October 20, 2009

Workboxes - Charlotte Mason Style

If you homeschool you've probably heard of workboxes.  It's all over the place, ad nauseam.  Never one to jump on the band wagon I stayed far, far away from them.  Until one day I caved and thought I'd at least figure out what the brouhaha was all about.  After reading for a while I could tell that it did not fit well with the Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling.  It was mostly worksheets or busy work (or so I thought).  So I ignored it.

Several months later, and with everyone still talking about it, I did some more research.  This time I saw how a few people were using it in a more CM-friendly way.  I sat down and made a list of things I thought would work and talked with my husband.  We decided to take the plunge and started doing workboxes about 2 months ago.  Thus far it is working very well.

My two older boys, ages 9, are learning to be more independent and to manage their time.  My 5-yr-old is also learning how to work solo and to sit still for longer than 3 minutes.  Even my 3-yr-old is in on the action with lots of fun and educational activities.

So, how did I reconcile my Charlotte Mason beliefs with workboxes?  I'm glad you asked.  First, there are many things I wanted to get to in our day, but it just didn't happen.  Workboxes were a great way to add those things in.  Second, I saw that a lot of their schoolwork could be put in the workboxes and done on their time thus freeing me up to do other things.

Right now each boy has 6 boxes.  We chose to use the larger plastic drawer style because we don't have a lot of room for shelves full of shoe boxes and frankly I think that looks messy.  And my 3-yr-old loves to dump things out.  I also bought several digital timers from the Dollar Store which are kept in a small box on top of their workboxes.  We're at a point where we need more boxes though.  More on that in a minute.

To make it easier on myself I've created index cards with the name of each potential activity on them.  For example, one card might say, "build something with Lincoln Logs for 15 minutes", another might say, "play with Creativity Express on the computer for 15 minutes" or "use the Wedgits to create something" or "play Swamp Sum with your brother" or whatever.  We all have (or at least I do) closets full of awesome things we've bought over the years, but can't find the time for the kids to use.  By writing everything on cards I can easily see what I have and make sure I'm rotating through them.

So, in those 6 boxes the boys might find the following:
1.  Scripture verses to read - always.  The first box every day contains a small card with the verses they should read that day.  They also keep a copy of their scriptures there so they don't have to hunt for them every day.
2.  Copywork.  I put their copywork folder in a drawer with a sticky telling them how many pieces of paper they need to draw from the copywork jars.  They do this 2 or 3 times a week.  Occasionally I'll have them do copywork from something we read in history or science or poetry.
3.  Math drill worksheets.  I'm not a fan of worksheets, but math is the one area that they need them.  I photocopied the drill sheets from the back my RightStart book and they do those 2 or 3 times a week.  The other days they play some of the games either by themselves or with each other.  To make things extra fun I throw in logic games once in a while like Rush Hour or Mighty Mind or something from the Critical Thinking Skills books.
4.  Narrations - I will include a blank piece of paper with instructions as to what they should 'narrate' such as 'draw how food is digested' or 'draw a picture of Plimouth Plantation'.  Sometimes I'll include a notebooking page where they illustrate on top and write a few sentences on the bottom.
5.  Piano practice.  There's a card that tells them to go practice the piano for 15 minutes.  This is done daily.
6.  Exercise.  I vary this - some days it tells them to ride their bikes or to play the Wii Fit or to go for a walk with their brother and dog.
7.  Handicrafts - I either include some craft materials in their workbox and tell them to go create or I have a card in there which tells them to make something.  Sometimes it's up to them - "create something" other times I'll say "using glue, pipe cleaners and pom-poms to create something".
8.  Explode the Code and Growing with Grammar.  Some might argue that these are not CM resources but I find them very helpful in learning to read and understanding the language.  Two or three times a week I'll stick in a page or two from one or both of these books.
9.  Various games, puzzles and building toys.  I use the index cards as mentioned above to fill any additional boxes.
10.  The last box usually has a piece of candy and a reward such as "go for a bike ride" or "play the Wii for 20 minutes" or "read a comic book from mom's secret stash".  Yes, I keep a secret stash of comic books with which to bribe my kids.

As you can see there are a bazillion things I could put in their workboxes so it never gets boring for them.  Scriptures, exercise and piano are daily.  The other ones get rotated through.  And now we need more boxes!!!

Instead of getting more big ones (at $30 a pop) we were talking about getting the tiny little drawers that could be used for holding the index cards only.  They cost about $5.  The cards could go in those drawers and things like their copywork notebooks and math worksheets could go in the larger drawers.  We'll see....

The 5-yr-old is in kindergarten.  His workboxes contain the following:
1.  Scriptures - but he reads these with me.
2.  Handwriting practice - I give him a whiteboard and an index card with various letters or numbers or words to practice.
3.  A phonics or Explode the Code worksheet.
4.  Some sort of skills worksheet like "circle the item that doesn't belong" or "mark the tallest".  I know, I know, I said I hate worksheets, but they do have a place for new learners and he sure loves them.  Sometimes it's an actual skill like cutting paper or gluing or lacing or threading.
5.  Hands-on games and activities.
6.  Exercise
7.  Piano practice
8.  I use the index cards for him too and he often builds with K'nex or Lincoln Logs or magnets.

