What is Table Time?
This is a simple practice where you teach your younger children to join you at the table during lesson time with a quiet activity while you teach an older sibling or two (or six in my case!). The idea is simple. You want your child to be able to play with a single activity for 30 minutes at the table without asking you twenty questions, wandering off and getting into things, or distracting the older siblings too much from their work. This one small habit has saved my sanity through many toddlers and preschoolers over the years. Let me share how I teach a child the habit of contentment during table time.
Step 1: Start Small.
I begin table time habits with 10 minutes. I put a child in their booster seat at the table, seatbelt on. They're used to this for meal time, so it's not something unusual. While older siblings sit around the table working with me on seatwork like math this trainee is going to learn to play by themselves. I give them one activity to use. It might be a puzzle, some crayons and paper, a peg stacking set, or just a few toy animals with some playdoh. I set a timer and let them know when it rings I'll be giving them something else to play with.
For the next 10 minutes I work with the other children and hopefully that child plays happily. I gently remind them that it is quiet work time if they get chatty, not talk time. Often a child decides they don't want to play with what they were given and they drop pieces on the floor. This is where the learning begins. I let them know that it's not time for a new activity and throwing their activity on the floor isn't a great way to play with it, so they can just sit and watch others work quietly until the timer rings.
What does any self-respecting toddler or preschooler do? They let you know they aren't on board with your idea. They whine, complain, cry, shriek, pout, or use some other means to be sure you understand your idea of one activity stinks. That is okay. As a matter of fact it is a very good thing because now you know you have their attention.
Your job from here on out is one simple thing: Consistency. Do not pick up the activity they tossed and give it back to them. Do not give them another activity until that timer rings. Gently sympathize and encourage them that soon the timer will ring and we can choose a new activity. Then go back to helping your other students.
Yes, your other kids are going to get pretty distracted during this initial training stage. Let them know it's temporary, that their younger brother or sister is learning to be content with one activity during table time and that in not too many days they will have mastered this new habit.
Step 2: Increase the time slowly until you reach 30 minutes.
Some kids very quickly accept the new way things work. Within a few days they happily play with their one activity until the timer rings. They get a new activity for 10 minutes and enjoy it. These children can move up to 15 minutes on their timer. Don't tell them! Just adjust the timer and let them play with one activity for 15 minutes instead of 10. Once they do that consistently for several days or weeks add another 5 minutes to the timer. Before you know it you will have baby stepped your child into the habit of playing contentedly with one activity for 30 minutes. It's a beautiful thing to behold because now you know where they are, what they are doing, and you're still able to work with an older child on some seatwork.
What if your child is not so easily convinced that Table Time is a good idea? Hold on momma! Be consistent. You may be stuck in the 10 minute phase for a month before they are ready to increase the timer to 15 minutes with a single activity. The most important factor for you and for them is YOUR consistency. If you give in to whining and hand them back the toy they tossed on the floor then you just taught them mommy will give in if I whine enough. If you let them down early or give them a new activity before that 10 minute timer rings you taught them that you don't mean what you say. You ignored the rule and now so will they.
Don't make the mistake of adding seat time as a consequence for whining. If your child is being a child (aka. complaining, begging, whining) while waiting for that timer to go off please just ignore it and the very moment the timer rings say in your most cheery voice, "Oh, wow! The timer is ringing already! That went quickly. Let's put away that activity (from off the floor...lol) and pick a new one."
What this does is reinforces that you are going to abide by the timer, you aren't swayed by their theatrics, and you keep your promises. It does not punish them for being a child who is still learning a new skill, that of waiting patiently and playing contentedly. Because let's be real, we are adults and still find ourselves whining, complaining, and being obnoxious about things we don't want to do. Don't expect your child to master in two weeks or two years something that adults still struggle with!
In the end table time is just like any other habit, it takes consistency and kindness to build it.