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40 Ideas for Independent Work (Not Busywork!)

Charlotte Mason Independent Work

Homeschooling comes with its own set of blessings and challenges. One of the challenges is figuring out what one child can do while you’re busy helping a different child.

A home school is very much like a one-room schoolhouse. You’re managing several children across several grade levels—with only one teacher. It’s a fact of life that you won’t be able to be with each child all the time. Sometimes you will need to assign work to be done independently.

But remember that any independent work that you assign to a child should have a purpose. And that purpose is not just to keep him busy. Don’t require a child to spend his time doing busywork. Especially in a Charlotte Mason home school, we want to be careful that we’re respecting the child as a person. So make sure that any independent work you assign will be of real benefit to the child, will contribute to educating the whole person.

The trick is coming up with independent work that meets that criteria, especially in the younger grades when a student might not be reading and writing fluently yet.

So today I want to share 40 ideas for purposeful independent work in a Charlotte Mason home school. These are ideas taken from the programmes used in Charlotte’s schools. They are based on actual assignments that Charlotte mentioned or extensions of those assignments.

All of them have educational value. They are not just busywork. They will help your child to grow in different aspects of learning and living. They will encourage your child to develop and practice the techniques of self-education that Charlotte valued so highly and used so often.

Now, one caveat: Your student will gain the most benefit from these assignments if the habits of obedience and full attention are in place. These suggestions assume that your child will purposefully stay on task even without your direct supervision. Of course, you’ll want to keep an eye on the time and make sure any independent work assignment doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But hopefully, these suggestions will give you some ready-to-go ideas when you need to assign independent work to one child while you’re working with another.

Ideas for Younger Grades

Let’s start with ideas for the younger grades—about first through third, students who are still solidifying their reading and writing skills.

1. Listen to a portion of an audiobook. It could be a professionally narrated audiobook or, if you know ahead of time that you’re going to be unavailable, you could make a recording yourself, reading the book aloud.

2. Draw a narration or audio-record a narration, using a digital voice recorder.

3. Do word-building. Give a word-building challenge that fits the level of your child’s reading skills. For example, you might assign a beginning reader to see how many words he can build with -en at the end. For your more experienced readers, you could assign more difficult words to build, such as thinking of words with a silent gh or words that have at least one silent letter. You can level this assignment up or down to fit the student.

4. Prepare the next reader story. If your student is at the stage where he is reading aloud to you from a reader, assign him to look through the next story in that reader and see how much he can pre-read so he will be ready to go when it comes time to read it aloud. If he gets stuck on a word, he can write it down or put a sticky note on that page.

5. Copy or transcribe some favorite lines from a poem. If you have a third grader, you can also have him study the spelling of the words he is transcribing and be prepared to write some of those words from memory.

6. Play dominoes. Line up dominoes, end to end, making sure that any ends that touch have the same number of dots. That is a good way to work on visual discrimination and the skills of matching patterns. Plus, the child can be creative and decide which dominoes he wants to turn in which direction.

Ideas for All Grades

Here are some ideas that could work for both younger and older students.

7. Work on memorizing (or reviewing) a poem or Bible passage or lines from Shakespeare. If your student isn’t reading yet, audio-record the selection for him to listen to as he memorizes or to check as he reviews.

8. Listen to a song or story or rhyme in the foreign language that you are learning. Mason’s Living Languages is a great resource to help you find those.

9. Listen to music of the term’s selected composer.

10. Look through pictures of the term’s selected artist. Have your student select one picture from the ones that you’ve already introduced, look at it, then turn it over and try to draw its elements from memory. This isn’t an exercise in duplicating technique; it’s an exercise in remembering details accurately.

11. Determine a given route on a world map or U.S. map. Choose a region that the student is familiar with and challenge him to find the best route from point A to point B. You can designate whether he is allowed to fly or must go by land or by sea.

12. Complete a math number sentence card or two. These cards contain a handful of number sentences related to one specific number or one specific table. They can also contain a combination of number equations from previously studied tables. If you have to step away from a math lesson for a moment, give your child a number sentence card and have him write the answers to the equations on his slate. Allow him to use concrete objects to find the answers if needed.

