Monday, September 14, 2009

Workboxes at Our House

Empty boxes, waiting to be filled!

At the end of last school year, I started learning about the workbox techniques popularized by Sue Patrick.  Sue is the mom of a special needs child, who adapted some of the educational methods she learned from her child's therapies to enhance her homeschooling routine.  The method has generated a flurry of interest in homeschool circles, with more than a thousand homeschoolers joining the Workboxes Yahoo Group.

I personally find it fascinating to watch the ways in which a resource like Sue's book is adapted in turn by so many homeschoolers to fit unique situations of their own.  Then the various adaptations branch off and gather steam of their own.  It is like a little sociology experiment in fast forward, courtesy of the internet

We've been using workboxes since spring, and I have to say that I love these little boxes!

I have a rack for each child that stores twelve plastic shoe boxes.  Each "workbox" day, I load the boxes with all the materials that we will need to accomplish our work.  It has been a GREAT structure for the girls, but, perhaps more importantly, it has made me  more organized and effective, as well.  (Which, frankly, is no minor feat - I'm extremely organizational reform-resistant.  Though I dearly love them, most "systems" stick with me about as well as scrambled eggs on a new teflon frying pan.)

Anyway, as I was saying, it turns out that it really isn't that much more work to put everything into the boxes than it is to fly by the seat of your pants.  When I do "wing it", though, I've noticed that there are several problems that tend to crop up:

  1. You have to stop in the middle of your work time to gather supplies for an assignment or project, which gets your children out of their "ready to learn" zone and into "fiddling around waiting and then wandering off to play or bicker with siblings" mode.

  2. You forget about some of your materials, and they go the entire year without being used.

  3. You don't forget about some of your materials, but are so focused on getting your basic skills mastered that you rarely get around to actually doing some of the enriching activities that you want to do.  Things like art, music, science, history, and foreign language.

  4. Your children don't know what to expect for the day, and start thinking that school will never end, no matter what they do.

  5. Your children DO know what to expect for the day, because you inadvertantly get into a rut - doing the same things over and over, week after week, and both you and the children become bored out of your minds.

Let's just say that we've encountered all of those issues at various points on our homeschooling journey.  For now, workboxes seem to be working better than anything else we've tried to combat all of those problems at the same time.

Here's a little tour of how this approach is working for us:

We start off our day by "clocking in". No doubt there are some kids who would roll their eyes at this, but mine love it. They just move their name cards to the "Ready to Learn" pocket when we start, and the "Completed" pocket when we are done.

Here to learn

Here's a look at our box setup.


This is the standard $15 shoe rack from Target, with 12 plastic shoeboxes on each rack. Notice that I've attached velcro tabs to three spots on the front of each box. Once I get the boxes full of activities and laid out on the shelves, I attach the appropriate number tag in the center. Then I attach a "Work With Mom" tag if the box contains an activity that I need to help out with. If the activity is a group activity that both girls share, I attach a "Work Together" tag on the right. When they get each box, they know whether they should work independently, along with their sister, or with me one-on-one.

Each box contains all the materials they will need to complete the activity or assignment. Once they have completed the box, the girls put away their materials, remove the tags from the box, and stack up the empty boxes, ready to go for the next day. When they remove the number tag, they move it over to their assignment grid, to signal that they've completed that box. My girls are very much "box checker" types (I wonder where they get that from? :-) ), so they love having the visual confirmation of their progress. They can see their shelves emptying out, the stack of empty boxes building up, and their assignment grid filling up with completed items. Fun, fun, fun! (If you are a "certain type", which we definitely are!)

assignment grids

What do I put in the boxes? Well, I try to make each box contain one simple assignment, and if there are complicated or multi-part assignments, I'll break them apart and put one section in each box, to keep the boxes moving along at a steady pace. Here's a sample of what our boxes might have on a given day:

  1. Handwriting/Picture Study workbook (and pencil)

  2. Page of math review problems (include ruler, dice, or any other tools or manipulatives that may be needed.)

  3. Reading Break - 20 minutes of whatever you like (with a timer included)

  4. All About Spelling assignment (with card file-box and dry erase marker for whiteboard activities)

  5. Sentence Family (with crayons and paper for illustrating the grammar story as I tell it)

  6. Math Time (flexible math lesson that I plan out based on what we need to be working on, and usually involving me and a whiteboard, plus manipulatives, but possibly involving baking brownies)

  7. Artistic Pursuits (with art materials needed for the lesson)

  8. Galore Park Junior Science (British prep school curriculum that we read through together)

  9. Kids Guide to the US (US geography kit, with map and stickers for learning about each state)

  10. Pianimals (piano practice curriculum)

  11. Puertas Abiertas (DVD-based Spanish curriculum)

That's a pretty heavy day, so on many days we have fewer boxes. We have a variety of subjects and resources that we rotate through based on what day it is, and what we have time for. There might be boxes with math card games, internet lessons, science projects, file folder games, or many other possibilities.

So far the boxes are working out great for us, and I'm looking forward to putting together more posts about them as we move forward.  One lovely thing about "workboxing" is that so many families have generously shared the materials, graphics, forms, and other printouts that they've developed for managing this system.  I'll be adding some of the materials that I've put together here so that you can download and use them as well.


  1. I love how you have it set up. You explained it very well for anyone new to the workbox system idea :)

  2. Thanks so much Tajuana!

  3. i may not have guessed this was useful one or two years in the past nonetheless it is surprising just how years alters the means by which you experience unsimilar creative concepts, many thanks for the posting it is actually good to look over something sensible now and then instead of the ordinary crap mascarading as a blog on the internet, i'm going to have fun with a few rounds of facebook poker, cheers