropriate and stimulating activities for kids ages 2-5. I want these activities to represent various skill sets, for example, counting, patterns, fine motor skills, colors, alphabet, etc.. All pre-schoolers do the same activity for 20 minutes, then I swap in a new activity. We do 3-4 activities each morning. At the end of the circuit we do a read aloud, which also lasts for 20 minutes. Overall, the pre-schoolers in my house are occupied for around two hours each morning. They have fun, I have fun, we have structure, and everyone is learning.

Linking cubes, great for building, patterns, and motor skills. I purchased these and many other supplies at Lakeshore Learning Store

Just recently I began caring for my 4 year old nephew several days a week. After a few rough days of chaos, occasional fighting, and very little schoolwork, I decided to be much stricter about our circuit. All three boys would be required to participate for at least 3-4 rounds, plus read aloud time. The first two days were a bit of a disaster. My nephew and both of my sons regularly asked to do other activities. If I said yes, all boys wound up in the playroom. Fighting would quickly ensue, and soon toys were coming into the schoolroom and Gianna was participating in their play and completely neglecting her work. I soon insisted that all three boys sit for each round of the circuit. Each activity would last only 20 minutes. I explained this and set the timer in clear view of the boys. They had two choices, either they could do the activity, or they could sit in their seat and rest until the timer went off. It took a day or two to let them know I was really serious, there was some complaining, but now, only one week later, I have all three boys asking to do school immediately after breakfast!

The system is working so well that I wanted to share it with all of you.

Consider adding some rolling pins, butter knives and a few things to make impressions into the dough
Numbered flash cards and teddy bear counters. I ask the boys to put the right number of teddy bears onto each card.

I included some pictures of our activities, and here they are in list form–

1)  Playdough

2)  Pattern Blocks

3)  Linking Cubes

4)  Lace-up Cards

5)  Flash cards and number counting

6)  Beading (you can use penne and even paint it before you make necklaces)

7)  Coloring

8)  Magnet/Puzzle letter play

9)  Sorting with vehicle counters

Here are some tips/pointers–

1) Start with playdough or another really hands on activity. We begin each day with 20 minutes of playdough. We make our own, and each child has their own color, making it more personal and inviting.

Vehicle Counters, sort by type of vehicle or color, or use as counters

2) Introduce only one new activity each day. This allows mastery of certain skills and also allows children to concentrate with familiar things like play dough.

3) Save circuit or school toys for school so that the supplies are new and exciting.

4) Have at least 8-10 activities so everything remains new and exciting

5) If you are really organized, make a schedule so that all activities find their way into the circuit, also consider allowing the children to choose between two things for the next activity.

Pattern Blocks

6) Be strict about your 15-20 minute time requirements. If the kids get bored, tell them they have two choices, they can either sit and rest until the timer goes off, OR they can participate. If the kids want to continue playing with the activity after the timer ends (this happens with the playdough in our house!), insist that they clean up, otherwise the activity loses it’s luster and isn’t nearly as exciting the next day.

7) Incorporate seasonally appropriate crafts and activities into the circuit.

Please comment with any ideas and tips you have for circuit activities or variations of the circuit that work in your home. In addition, here are some helpful links with more ideas (h/t MaryAlice)– :clown:

File Folder games

Tot Trays

Milk Cap Numbers

A really good Montessori site

The Alphabet Box, with laminated pictures or objects


And I will post my playdough recipe later this week!

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  • Mary Alice

    We did the circuit on Monday and it was AMAZING! Monday is not a school day for us, we have lots of activities outside of the house, but we don’t leave until 10. Normally it is free play/chaos until then. Yesterday, though, we did 3 circuit activities. All 6 children, ages 9-2 sat at the table and worked quietly for an hour. I think that beginning with the playdough is a big key to success. nnI have TONS of preschool activities and montessori works, but they never get “chosen” — instead my toddlers just make messes while I do school. The older kids did all of those works because I was basically doing a one on one version of the circuit with them, but our preschool stuff is gathering dust. Meanwhile, when I did start “school” with my five year olds, they were totally ready intellectually and academically but not as far as discipline went — they could not sit still and do an activity of my choosing for 20 minutes, so it was impossible to teach them. nnMy hope is that using a non-academic preschool circuit with my 2 and 3 year old (I do not want to teach them to read early), they will learn to focus and have discipline at the table, and also work on fine motor skills, which will make school so much easier.nnYesterday, I did the breakfast dishes and prepped for dinner while the kids did the circuit, with older ones at the table it went really smoothly. I will save new activities for days when I am available to be at the table as well.

