One of our best devices for encouraging independent work for our kids has been our "mystery folders." Each child has a colored file folder of his/her own, decorated in his/her own style. Each night I put a "mystery" assignment in each folder (usually different according to age level of child). These are almost always sheets I have downloaded from the internet and have been quite varied. One important aspect is to keep the material fresh and enticing; I rarely use regular math or grammar worksheets, for example, unless there is something exciting and unusual about them. While I consider this folder as learning time, I also strive to keep it disguised as pure fun!
A normal week will include brain teasers, coloring pages, directions and supplies for simple crafts, crossword puzzles, mazes, and connect-the-dots. We have covered many of the 50 states by coloring state flags (www.enchantedlearning.com) and have become familiar with many artists by coloring famous paintings. The children are not allowed to look at their mystery folders until it is time for independent work. At that time, one child will do his/her mystery folder while I spend 15-20 minutes working with another child. It is amazing how much I can get done with this one child while the other is occupied with the mystery folder! And at the same time, the "mystery folder child" is learning to work independently.