Homeschooling in Small Spaces - a Solution

Several years ago, when my oldest child was attending kindergarten at a local charter school, I learned about something called "the workbox system." Developed by a lady named Sue Patrick, the workbox system is a way to organize school work, primarily for homeschooling families. The concept is simple, but very effective: Grab a craft cart (like this one) or a set of Rubbermaid-style boxes...or anything similar. Label each drawer or box with a subject, like "Spelling," "Math," and "Reading."

Now place the child's schoolwork for that day in the appropriately labeled boxes. This should include any items needed to completed the work, like crayons, glue, and paper. The child grabs work from one box at a time and completes the assignments. When a box or drawer is empty, the child moves on to the next box. The Pleated Poppy offers a good look at the classic workbox system.

Not only does this system make organization easier on the teacher, but it helps children feel more in control. They don't ask "Are we done yet?" because they can see how much work they have left to complete. (It's very motivating for my kids to see how much work they've whipped through, too.) Teachers can also prioritize the work by numbering the boxes or drawers, or they can allow the child to choose what order to do their work. Best of all, it encourages independent work - though how involved the teacher is is completely flexible. A very young child can just grab the work from his drawer, while an older child can work completely without help.

Now that I am teaching two "real" grades (preschool is easy peasy, folks), I knew I needed to start using the workbox system. But I really don't have room for the workbox system. Our many bookshelves are so full of books, and I have no place to put a set of craft drawers or something similar. Also, I know we'll soon be moving into our tiny house motor home. There definitely will not be room for a traditional workbox system there!

So after a lot of thought - and some poking around on Pinterest - I've come up with a terrific alternative, inspired by Creekside Learning. It's working extremely well, and is perfectly suited to small house living. But even if you have a house big enough to accommodate traditional workboxes, I encourage you to consider this simple system. Here's how it works:

1. For each child, I purchased a portable hanging file box. Office supply stores carry them in many styles, but I ended up buying some at Walmart that look like milk crates. They were less then $9 a piece. (But only available for much more on their website. Amazon has similar crates, though.)

2. I also bought a box of hanging file folders - bright, multi-colored files, just because they are more fun and interesting than plain colored files.

3. I labeled each container with one child's name. (The containers are also two different colors - the only colors my Walmart had: Black for my son and bright pink for my daughter.) Then I created a file folder for every subject matter we have. For example, my daughter has one hanging file folder each for math, language arts/writing, science, and history. (She has reading assignments, too, but they are loaded onto an old digital ink Kindle; she just works her way through each book during the school year.) Finally, I added an extra file folder for each child to put their completed work in.

4. Each child's crate also contains things they use every day for school. My daughter, for example, has a binder; a math book; a pencil box filled with sharp pencils and erasers; a pencil box with colored pencils, pens, scissors, and a glue stick; a dictionary; a kitchen timer*; and a clip board (because our table is tiled and isn't easy to write on).

5. On the weekend, I figure out my lesson plan. (The Robinson Curriculum we use is super simple; really the only planning I have to do is for my son's math and reading and fun, extra projects for science and history). I make any needed copies, prepare craft materials, etc. Then I file them. (More on that in a moment.)

6. Every day, once the children are done with their school work, I go through my files and lesson plan and put whatever the children will need for the next day into their individual crates and file folders. (If your children use workbooks, I recommend tearing out the pages to put in their files, as needed. You can also use Post-It notes on book covers to inform your child what pages they should work on that day.)

Because my son is just learning to read, I rarely have him grab anything other than his binder and writing and art supplies from his crate. So I also use his crate as my filing system. I keep hanging files for each child, filled with the week's work. For example, I have a file marked "A. Math" for my daughter's math pages. (Her first name starts with a the letter A.) Then I have another marked "Z. Math" for his beginning math work. (His first initial is Z.) And so on.

At first, I was worried I'd be too tired to prepare a week's worth of work each weekend, and then fill each child's crate every evening. But it really hasn't been an issue...especially the daily filling of the crates. This takes less than 5 minutes and is so easy to do once I have my lesson plan in hand. And because we use the simple Robinson Curriculum, weekly planning goes pretty quickly, too.

We are LOVING the system! My oldest is 10, and loves being able to choose what assignments she does first; she only needs to come to me if she has questions, which leaves me plenty of of one-on-one time to teach my son to read and count. (And no, she's not jealous of her brother's time with me because we all come together for science, history, and devotions.) Truly, my daughter loves this system so much, she's getting her work done in record time! Last year, her school work sometimes took all. day. long. Now she's usually done in a few hours. This modified workbox system is really a win-win for us.

* My daughter struggles with being very, very pokey. So as she works, I have her set a manual kitchen timer for 20 - 30 minutes. When it goes off, she sets it for another 20 - 30 minutes. The idea is not that she should necessarily be done in 20 minutes time, but that she has a better sense of time passing. It works beautifully! And if I find she's back to being pokey, it's ALWAYS because she's forgotten to set her timer.


  1. A friend of mine just recently told me about the workbox system. Nice to see you explain it. :) I use this and then each of the 4 kids has a tabbed, colored folder with their name on it and work pages for the day in it. I like that it's decorative and hangs on my wall out of the way. However, each child also has a 4-drawer organizer from Walmart that takes up quite a bit of space. Works for us, but I like knowing what others do!!!

  2. Nice! Although I admit one thing I love about the crates is that they are portable. We can take them in the car...or my daughter can take her's into her room to escape distractions...and everything the children need is in them.