13. Sketch or paint something from the nature table. If you have brought some nature items indoors, your student can take some time to look closely at an object of his choice and try to draw or paint it in his nature notebook.

14. Sketch or paint a nature object of interest from a field guide. Some nature friends do not live close to you, so your child might like to look through a beautifully illustrated field guide and choose a nature object that he doesn’t usually get to see. By drawing or painting that object from the illustration or photograph, he will be encouraged to look at it more closely.

15. And speaking of looking closely, you might assign your child to watch a nature friend quietly for a few minutes to see what habits he can observe. Such friends might include birds on a feeder, ants on a sidewalk, or kittens in a box, for example.

16. Do a special outdoor study. Part of nature and science lessons for Charlotte’s students included doing a special study, whether dog training, flower pressing, gardening, or whatever. Time to work on that special study makes a good independent assignment.

17. Build a model of a building from the historical period you are studying. If you have read about a famous construction, assign your student to build a model of it. You can level this assignment up or down by determining the amount of detail that should be included and what materials you want him to use. Younger students can build with wooden blocks; older students might create more intricate models by designing their own interlocking pieces from cardboard.

18. Exercise. Assign your student to do a certain number of sit-ups or push-ups or jumping jacks. Or give him some heavier objects to move from one location to another. Physical strength and fitness play an important part in being healthy and able to serve others well in life.

19. Practice a musical instrument. If your child takes piano lessons or violin lessons or guitar lessons, or any other musical instrument, assign him to practice while you’re occupied elsewhere.

20. Look through interesting reference books with photographs. Your child could look through  field guides; science picture books; large books of animals, plants, inventions, distant lands, birds, famous architecture, Bible lands; or even an illustrated book on first aid.

21. (Okay, Charlotte didn’t include this one, but I think we can use it if we’re careful.) Watch pre-approved educational videos. Try to select videos that contain ideas, not just dry facts. You could use videos on nature, history, science, famous people, fine arts, math, geography, and more. Be sure to preview them, in order to make sure the content is appropriate for the child who will be watching.

22. Tidy the school supplies area. Students at Charlotte’s schools were responsible to help with work around the property. Teach your child to leave a place better than he found it.

23. Work on chores. Home skills make excellent independent work assignments. Just make sure you assign a chore that the child already knows how to do, so he can accomplish it successfully without the need to interrupt and ask you for help.

24. Work on a handicraft project. Select a handicraft that the child has already had lessons in and is ready to work on a larger project. You can level this assignment up or down by having the child follow a pattern or by challenging him to design his own pattern.

25. Practice drawing in perspective. If you keep a simple guide handy, even your non-readers should be able to follow the sample drawings and learn about perspective. As an example, take a look at the little book, Beginner’s Guide to Perspective by Victor Perard, available from Dover Publications.

26. Practice drawing an object in the house. The student could select a piece of furniture or a household scene to draw, or tell him to gather 3–5 small objects and create a still life picture using them.

27. Draw a plan of one room in the house, or your yard, your property, or even all the rooms in the house. Younger students could draw the plan in a tray of sand. Older students could be required to draw the plan to scale.

28. Create your own pictures with parquetry blocks. Most parquetry block sets come with cards that have design ideas already printed on them. Get rid of the cards and challenge your student to create his own picture using the geometric shapes.

Ideas for Older Grades

And here are some ideas for older students—around fourth grade and up—who can easily read and write.

29. Read leisure-time books. Charlotte had a list of extra books that students could read in their spare time, on weekends, or during the holidays. You might do the same.

30. Read school book assignments. As students gain confidence and fluency in reading for themselves, they should begin to read more and more of their school books independently.

31. Write a narration or go through a previously written narration and polish it.

32. Study a passage for dictation. This might be a passage from one of your student’s school books or from another good literary selection.

