Seven Backdoors to Learning for Exhausted Moms

Let’s face it; there are times when formal homeschooling is impossible.

Such as…

…when you are experiencing debilitating morning sickness,

…when there is a new baby in the house,

…when the whole house is recovering from the flu,

…when the family is experiencing a move,

…during a time of upheaval, boredom, or burnout.

If you are going through any (or all) of the above, I know you are worried right now. You are certain your child (or children) will fall back, never to recover the ground you worked so hard to gain.

The first word I want to speak to you is rest.

I have been homeschooling for 27 years now, through morning sickness and teething and moving and illness.

For instance, I spent yesterday with our 15-year-old daughter as she underwent an appendectomy (she is at home recovering nicely). There is no way the kids were hitting the books while I was away. The books won’t be cracked open the moment we return home, either. In fact, it may be a number of days before learning gets back to “normal” (whatever that is).

Am I concerned?


I am at perfect peace because I know that one-on-one tutoring is one of the most powerful methods of instruction. In fact, every 15 minutes of focused attention at home is worth two hours of “batch learning” in school. Since I have been spending consistent, quality time learning with my children, I have no worries!

But what if you are expecting a longer interruption?

A quick illness with a happy ending is one thing. Long periods of craziness are another.

I personally believe learning never stops. Even without adult intervention, children are constantly gathering, storing, and analyzing scads of information. If done right a break can encourage natural learning (as long as the kids don’t turn into mindless drones chained to screens).

You can think of it as “homeschool light.”

Some days this means you let the children find their own way.

Since my daughter is recovering from surgery I set the children free. This week my seven and ten year old daughters decided to work through their first real novels. My other girls are pursuing hobbies such as Korean, piano, and economics. If children are used to thinking of learning as fun they naturally use their free time to pursue their interests.

However, there are times when even the most interested children can become antsy or restless. The most angelic children can turn into a mob of mischief-makers if they don’t have anything to do. Sometimes we are forced to flip through the channels or get out the Xbox and waste some brain cells, but this isn’t a long-term solution!

Eventually we have to intervene with some productive alternatives. Since the brain and/or body is probably not functioning on all thrusters, our choices must be simple, sweet, and easy to put together.

Over the years I have developed a short list of things to do when there is nothing else to be done. Here it is in a nut shell:

1. Reading aloud.

This is some of the sweetest learning I can think of. Reading aloud connects our hearts and minds as we experience a rich, narrative feast.

I am currently reading Bound for Oregon to my little girls. Besides teaching us a bit about American history, it also helps with English grammar and composition. As an added bonus we are asking questions about everything from what oxen look like to where the Kaw River is. Science comes in when we talk about cholera and dysentery and what germs are.

The wonderful thing about it is you can read aloud anywhere; on the couch, at bedtime, in the car, or even at a doctor’s appointment. Many times I have put my children to sleep in their rooms by sitting in the hallway and reading aloud while nursing an infant in my lap.

Here is a list of possible titles for older children that will prepare them for life. 

2. Discussion.

Here is another one that will work even in the worst of circumstances. It can be done while driving somewhere, while working on a family project, or even while waiting in an office. Children learn a lot when adults talk to them. They love to ask questions, even hard questions, and have someone take them seriously enough to give a thoughtful answer.

Sometimes it’s even more instructive to turn the tables by asking pointed questions and listening to what the children have to say!

3. Maps.

Looking for a way to spend a rainy afternoon? Why not pull out some maps and atlases, spread them out on the floor, and talk about them? Even old road maps from a thrift store can yield hours of learning fun (we like the ones from older issues of National Geographic Magazine).

To take this activity even further, how about drawing your own maps of places that are either real or pretend? One year my children and I created free-hand drawings of the entire United States. This was the perfect way to get us intimately acquainted with our own country and gave us lots to talk about and investigate.

While everyone is busy drawing you could be listening to a Librovox recording of a historical novel, such as Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin.

4. Movies.

Sometimes a good movie is just what the doctor ordered.

I like to think that there are “empty calorie” films, and there are “nutrient rich” films. Of course there are times for pure fun, but we aim for substance.

Most of the movies we have found that spurred us on to further learning were ones such as these (we like the older versions best):

Since you are an amazing genius mother who takes advantage of every opportunity, you can turn a decent flick into a huge octopus of learning, with arms reaching out into almost every other discipline.

