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Simple Strategies for Keeping Younger Siblings Occupied (And Out of the Way) During Virtual School Days

Screen-free ways to keep them busy and learning, too

Erin Smith

Published on: September 29, 2020


School is well under way and it looks like for much of the country that virtual learning, whether it be homeschooling or instruction through the school district, is going to be our new norm for awhile.

Distance learning comes with many challenges for teachers, students and parents alike, especially when multiple kids are involved. For parents with younger children, keeping them occupied so as not to distract their school-going sibs can be a challenge. Sure, we can turn on the TV and let them zone out while we assist our school-age children with their Zoom meetings and online curriculum, but often that means they are getting the short end of the stick in an already troublesome situation.

Trust me, I’m not here to judge you for sticking a tablet in your toddler’s hands and hoping for the best (I’ve been there many, many times), but if there’s a chance that we can make schooling our children from home a positive scenario for everyone in the household, let’s give it a go.

Here are some ideas for how to keep your little one occupied during those times when your focus needs to be on supporting schoolwork for your older children:


Reading aloud is so good for cognitive development in children, but when you’re preoccupied with assisting your older children with their schoolwork, kid-friendly podcasts are a great alternative. Make it seem extra special for your little one by letting them listen on their very own headphones. Stories Podcast and What If World are two of my kids’ favorites.

Sensory bin

Pinterest is loaded with sensory bin ideas. The general idea is to fill a large bin with various objects that can stimulate a little one’s senses and imagination. These can be as simple as a bin full of rice and some measuring cups, or as elaborate as this masterpiece. If you’re concerned about a mess, I recommend keeping these activities within the bounds of a small plastic swimming pool or even a bathtub.

Activity board

I’ve always been intimidated by the idea of these, but it turns out they are actually quite simple to make and you likely have many of the necessary materials at home already. My friend has one for her baby, but whenever we go to visit my 3-year-old is obsessed! These are great for occupying little ones of all ages.

Preschool workbook

Now that my daughter is attending school in our dining room, my son’s favorite game to play is “school.” I’m trying to capitalize on this new interest by encouraging learning through play. One way I do this is by including him in our daily school routines. He has his own backpack where he keeps his very own workbook (this is the one we have, but there are tons out there to fit your child’s age and abilities) and crayons. Though it does take a bit more of my attention, he feels included and it makes school feel more like a fun activity for everyone.

Paper roll

You may already have one of these for your easel, but you’ll be amazed by how re-inspired your little ones will be when you simply roll it out on the floor and put out some crayons. I did this the other day along my approximately 30-foot hallway and the kids went to town. The new perspective and space really seemed to renew their interest in an ordinary, everyday activity.

Ice excavating

Gather some small toys — dinosaurs, bugs or Legos work great —  and freeze them in water. Once they are frozen, your toddler will feel like a real-life archaeologist as they chisel the items out of the ice. If you are uncomfortable letting your little one hack away at the ice, allow them to melt it using a baster or unused medicine dropper — it's a great (and time-consuming!) alternative.

Water painting

If keeping an eye on your child outdoors is an option, consider providing them with a paintbrush or sponge and some water. I’m always shocked by how entertained my kiddos are by painting the sidewalk with water. This is also a fun activity to do on a fence or chalkboard.


If you already have a sandbox outdoors, spend a few minutes burying various small toys or plastic eggs in it. When you need to keep your younger child busy, simply hand them a shovel and watch how absorbed they become trying to find all of the items! If you don’t have a sandbox, kinetic sand in a bin or bowl is a great option. Toddlers can even dig with a spoon if you don’t have a kid-friendly shovel.

Highchair time

If you have little ones who are highchair-bound, now is a great chance to let them get messy with very minimal supervision necessary. Give them fun foods such as yogurt, Cool Whip or Jell-O, and let them squish and explore to their hearts content. If messes are out of the question, try putting paint into a Ziplock bag and letting your baby squish the colors around. Be sure to tape it down so you don’t have to pick it up off the floor repeatedly.


The options for how to facilitate this activity are endless. Start with something like buttons, pom-poms, beads, or even pasta, and have your child sort them into different categories. If they are sorting by color, have your child place the objects on a color-coordinated piece of paper or in a color-matching container. Old egg cartons or ice cube trays work well for sorting.

Facilitating schooling for our kids in our homes can be difficult, especially when it’s not something we would have chosen for our families under better circumstances. Making sure this is a good experience for our school-age kids can become such a priority that we may tend to let the well-being of our younger children slide a bit. With some forethought and planning, we can hopefully make this challenging experience a positive one for everyone involved.

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