33. Work on your Book of Mottoes. Some people call this journal a commonplace book. It’s basically a record of interesting quotes from the books you are reading. Charlotte had older students transcribe two lines per week into their Book of Mottoes, and I’m sure many students did more.

34. Work on your Book of Centuries. An older student might make sure he is current on making entries in his Book of Centuries, recording pertinent historical people and events in their respective centuries. He might also look over a century already studied and write a short description of those years as a whole.

35. Review Latin words and conjugations. If your child is studying Latin, you might assign a few minutes to look over the vocabulary he is learning.

36. The same applies to any language your child is learning. Assign him to review any foreign language vocabulary words.

37. Parse and analyze an assigned sentence. If your child has learned how to parse and analyze or diagram a sentence, pick a sentence or two out of a book and let him review those important grammar skills.

38. Plan a nutritious and delicious meal. This assignment is a mixture of science, economics, and home skills. For the economics part, you can give a maximum amount that he is allowed to spend on that meal or meals. Have him plan a whole week of lunches, if you want to increase the challenge level.

39. Study a portion of a world map or a regional map and create some questions for you or a younger sibling about that map. The questions should be designed to help the person look closely and notice details. For example, how many rivers flow through our town? What are their names? What is the closest mountain range to our town? What is the closest ocean?

40. Read current event articles and locate any mentioned regions on a world map.

There you go: 40 ideas to keep your student engaged and learning even when you need to help someone else for a few minutes. With these independent work assignments, you can encourage your children to keep learning for themselves.

9 Responses to “40 Ideas for Independent Work (Not Busywork!)”

  1. Lisa February 20, 2019 at 9:07 am #

    I love this! So helpful! Thanks so much, I’m definitely bookmarking this for future reference.

  2. Dawn February 20, 2019 at 5:51 pm #

    Great ideas! I came to see if there was a printable for this post, but I’m definitely saving it. There were some new to me ideas I hadn’t thought of. Thank you!!

    • Jordan Smith February 21, 2019 at 4:21 am #

      Every page on our website is printable. Just use your web browser’s print option and our site will format the page for printing. 🙂

  3. Natalie February 20, 2019 at 9:25 pm #

    This post could not be a better example if it tried of why I am looking forward to seeing you at Thrive in NC!

  4. Laura in Ontario February 21, 2019 at 8:47 am #

    This is a very helpful list, thank you.

  5. Simona February 21, 2019 at 1:39 pm #

    Thank You. Every post from this blog is helpful. God bless You

  6. Kristi June 17, 2019 at 8:29 am #

    Thank you SO much!!! These ideas are practical, helpful, and purposeful!! Printing this right now to use for our upcoming school year!

  7. Trena June 29, 2019 at 3:31 pm #

    I have referred back to this post because I am looking for advice on how to handle children who have completed their independent work for the day, before others. Originally I felt that if the child was done, they were welcome to leave and find something to play, do, etc. This causes difficulty for the child who is older and has more tasks to complete. At first I felt she needed to accept that others were younger and keep on, but it has really affected our environment. The younger sibling next in line to her also works very quickly and often completes independent work before our school day even starts. I have tried to pry myself away from rigidity, as I would be prone to that and am only 1 year into learning and appreciating the CM lifestyle for home education. So I wanted to make sure I was allowing the free time. After reading this post, I wondered if this would be a way to require purposeful quiet activities, while we are in the time box of morning lessons. Of course, this can be a matter of opinion, but I am thinking of this for grade 4 and up. The younger would still remain free to leave when lessons are completed. Any thoughts?

    • Sonya Shafer July 1, 2019 at 7:54 am #

      Trena, yes, I think these ideas would work for “purposeful quiet activities” any time of the day. One caution, however: you’ll want to make sure you’re not using them to penalize the students who get their work done sooner. You didn’t mention whether the older student has a tendency to dawdle or sleep in, thus finishing later. It is natural for an older student to have more work to do. But if the youngers are disrupting the older, purposeful quiet activities would be in order. So you’ll just want to keep an eye on the habits of the students as well. You don’t want the younger students rushing through their work, nor the older one dawdling to make it last longer.

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