I'm a wife to my "Mr. Right". A momma of five. A maker of slow food and simple living. A collector of memories, a keeper of books, and a champion for books that make memories. An addict who likes my half-and-half with a splash of coffee. A fractured pot transformed by the One Who makes broken things beautiful. I heart homeschooling, brake for libraries, and am glad you're here with me on the journey! Be sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter. Or, follow along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google +, Youtube, or Pinterest.

A Simple Solution for Homeschool Down Time

A Simple Solution for Homeschool Down Time

Written by Jessica.

The new school year is in sight now. And while I've been spending quite a bit of time thinking ahead to the future, I've also been looking back at last year, specifically those blocks of unstructured time when my kids weren't working one-on-one with me, doing independent work, or doing a lesson all together as a group. To be honest, those scraps of free time between subjects didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked.

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I think a lot of my struggle in this area comes from being a former classroom teacher. One of the (many) things that unsettled me about traditional classroom education was the phenomenal amount of wasted and lost time there was. It troubled me greatly to see children literally losing hours of their childhoods each week just sitting quietly at their desks reading some arbitrary something, drawing a picture, or staring idly out the window waiting, waiting, and waiting some more for others to catch up or finish up.

Likely as a reaction to those experiences, I prefer to let my own kids just play during the downtime of the homeschool day. The trouble I’ve found, though, is that too little structure doesn’t always lead them towards making the best choices with their free time.

I’ve made other attempts before to keep my kids occupied during the waiting time. Last school year, most of those ideas fell pretty flat. My collection of independent learning games and activities had lost their luster and since we have enough “stuff” as it is, I didn’t want to invest in more of the same. Independent review pages felt too much like unnecessary busy work and were met with resistance. But falling back on unstructured free time seemed to lead to major messes, a fair amount of chaos, and the distraction of self and others more often than anything productive.

Towards the end of summer, I knew that I'd need a new plan for the upcoming school year.

Enter: the index card system, my simple solution for all our homeschool downtime!

A Simple Solution for Homeschool Down Time #homeschool

The Index Card System

The index card system is simply this: a set of index cards customized to each child's needs that gives suggestions and inspiration for what to do in the free time/waiting time during the instructional part of our homeschool day.

When I first started formulating a plan, I thought I needed something fancy with graphics and photos, color-coded cards, and a rotating cycle of activities. I soon realized that making it unnecessarily complicated for myself was going to hold me back from actually doing it. I settled on index cards and metal rings instead. It seemed like a simple enough plan. And I knew I could do simple! (You can use whatever you have to keep the cards together: brass brads, ribbon, plastic recipe card boxes, etc.).

I needed simple, but I also needed frugal. I was not going to be purchasing anything new for this. So, I walked through the living room and the bedrooms, looked through cupboards, and scanned our bookshelves for ideas. I made lists of quiet activities for each child and included a range of different kinds of things. I then copied the lists onto the index cards and fastened them with the metal rings.

In addition to simple and frugal, when putting my plan together, I also needed flexible. I did not want this to be a binding system or something that would create frustration or consternation for my children. I just wanted the index cards to be gentle cues, reminding and guiding them toward ways to use their time well. By only using index cards, I knew that I could easily add or subtract activity suggestions with ease.

One Simple Way to Curb the Chaos of Down Time in the Homeschool Day

Homeschooling and Free Time

I love the freedom that homeschooling gives our family to do "school” differently than it happens in the traditional classroom. But I also need our days to have some order--for us to get in the schoolwork that I have scheduled for each day as best as we can, and for my kids to stay focused on learning.

When I don’t have a plan for their free time/waiting time during the school portion of the day, I find that those things don’t always happen. Loud, raucous playing often creeps out of the living room or down the stairs and into the dining room where another sibling is trying to work. Bedrooms morph into elaborate scenes and set-ups that end up requiring hours of clean-up. And my children often seem to gravitate toward the same types of play and same types of toys, while other valuable things sit unused, gathering dust (puzzles, board games, mind-bender type puzzles, coloring/drawing supplies, building toys). I frequently find myself re-directing activities and behaviors, asking voices to be lowered, and monitoring pick-up sessions.

Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of letting kids just play or just be. Those things are so very important for healthy childhoods and for cultivating individual interests. But the truth is, homeschooling has given my children a lot more free time than most. They spend no wasted time traveling to and from school or sitting around in before/after school care. My kids aren’t overscheduled. We live in a rural area with very limited homeschooling extracurricular options and only participate in one homeschool group class a week. In other words, my kids have an abundance of time to do their own thing! And I’m so glad for that.

But while free time and free play is super important, having a smoother-flowing, less-interrupted, not-so-chaotic homeschool day has its merits, too. The index card system will hopefully be a framework to keep my kids focused on the school day while minimizing any wasted time for them and for me. Who knows, it might even help us to wrap up our days earlier and have more free time in the afternoons.