Here are some ideas for branching out:

  • Have the children narrate the movie back to you.
  • Discuss the plot, the concepts, the fallacies or inaccuracies, the character development, the cinematography, cost of production, filming method, etc.
  • Research key figures/events/concepts by using maps, encyclopedias and other reference books, or the Internet.
  • Get out blank sheets of paper and some drawing materials for creating lovely notebooking pages about the movie or the subject of the movie.

5. Library books.

We live in an area with a fabulous library system with multiple branches and a website that allows us to reserve books and pick them up close to home.

The library can be a great place to take the kids if repairs are being done or you need a place to rest while waiting for appointments, etc. When we go I try and give the children the task of picking three books up for their personal use while I peruse the shelves and look for 10 or so others that I hope they will get interested in.

When we get home the house is so quiet! The children are all tired from the trip, so they are ready to settle down and rest. Besides, opening and enjoying the books is like opening Christmas presents.

If things are a bit hectic I can always go online and reserve a number of titles, or even let the kids take turns reserving lists for themselves. The fun comes after I pick the books up on one of my errand trips and then pass them out when I return home.

6. Internet.

This is almost a no-brainer, but we sometimes feel guilty about it (especially when we get caught up and forget to make lunch).

If you are like me, you need to sit and write a list of possible questions to be answered and set a timer before you start on your wild adventures together. You also need to be willing to drag everyone back on point, especially if you find yourself laughing wildly at one crazy monkey video after another…

Some places to use as starting points:

Discovery Kids

Kids’ Answers

History in the Classroom

Church History For Kids

7. Board games

If you feel like a boring nag and your children are threatening mutiny, throw the books in the corner and break out the games!

Chutes and Ladders, Sorry, and checkers teach concepts to younger children, while older children enjoy more challenging games such as Scrabble, Monopoly, and Yahtzee. One game that has become a favorite in our family is Apples to Apples, which is great for language arts development, history, and even science.

Even when mom is not 100%, learning doesn’t have so suffer. This may be hard to believe, but this unconventional learning has lead to some of our greatest breakthroughs.

You can view some great photos of our unconventional learning if you follow me on Instagram.


14 thoughts on “Seven Backdoors to Learning for Exhausted Moms”

  1. I’m so thankful for the encouragement! I am on my first year homeschooling my Kindergartener. We also moved two months ago and had our 4th baby one month ago. So, we have a lot going on right now! This post was well-timed for what I’m going through!

    • That’s a lot of transition to be going through all at once! I am praying right now that God blesses you with His abundant grace and provision. I’m glad we could be part of that 🙂

  2. The new “Cinderella” is my favorite one too! I wish I could watch it once a month! Just wanted to throw this out there for a curve ball: checking out what happened on this day or week in history and following that rabbit trail with some documentaries that tie in (lots of free ones online), maps, coloring sheets, crossword puzzles, and the like are great ways to spend time engaging and entertaining the brain.
    Sending up prayers for your daughter and your family:)

    • Thanks, Alesha, that is a great idea! Thank you for the prayers for my daughter, she is actually doing much better today 🙂

  3. Your comment about 15 minutes of one-on-one time being equiv to 2 hrs in school is so helpful! I have been thinking much the same thing, and it helps to have it confirmed by an experienced homeschool mom. Thank you!

    • I know what you mean–it really is freeing! I think it was John Taylor Gatto who got me thinking along these lines.

  4. Thank you so much for this timely post!!! I needed to read this and it could not come at a more perfect time. The links are very helpful as well!

  5. Thank you for this encouraging post! I have 5 kids under 7. My oldest is very bright and we started “school” early but we are all burnt out. I don’t want to quit learning but we need to slow down. I have no idea how to school without schooling if you know what I mean. Anyways, thanks! Today we will be playing our new clue Jr. Game, doing our read aloud and tackling a much needed laundry task.
    Laci Brinn, with,

    • That sounds like so much fun, Laci! I’m sure you will all enjoy your very important learning time together today 🙂

    • Thank you for taking your precious time to give us some input, Karen. Is there any particular reason you would suggest including it?

  6. Spot on, Girl! While I try to keep a simple routine that can run whether I’m present or not, I’ve also come to appreciate that not every day needs to be a ‘school’ day. One-on-one time with grandparents, a spontaneous field trip, a house full of sickies that leads to an Andy Griffith marathon…those are the days I love the most. There is so much more to learning and living than what any textbook could ever hold. The Lord helped me see long ago that while school is important, enjoying each other and our time together is essential.


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