Home schooling has been a mixed bag for me and my four kids, who range in age from 5 to almost-13 twins. It's been working out well for the teens. They go into their rooms, shut their doors and attend class right on schedule. They even do their homework without my prodding them — at least I think they're doing it. There have been some slip-ups, but most of the time I feel confident that the big kids are learning, connecting and not falling behind.

With my little guys, it's a different story. For my kindergartner, we get family "assignments" daily at 8:30 a.m., which we do together: reading "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" (me), reading on RazKids.com (her to me), doing DreamBox math, science experiments, Spanish songs, even P.E. (us). But after her 11 a.m. Zoom, she's done for the day.

For my son who is still in preschool, there's only one 30-minute Zoom per day at 9 a.m. I can barely get him to sit still long enough to stay in the little box on the screen. I've had to abandon the desktop as his designated "school" spot because he keeps running away. He thinks this chase game is hilarious. I might, too, if I weren't so tired. (But probably not.)

No matter how successful my home-schooling efforts have been, there are still hours and hours to fill each day with everyone at home. I've decided to take matters into my own hands. I ordered workbooks — some of the best-selling books in these strange times — and got the kids to test them out. (This article gave me a perfect cover story for my children, otherwise they might not have been willing to participate. You know, because they have so much else to do, like fight.)

Here are a few workbooks I'd highly recommend, a few that are pretty good and others you can skip.


THE MUSTS:

Mad Libs Workbook: Grade 1 Reading

Why did it take Mad Libs so long to think of this? (It's a new series, available for the first time Tuesday.) This genius workbook is fun for the whole family. The little kids were able to read the Mad Libs and pick from a few preselected, easy-to-spell words and then present their findings to everyone at the dinner table. The little kids felt a sense of mastery, while the big kids found it hilarious. While the younger ones did skip over some of the phonics and sight word exercises, they didn't even realize they were learning about compound words, sensory concepts and so much more by doing the Mad Libs. Sentences like, "I walked on a dirty poodle," and "I camped with my hairless kitchen," sent them into gales of laughter and got them reading without a second thought.

Don't Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book! A Superfun Book by Mo Willems and You!

Even the title is fun! My little ones still fight over who can work on this one. Not only does the workbook include a mix of art and writing by teaching children how to draw their own "Pigeon," but it gets them reading. Short word bubbles like, "Hey! Who ate all my snacks?" with accompanying instructions, "Quick! Draw some food in the fridge! The Pigeon gets cranky when he's hungry," make the kids feel a sense of urgency and importance to drawing, writing and thinking. There are "big activities" that require a bit more time and easy tasks the kids can accomplish on their own. This is one of our all-time favorites. "We Are in an Art-ivity Book!," another workbook by Mo Willems, is also fantastic — if you can find a copy.

Highlights Kindergarten Big Fun Workbook

This workbook is fantastic. There are a huge variety of activities here — from matching fun pictures of owls and following the "Q's" in a map for the queen to find her throne, to playing "same and different" (like in People magazine!) and pattern mazes. It's brightly colored with big, easy-to-read (and follow) instructions. Zero mess, too, which is great. Definitely one of our favorites.


THE MAYBES:

The 3-Minute Gratitude Journal For Kids from Modern Kid Press

I love the idea of this workbook, but what's the use of a three-minute boredom killer? It takes longer to remember where I've stashed the markers. I'm going to try to institute this workbook ritual at bedtime because it does give prompts on each page like, "This person brought me joy today," and "What was the best part of your day? Write or draw about it." This will take oversight, but I'm going to give it a try; it has a great mission.

Awesome Science Experiments for Kids: 100+ Fun Steam Projects & Why They Work by Crystal Chatterton

You have to be ready, as a parent, to be completely involved in these experiments which, to me, is a negative in a workbook. (I love to participate, but I'm always juggling.) However, the book gives you fair warning if you are ready and able to commit: There are difficulty ratings and time estimations, and you can see from the great photos how challenging each experiment is. Another quibble: In quarantine, I don't have a lot of the required materials, like food coloring, Alka-Seltzer, vegetable oil I'm willing to part with, cornstarch or hydrogen peroxide. But there are some fun, easy activities with teachable moments, all presented in a colorful, enticing way.

THE SKIP-ABLES:

Anger Management Workbook for Kids by Samantha Snowden

I love the premise of this book. Lord knows my children could use some anger management, and Snowden, a mindfulness educator, is well-trained in the subject. The book promises 50 activities to "help children stay calm and make better choices when they feel mad," but these worksheets have to be completed with a grown-up's help. Perhaps the packaging could gear it more toward older kids. Perhaps we could lose the glitter jar. (Mess alert!) But the content doesn't seem quite age-appropriate to the book cover. I might, though, attempt to use this for my tweens. That, in and of itself, will be our first exercise in real-time anger management.

Unicorn Activity Book for Kids (Ages 4-8)

The rainbow unicorn colorful cover of this workbook is misleading. Inside, the content is all black and white with no instructions and nothing fun. Although there are mazes, dot-to-dots, word searches and more as advertised, they're presented in as sterile a fashion as a set of oven instructions. My daughter stuck it out because of her allegiance to all things unicorn-related, but it wasn't her favorite.

Human Body Activity Book for Kids: Hands-On Fun for Grades K-3 by Katie Stokes

My daughter, who loves science, eagerly picked up this workbook, but quickly grew disappointed. Although the dot-to-dots, mazes and word searches were enjoyable, there were far too few of them compared with the many diagrams and heavier text pages. The "top fun facts" weren't fun enough to keep her — or me! — interested.

My First Learn-to-Write Workbook: Practice for Kids with Pen Control, Line Tracing, Letters, and More! by Crystal Radke

Although this guide is utilitarian and will teach kids the proper writing techniques through repetition on dotted lines, this definitely isn't fun. It feels like homework. Getting your children to do it might require some bribery. For those looking for something to give kids letter practice, this is a simple, slim exercise book that can help — if you can get them to do it.

***

Zibby Owens is host of the podcast "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books."

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