Routines and Structure that Toddlers Can Understand

Most human beings function best with structure. True, many of us love to break rules, and sometimes that is the basis of creativity. But that works when WE decide what rules to break. If we feel besieged on all sides by the unexpected or if our basic needs for security aren’t met, we contract with anxiety, making creativity impossible.

Toddlers and preschoolers, especially, feel small in the world. Most things happen TO them. They crave predictability, knowing what will happen, because it gives them some sense of control. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives.

Kids who understand the routine, rather than feeling pushed around by what seems like arbitrary circumstance, are more likely to cooperate. Creating a regular routine is an essential way to give toddlers the security of knowing "what happens next" in their day. I think having a plan for the day can also be important for moms. Otherwise, we often find ourselves feeling chaotic and anxious.

Does that mean we "force" kids into a routine that isn't working, or keep them on a rigid schedule so they can't stop to examine that bug on the sidewalk? Of course not. A child's routine needs plenty of ease in it to allow them to accomplish one of their most important life tasks: exploration and experimentation. And children also need plenty of opportunity to make their own decisions and choices about how to use their own time within certain windows of their schedule.

But I strongly recommend creating a poster with a written schedule and photos of your child doing her usual activities, in the order of the day. You can buy these commercially, but you can also easily make your own. You can set up a "clock" in a circle, but for some kids that is too confusing. It's fine to just arrange photos on a poster board in order, depicting the daily routine (wake up, potty, dress, breakfast, errands, snack, play, lunch, nap etc). You can write the words next to the photo. Leave some of your pieces movable by using tape instead of glue, in case you need to exchange "errands" for "Visit Grandma." You can even buy a magnetized bulletin board and glue photos of your child doing these activities to magnets, so you can move them around.

For more inspiration on creating a routine for your child:

Structure: Why Kids Need Routines »

Building an evening routine for kids of different ages »

Starting a Family Routine »

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