  • Wow, you’re much more organized than I ever was!nnWhat we did was allow the younger ones to follow along in their own way. If my second grader was working with pattern blocks, we had match-the-block-pattern cards for the preschooler. Or if we were working with Miquon, I’d make a pattern of colors or angles for the younger ones to mimic (then they’d do one for me to copy).nnA few other things saved me: family-wide read-alouds, books on CD or Jim Weiss story CDs to listen to while playing with blocks/Lego/Playmobil, simple experiments like “what floats?” or making different type of aluminum foil boats, mix-n-match animal collages (cut out animal pix, separate into head/body/rear, rearrange and glue), collect 20 things beginning with the ‘k’ sound, etc. nnBut when push came to shove, what worked best for me was spending time with the little ones *before* trying to sit down with the older ones. They’re far less disruptive when they’re feeling full of love. nn

  • Anonymous

    Julia, thanks for the great ideas.nnAnd I will add that the organization has certainly been forced upon me! I feel as if I’m running a pre-school here, with three boys aged 3,4, and 5, and a baby (15 months) and a 1st grader! The boys will literally maim one another if left unattended, haha! Necessity is the motivator behind my organization 😉

  • Kerry Haslam

    this is awesome.nI just got my “school area” set up for my daughter.nnI’m realllly tempted to spend a lot at Lakeshore Learning…. :)nnThanks for the great ideas!n

  • Anonymous

    I think the discipline aspect of the circuit is really great. I’m so glad it worked for you guys yesterday. You and I might appreciate this more than most because we have so many young ones to care for while trying to do school. And I agree that our pre-school activities do not get “chosen” unless I force the issue a bit. I am thinking about contacting the lady running our local homeschool conference and offering a brief workshop on the concept.

  • How do you get your Gus to sit for such a long time? Was it just good old fashion discipline. Duh, right. Did you start with a shorter time and work your way up? Any little details would be helpful. This could be quite a war with some children.nnBoy, this is going to pay off big for you later on. It is not so much the things they learn, but the ability to sit using self control and do work. Because of what was going on in our household, I really did not do much preschool with my son Z. Besides being under a stressful situation, I thought, he already knows everything a preschool should know. Play may be a child’s work, but now I have a 1st grader who doesn’t like to sit and do his schoolwork because all he wants to do is PLAY. He is by FAR my hardest child to teach. nnMy issue is the my two boys have always played great together. They easily fill all the hours of the day with play. This is a great blessing, but it does not motivate me to fight the war of getting them to sit for an hour. My point is even if you are not driven to this out of desperation, this still would be a really good way to prepare your child for school and teach them self-control. nnJP is going to love this. He is always telling me he needs to finish his school work, but with a 1st and 4th grader, it is hard to find the time.nnHere are some other ideas:nuniform wooden blocks ( you could add counter or plastic animals if not too distracting to others )nnLakeshore Learning has free printable that changes every month (under free resources, teachers corner) You can even make your own flash cards or word search.nnPrivacy Partitions – keeps them from seeing what the other are doing, as well as teasing the others :-)nnEvan Moore has some cute theme books for preschooler that would have great ready made ideas for circuit. nnn

  • Mary Alice

    Karen, I had the same problem, twins who played together so I didn’t have to plan anything for them, but at 6 they would still rather play all day! I don’t expect much school work from them, only a few hours a day, but they can’t just play lego all day long.nnAs for the discipline aspect, Leo is the same age as Gus. It helped to start with playdough becuase they really like that, and it is sort of physical, but I told him he had to stay in his chair, he could play or just sit there, but he had to stay in his chair. He got up and I silently just placed him back in his chair. We had to do this two or three times, but then he got the message. I was amazed, I would have told you that he was not capable of sitting for an hour, but he did..

