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What to do with a blank slate day? 6 different approaches to planning your time

In the small group coaching I’ve been doing, we’ve been looking at what’s already working, where the touchpoints are, and how we can use that to put in a general framework for our days that focuses on what is important for each individual family. We’ve all got different ages and needs and requirements for parents and children working, so we’ve been looking at a toolkit of strategies to pick from, rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

Here are a few examples of different ways you might want to plan out your time. Many of these overlap, and you can pick and mix what works for you.

Lucky dip

Also known as unschooling, or the curated environment approach. You have a few house rules (maybe around screen time, bedtime, meals, or outdoor time), you pay some attention to what is available to do in your home (for example the sorts of books, games, toys you have), you make yourself available as much as possible, and then you go with the flow of whatever your children are interested in. You’re confident that anything they choose is going to be interesting and valuable in some way and trust that their natural curiosity and drive for growth will do the job. This can be a really successful approach, particularly for younger children – it’s what we did until my eldest got out of the primary years.

Theme days

You keep things pretty free flowing, but have some idea of what you want to be focusing on each day. For a while we had ‘maths Monday’, ‘writing Wednesday’, and ‘project Thursday’. We didn’t have set work, but Mondays were when they could play Prodigy on the computer, or we’d get out some board games; on Wednesdays we’d make our own books, or get in more readalouds than usual, on Thursday we’d have something ongoing (like a sewing project) that we’d make time for, that sort of thing.

Project times

Project times are a halfway house between totally free choice and more structured learning. The general idea is that you decide on a larger project that you’re going to work on and dedicate time to it (including time that you’re available to help with it). Any sort of project works – building or making something, learning to cook, researching and making a book, doing science experiments… whatever they would like to get to but doesn’t always come out of general play. This could be a family project or individual projects – either with you trying to help everyone at the same time (which can get stressful, but could be doable depending on family setup), or focusing on one child at a time. When we did this we had a ‘loop schedule’ – when we had a free morning, it was a project time, and each child got a morning in turn. You could also have set days for each child’s turn, or cycle through on the same day. You can also put project time together with something your child is less keen on doing – when we first introduced work I was asking for instead of them choosing, we did that first, then moved on to my helping with what they wanted to do.

Time blocks

It can be helpful to break your day into rough chunks of time – mealtimes are the obvious markers for our family, but you might have different triggers like sets of work time, or times when you want to go outside. So rather than thinking of hours of the day, you think in terms of ‘before breakfast’, ‘morning’, ‘early afternoon’ ‘late afternoon’ ‘evening’, with each section being anywhere between 1-3 hours. Then you have an idea of where you want the focus to be for each block. For us at the moment, before breakfast is their free computer time. Morning is our school time, where we do organised things with me leading them. Early afternoon is usually free time but could be outside time or reading time. Late afternoon is generally free for the children while one of us makes dinner. Evenings we have a fairly set routine around clearing up and getting everyone to bed. You might have times when you need to be working and things are quieter – or a period when you all go out for a walk together. Or a household chores or tidyup time. It can be helpful to set some expectations around when you’re available and what they’re expected to do. Personally we’ve found looser boundaries like ‘before breakfast’ or ‘until afternoon snack’ work better than set time periods. If you do have set time commitments (eg work meetings, online classes) then those can get firmer.

Daily practice

We have a time – ours is after breakfast – when everyone works on something longterm that needs practice. This could be music practice, handwriting, reading, sports, maths facts, spelling… anything that would benefit from regular repetition.

Work times

Finally, the bit we’re most familiar with – a time when you actually sit down and ‘do school’. This is something we’ve only done over the last couple of years when we needed to for GCSE work (although the younger ones have been brought into that structure), but might also be more familiar for children who are usually in school. This is a topic in itself, so watch out for another toolkit post coming soon!

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