One Simple Way to Curb the Chaos of Down Time in the Homeschool Day

Putting It All To Use

During the upcoming school year, my children are going to have their index cards in their school caddies. Before the first day, I will sit down with them and explain that any time they’re done with their work and are waiting for my help or for the next lesson, they’ll be expected to look at their index cards to select an activity (or activities) to fill that time. I’m going to ask them for ideas of things they’d like me to add to their index card sets. I hope that getting their input and adding in some of their own choices will make the entire idea more appealing to them.

I'll be sure to include a range of activity ideas (from reading to art to building to designing to being still to moving around) because I want to keep it interesting for them and because I’d like to see my children choose more diverse activities than those they sometimes prefer to do. In other words, I hope the index card system will give each of my kids a gentle nudge toward activities that they sometimes forget about or don’t always gravitate toward on their own. I also plan to change up the index cards as often as necessary.

I do plan to include activities with toys because I value play in childhood, but these will only be quiet play type activities. In other words, “Build a scene by yourself in your room with your knights and castle” might be on someone’s list, but “Play dress-up and run around the dining room table in full knight regalia chasing each other with your wooden swords” won’t be. (And the latter is exactly the kind of thing that often happens around here during school time!).

I plan to include an abundance of ideas (more than they could ever possibly use in a week), to be as specific as possible, and to only include things that are quick to start and quick to clean up.

Here are some examples of ideas I hope to include:

Build a structure with your K’Nex set.

Read a _____ picture book. (Fill in the blank with whatever is relevant at the time: season/ holiday/history or science topic).

Make a card for _____.

Color a page in your _____ coloring book.

Work on your _____ craft kit.

Put together your _____ Lego set.

Read an article in _____ magazine.

Put together your _____ puzzle.

Play a quiet board game with _____.

Take your soccer ball to your room and see if you can bounce it off your wall and catch it _____ times.

Set the timer for five minutes and see if you can complete one of your _____ mind-bender puzzles.

Work on your _____ flashcards for five minutes.

Set the time for one minute and see how many times you can throw and catch your football without dropping it. Repeat and try to break your record.

Write your name _____ (in Morse code, with ink stampers, out of stickers).

Watch the birds with your binoculars and make a list of what you see during ten minutes.

Make a set-up with your _____ toys quietly by yourself in your room.

Tidy up the top of your _____ (bookshelf/night-stand/dresser).

Read aloud to _____.

One Simple Way to Curb the Chaos of Down Time in the Homeschool Day

Other Uses for the Index Card System

If you like this idea, too, but don’t necessarily need it during your school day, I think it’s the kind of thing that could work at other times: when you’re getting a meal ready, when you’re trying to take care of a younger sibling (nursing or nap-time), when you have to make a necessary during-the-day call for a medical appointment, etc.

It’s not something that should be used repeatedly throughout a day, as overuse would ruin the novelty. But for short-term blocks of time, an index card system could give a mama and a household some much-needed quiet and order.

Obviously, this idea would work best for proficient readers. But if you have some children who aren’t reading at all yet or who are still at the emerging reader stage, you could modify your cards with picture cues. It would require more work, but you could take pictures with your tablet or phone, re-size them, print and cut them out, and glue them onto cards.

I’m excited to try the index card system in our homeschool this upcoming school year and hope that it adds more structure to our days, minimizes distractions and messes, and makes it easier for my kids to re-focus when it’s time to come back to the table and do their school work. Here’s hoping…and here’s to a wonderful new school year!


  1. Thank you. This is a really good idea. For my houseful of busy littles (6 of them under 8, many of them with special needs), it will take significant training to get them to do this, but I can see the blessings of taking the time to train them. Thank you, again.

  2. You're welcome! I hope the idea is a blessing to you and them in the upcoming school year. Taking time to practice this system so they can use it well and to get the kinks worked out is a great idea.

  3. This is a great idea! Most of mine are middle & high school now, but this would be helpful to keep the little ones occupied while I'm trying to help the older ones.

    1. Thank you! Yes, this would definitely be good for use with multiple ages, especially a big span of ages.

  4. Great idea, Jessica! I love it! I abhor the question, "What should I do, mom?" And this seems like a great way to nudge my kiddos in a fun and productive direction. Thanks!

    1. You're welcome, Krista! I hope it's helpful in the upcoming school year. My kids definitely need gentle nudges to stay productive and occupied, too!

    2. I did it! I made up cards with the kiddos yesterday and they are super pumped to use them!! Hats off to you, mama!!

  5. I love this idea so much and am so thankful that you posted. I have 4th and 6th graders and it never fails that at the one or two moments my 6th grader needs my help, my 4th grader interrupts! This is such a wonderful idea and wish I'd thought of it myself; I've been trying to come up with ideas for my youngest to be more patient and await his turn. <3

    1. I'm so glad this will be helpful to you! I'm looking forward to implementing it in the upcoming school year, too. Keeping everyone happily, but constructively, busy and minimizing those interruptions that we all experience will be a good thing!

  6. Thank you! We are struggling with the EXACT same problem right now. This is a great idea, I'll have to implement something similar soon!