  • Maria

    I did these type of activities the first half of our homeschooling year with my 2.5 and 4 year old girls while I worked with my 5 year old boy – while the baby took her morning nap. Now the baby is over a year and no longer takes a morning nap. Chaos has ensued!!! nnThe baby is obviously too young to participate in any of the preschool activities, but don’t try to tell her that. She simply screams and cries while I’m holding her the entire time, straining with all her might to get the nearest item to her. She is very, very extroverted and simply must be in the middle of whatever project we are working on. She is only 13 months old so I can’t really discipline her (besides restraining her from unsafe activities) and the playpen route had proven to be a total scream feast. I don’t know what to do. All the children have quiet/nap time at the same time in the afternoon, and I hate to disrupt this traditional part of our schedule and use it for school time for the eldest. We all really need a smal break from each other and it works very well. Plus the preschoolers really need a little structured time in their schedule. Any ideas about what to do with the 12-24 month old crowd?

  • Mary Alice

    Red and I were talking about this very issue, she has a one year old and I have a two year old, both are sort of too young for these activities. My two year old was able to work with the group while buckled in to his stokke chair and pullled up to the table, until pattern block time when he was swiping blocks from the nearest child, so we had to move everyone away from him. Red was thinking of trying her baby in the highchair with some of the activities, at least the ones that would not be choking hazards?nnAlso, I forgot to add that I put on classical music while they worked on the circuit, we used to do this during montessori preschool with the older ones and it really helps everyone to calm down and not talk so much while they work.nnCould you have a basket of baby toys (soft blocks, stacking rings, etc) and give them to her in her high chair at this time, or assign one child to play with her on the floor as part of the circuit? Do you have a jump-a-roo? My kids were usually good for 20 minutes in that every morning, so that could also be part of your circuit.nnI agree with your inclination to preserve nap/quiet time as a break for the family. For me, the exception is that each of my children has worked with me during quiet time when they were learning to read, there was just this crucial need for one on one time for a few months when the phonics and blending were really starting to come together. We would only work for about 20 minutes, though, so it still left plenty of quiet time for me.nnAs you know, you also can repeat to yourself B-Mama’s advice, this too shall pass! Even by about 18 months she will be much more able to participate in these sorts of activities.nn

  • Kate

    Thanks for the original post Red and thanks for this question and response. For us, even though we have preschool outside the house, the days he is home from school and the SNOW days are killer. He is used to that structured classroom time and is begging for activities…I was telling him to just go play but I found if he got to do some sort of schoolwork style activity that he would then go do imaginative play later on. This is just the help I need to have some more organized schoolwork ready to go for him, limiting the time on each activity getting us through those long mornings.nnWe also have a non-morning napping baby (15 months) and I’m trying to hum the “this too shall pass” mantra. It is a darn tough stage. I find that by moving her location and focusing her activity we can get through a good chunk of time while Jack gets uninterrupted time without her messing with his stuff. So we’ll go to the kitchen and have a bath in the sink. Then we’ll go to the dining room (where he is) and sit in the high chair with some books to look at. Move to the playroom for a fill and spill activity, you get the idea. I like the idea of working 20min of big brother playtime into the activity circuit, he loves to play with her but often on his terms, this would be a nice way to make it fun for him (anything “school work” is immediately fun and importnat). One of their favorites is she will pick animals out of a big bin and he will name them and make the sound for her…give it a whirl it’s a hoot 🙂

  • Mary Alice

    you said “I found if he got to do some sort of schoolwork style activity that he would then go do imaginative play later on” nnI found this to be true also, they played really well with trains and tracks in the afternoon and have been using the playroom better in general, actually taking things out and playing with them rather than just trashing it!

  • Anonymous

    I was very firm with Gus and let him know that he had two choices, sit for the activity or rest in the chair. He does usually try to get up once or twice during the morning, but I firmly place him back in his seat and reiterate the two choices. I didn’t work up to 20 minutes, but instead we start with an activity he loves (play dough) and that gets him in the mood to sit for longer periods of time. I also allow the kids to get a drink between session one and two, and take a bathroom break after they ask permission.

  • Anonymous

    I agree the baby age is difficult! My Claire is 15 months and she is a real pistol 😉 I try to give her some toys to play with on the floor, but she is much more interested in the boys and their schoolwork. I am going to try the high chair and some “school” toys, I may also try a snack (even though I don’t ever give my kids snacks!), and then I’m just going to wait it out.