The 3-yr-old has mostly fun educational games that I've made.  I'll have to do a separate post on those.  His boxes are downstairs where we do most of our reading and he is learning to pull out an activity and sit quietly working on it while we work on school.

From what I've read the woman who came up with the idea of workboxes does not fully approve of people modifying her system.  We further modify (golly I feel bad) it by not even using the workbox labels!  The boys know you start at the top and work your way down.  Most people have the child take the velcroed number off the workbox and place it on a strip showing the work was done.  My kids don't really seem to care about that.  They do it, they enjoy it, they get done and move on with their day.

I feel like we're getting more done in each day now and the boys are feeling more confident in their education.  I think it's a great way to help them work towards more educational independence.  Workboxes also help keep the kids productive when I'm doing dishes or teaching a brother independently or whatever it is I do during the day.

Overall I'm very pleased with the way the workboxes have improved our school days.  I think they most definitely can be used in a Charlotte Mason way!


  1. LOL at the "ad nauseam" part. We tend to use the workboxes like you do. I'm glad you figured out how to have the system work for your family.

  2. Thank you so much for not only expressing how I've felt about the whole workbox thing (busy work) but also sharing how you have made it work with CM. I'm still in the thinking, talking, planning mode of this but you have given me a lot to think about and I can see it working quite well for me also.

    Question: Do you have to reorder the workboxes everyday? How long does this take?

  3. Jessica - Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. To answer your question, you don't really need to reorder the workboxes everyday. You can if you want to. I typically leave the scriptures first and the rest I mix up if I feel like it. Or I'll take the math out from the day before and put math right back in the same box. I don't really have a system - I just move it around whenever I feel like it. It keeps the kids guessing!

    It takes about 5 minutes per kid to load the workboxes each night. It used to take me longer but I decided to gather all potential resources together in one area so it's much faster now. For example, I photocopied about a month's worth of RightStart math drill sheets and stuck them in a folder. The Explode the Code books and Growing with Grammar books are on the same shelf as the math worksheets and the narration notebooks and those sit next to my index card box with all the activities on cards.

    I also ripped apart lots of workbooks for my 5-yr-old. I found he did better with a separate in a box than he did with the whole book and a note saying "do pages 56-57". My older boys do just fine with a bookmark and post-it saying "do 2 pages" or whatever.

    1. Thank you for all the ideas. I am new to both cm and workboxes and wanted to try both. Great explaining.

  4. THANK YOU! I am planning on starting Charlotte Mason, and also work boxes soon and was wondering how to merge the two. I am printing this out for future reference ;-)

  5. i totally jumped on the band wagon with the workboxes. i went crazy making all the boxes and labels and what not and then when we actually sta down to do it - it didnt work for us at all!! frustrating! i love the idea of them but we are also a charlotte mason style and we do almost everything together and it just seemed like a lot of effort on my part! i love the index card idea. i bought these little plastic index card boxes that would be perfect for each boy to keep his index cards in. they could just be in order and he could do the first one then shuffle it to the back and so on....
    you have given me quite a few ideas to think thru this weekend - good thing it is friday or school would be cancelled for the rest of the week!!!

  6. I thoroughly loved this post! It is eye opening and I just might venture now into the workbox system with my CM home :)

  7. Thank you for sharing how this system works with CM style education. Do you still use workboxes?

    I was wondering how you schedule family work and Work with Mom activities. For example, Right Start requires mom to teach the lesson, as does grammar and at my kids' ages (5 and 7 yrs) so does science. Did you make a box for these kinds of lessons?

  8. Hello Christie - we do still use workboxes. For right now, we schedule as follows (I change it every once in a while) -

    Family work - devotional, history and foreign language. Then we have circle time for the 5 and 8-year-olds (read picture books, sing songs for 20 mins) then we break apart and I work with the 5-year-old (for 30 mins) while the older boys work on their workboxes. Back together for read-aloud with snack, then science together. Split apart for mom time with 8-year-old (30 mins, 5-yr-old plays, older boys do workboxes). Back together for nature study or geography, our "elective" study (composer, artist, poetry, etc) then lunch. After this the younger boys are done, older boys alternate with me and workboxes, if they aren't already done. Each spends about 30 mins with me. In the past we've done all family work in the early morning and later I rotated through each kid and when I wasn't working with one, the others would be doing workboxes.

    I don't create workboxes for subjects we do together. Those books I keep either on a bookshelf or in magazine file folders. The 3 oldest boys do have a math workbox, but it is only a drill sheet - 20 to 50 problems of "math facts", easy addition, subtraction or multiplication to help them memorize and get faster (I use the ones at the back of the RS manual).

    Our workboxes have changed over the years....right now the two oldest (12 and 11 yrs-old) are doing:
    1. personal scripture reading (10 mins)
    2. a religious study program (they do one page a day)
    3. Visual Latin - Tuesday and Thursday
    4. piano practice
    5. cursive handwriting practice
    6. copywork - in both print and cursive
    7. math drill sheet
    8. dictation (they study a sentence/paragraph every day and on Friday they write it out as I dictate)

    The 8-yr-old does:
    1. personal scripture reading (5 to 10 mins)
    2. Copywork - print for now
    3. Dictation (see above, but easier sentences)
    4. math drill sheet
    5. Explode the Code workbook (1 to 2 pages)
    6. piano practice

    If you have any further questions, just let me know!