Day 10: Alternatives to Worksheets

by | Adapt & Modify Activities

When we think about school and the classroom, it’s easy to envision children sitting at their desks harping away on workbook sheet after workbook sheet.  Filling in blanks, matching images, tracing letters, circling answers – they all make for great-looking educational handouts.

It’s also easy to find free printable worksheets on Pinterest.  It’s even easier to print them up and give them to our children in the homeschool setting.  Today’s post is going to trigger some reactions in you, but I need to explain why worksheets need to be kept to a minimum.  I also offer alternatives so that you can cultivate rich learning experiences for your child.


Worksheets screenshot

Worksheets, worksheets, worksheets! You can download a worksheet for just about anything on Pinterest.

Why worksheets may be a challenge for neurodiverse or disabled children

  • Children with fine motor limitations will find holding a pencil and filling out sheets difficult to do.
  • Worksheets are symbolic activities that are difficult for children who are concrete thinkers.
  • Children who have difficulty with visual tracking or eye-hand coordination will most certainly find worksheets to be a challenge.
  • Children with reading difficulties will not be able to even complete a worksheet as it requires the skill of following directions.
  • Children who are easily distracted will most likely struggle with staying focused on worksheets.
  • Children who are not easily motivated, will find worksheets to be tedious.


A word about worksheets

I’m going to be honest about this one.  As a teacher, I found it all too easy to print off copies for a class of 27 children.  While I worked with one child, the rest of the class was busy completing work in their workbook.  I am also going to be honest when I say that I believe worksheets to be just that – busy work.  Not true learning work.  They make for great fillers for extra practice – but not front-line, honest-to-goodness hands-on learning experiences  – even if children use their hands to fill them in.

That said, I know that, used properly, worksheets are lifesavers.  For a family with multiple homeschooled children, they have a definite place while the parent works with one child and the others are continuing their math exercises at the same time.  It’s steps ahead of parking the children in front of the tv.  I get it.

Further, when modified, some worksheets can be very much hands-on (I’ll explain below).

I would like you to keep in mind that if you’re going to use worksheets, no matter how they are used, that you keep them to a minimum.  Use them as a compliment to learning, but never as a first-time learning tool.

Alternatives to worksheets

If you’re going to teach colors, work with colors, touch colors, play with colorful fabrics. Tracing the names of colors and then coloring in worksheets offer very little value to a child. Keep these types of worksheets for when you’re sitting in a waiting room and you need to keep your child busy.

When planning a learning activity, always ask yourself:  How similar is this to real life? 

If you’re not convinced, ask yourself these questions: How often do I pull out a worksheet to practice something new?  When I learned to knit, did I use a worksheet before picking up the needles?  When I learned to cook, did I fill out pages of worksheets before I cut up the ingredients?  When I learned the social skills for dining at a restaurant, did I fill out worksheets to prepare for the experience?

If you are homeschooling, it’s because you’ve chosen to make life your child’s classroom.  Don’t imitate classroom strategies that are meant for over 25 children in one room.  Instead, imitate life.

Suggestions for alternatives to worksheets

  • The opposite of busy-work is hands-on. If you offer your child opportunities to discover, manipulate, and question the materials of his world, you are going to see true learning.  You don’ t need to have proof on a piece of blackline paper to know that your child is acquiring new skills and knowledge.  When planning an activity, think about how you can make it as hands-on as possible.
  • Offer choices.  Worksheets offer no choice at all.  The directions are given, and the child is expected to follow them.  But, with hands-on projects and activities, the children can be given choices.  Ex: “Do you want to create a graph or draw a picture of your science results?”
  • Use worksheets in accordance with manipulatives.  Worksheets can be super recording tools when used side-by-side with manipulatives.  If your child is learning to add, you can use manipulative tools to help solve the equation.  If learning about “more” and “less” – use manipulatives to go along with the problem.  You don’ t need to purchase fancy manipulatives.  Use blocks, toys, utensils you already have available.
Alternatives to worksheets - clock sheets

This type of worksheet is super because the child is expected to model the time on the clock, then record the time on the sheet.

Alternatives to worksheets -

These are all interactive worksheets. They can be laminated and used with manipulatives for a long time.

Worksheet alternatives

Another interactive worksheet that uses linking cubes.

manipulatives and worksheets

Interactive worksheets and sorting bears.

  • Make learning as true-to-life as possible.  If you’re going to teach colors, work with colors, touch colors, play with colorful fabrics.  Tracing the names of colors and then coloring in booklets full of color worksheets offer very little value to a child.  Keep those worksheets for when you’re sitting in a waiting room and you need to keep your child busy.  Might as well be learning while waiting.
  • Remember to always incorporate your child’s dominate intelligence and learning style into an activity.  If your child is more of a kinesthetic learner, let him move and dance in the shapes he is learning.  If your child is a visual learner, allow him to take photographs of all the shapes he finds in the house.  If your child is music smart, let him compose a short tune describing the shapes.  By building on your child’s learning style and including some new approaches from the other categories, you are most likely going to target some therapy goals at the same time.  Kinesthetic learning tips are wonderful for reinforcing physio, while verbal-lingustic tips will help you include speech & language objectives. You can learn more about dominant intelligences and learning style here.
Alternatives to worksheets for children with special needs

Printing or handwriting worksheets are just about the only types of worksheets I encourage you to use – only after using more hands-on methods first. Draw the letters in the air, draw them in sand, draw them in play dough before ever committing to worksheets.

Do you use worksheets? How do you make the best use of them?

If you are enjoying the tips in this series, I can help personalize strategies through consultations for parents or educators.


  1. Catherine

    I use worksheets occasionally with my special needs child. He REALLY wants to be able to write his name, so right now, we use some very basic dot to dots, tracing pages (curves, zigzags, and lines), and toddler mazes to work on wrist/elbow movement and hand/eye coordination. In general, I agree with your assessment of worksheets as busy work. I try to use them only when they motivate or excite my son.

    • Gabriella Volpe

      That’s actually super, Catherine. You are using the worksheets in the way they should be used. As writing practice, this is the only way to go – after practicing and really internalizing the letters with his body. It’s clear that your son is motivated to write, so he’s definitely ready to use a pen/pencil and trace. I just worry about workbooks that are completed from beginning to end without other methods being offered first. Thank you for sharing this and keep working at it. Sounds like great things are going on over there!

  2. Chantal Halle

    I was told that some fonts on Microsoft Word (like Trace?- I need to check) allow you to type what you would like your child to trace over (ex. his name).
    Does anybody know which fonts may work best for this purpose?

    • Gabriella Volpe


      The best fonts are those in which the “a” is circular with a tail. There are many you can find, but here is a free trace font link for you:

More Resources

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