  • Mary Alice

    There was this book called The Cheerios Book that has places to put a cheerio on each page, she could do that and also sort of eat them but it would only be a handful of cheerios….nnWe had another great morning with the circuit. One thing that worked for us today, the older two did seat work while the younger four did the circuit. Then, the older two had recess and played with the toddlers while the middle ones did seat work, then the middle ones played with the toddlers while I did Latin with the oldest. Altogether, this kept my 2 and 3 year old occupied/supervised for almost 3 hours!nnThe montessori idea is to work up to a “three hour work period” — I am thinking, based on what we are doing now, that this will be possible for us, to have a modified version of the circuit going for the whole morning, 9-12. nnI hope to be able to pull the 6 year olds out of the circuit one at a time to work on reading with them nearby. nnI have also made a simple chart for myself with a list of my circuit ideas/choices, and how often I am presenting them, so I can keep track and make sure that we are working in different skills.nnAlso, during our first two circuits, playdough and drawing, I was able to fold a basket of laundry!

  • Elenaculshaw

    Wonderful post. I couldn’t help but notice the posters on your windows. I have been scouring the internet looking for those very posters. Where did you get them? Thanks, Elena

  • Texas Mommy

    Thanks for this awesome post! I think when people ask, “how do you do it” this is the type of answer they are looking for!! As much as I love all things Montessori, leaving works accessible to choice does not work as the 2 year old will trash them or they will be abused when my attention is diverted. I think the circuit idea is much more practical when homeschooling a variety of ages. nnI agree that the structure of the morning time yields better play time! We had one of our hardest months ever when I was unable to provide structure for the other boys while tending to our post-surgery 3 year old.

  • We do our “circuits” on saturdays or lately since he’s been home a few snow days (argh! when will it be spring?)… anyway here is some of what we do:nn1) Set up… for those who have limited space, we have no playroom and a small family room so the physical therapist helped us create stations. We do one at the coffee table (it’s circular with wheels and perfect height for toddlers to stand at it…best.purchase.ever) Station 2 is just an area on the sectional sofa, same height as the table. Station 3 is the floor. I spread them out as far as possible to make him cruise or use his walker before he was walking. Something I sometimes do is bring the booster highchair in from the kitchen and have him sit in it and do a tray activity as another station. We also have a sofa table w/shelf behind one of the sofas that is great for “hiding” manipulatives I want to have ready but that we’re not using right then. Also love having a dimmer lightswitch! Just dimming the lights from say 90% to 20% is a great visual cue “it’s quiet time now”nn2) Re: activities/toys… for a general line I have really liked the Plan toys preschool items b/c they are VERY simple each focusing on one basic skill. Plus they wear really well for multiple kids or those tough on toys. For specific things my son likes to do, he has a really poor attention span so the floor station plus alternating active vs. quiet activities helps a lot. The rare specific activities that really hold his attention are:n-Bright and Beyond flash cards (sets for 0-3 yrs)n-pop beadsn-that Melissa and Doug latches board (i’m sure you know the one)n-this guy, “Buckle Bear” n nnI’ve seen it mesmerize three toddlers for a good length of time. A couple other resources I use are and (under the “Teacher” section about a third of the printables are free.)nnOne question I definitely have if any ladies can help… what do you do with an infant or small toddler who may still swallow a lot of things? How do you keep the toys separated? My son still has this issue of wanting to eat everything and when I watch his cousins once/week it’s so hard to do certain activities like coloring, crafts, play-doh etc. when there is one child who just wants to mouth everything. Anyone have this issue?n

  • Mrs C

    Thanks for this post – this is great. I’m reading up on homeschooling stuff now (I know it’s a long way off still). nn

  • Anonymous

    Lakeshore Learning Store, and yes I’m mildly obsessed with that place!

  • Catherine

    These are all really great ideas. I have 3 preschoolers at home and a homeschooled 2nd grader. Maybe I missed this in your post, but what is your 1st grader doing during this time? Is she working independently? My 2nd grader needs tons of guidance to stay on track and I’m not sure how one manages two separate tracks–preschool and elementary at the same time? My preschoolers are typically tearing their rooms apart while I’m trying to work with my oldest, so I’d love some advice!

  • Jenny Andrews

    There are some good ideas on this site, too:nn

  • FutureMrsW

    I find that even now I debate the school choice for George’s and my “future children.” (God willing). My background is elementary ed and my current work in supplemental education (cleaning up the “messes” made my the school system) have opened wide the doors to homeschooling for me, and the thought of a system like this makes me very excited 🙂 Kudos to you for coming up with it!