Routines and Structure that Toddlers Can Understand

Children function best with structure. 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 adults caring for kids. True, many of us love the freedom of deciding on the spur of the moment what comes next, and sometimes that is the basis of creativity. But that works best when WE decide what rules to break. If we feel besieged by the unexpected or if our basic needs for security aren’t met, most of us get anxious.

To help your toddler feel secure in his day, talk about what comes next. So in the morning, after some "good morning" cuddles, you might say "Let's get dressed so we can have breakfast....Then we can go on an adventure!" Maybe your adventure that day will be to the grocery store, and on another day, you'll go to the drugstore. If you treat it as an adventure and a learning experience, that's how your child will perceive it. 

On the way home, you can review your morning.

"What a great morning we had....we had cuddles when we woke up...then we had oatmeal for breakfast....then we brushed teeth and got shoes on like we do every morning....then we went on an adventure to the grocery store. What was your favorite thing?"

Then, you can talk again about what comes next. "When we get home, I will put these groceries away. Do you want to help me? Then we will make lunch, and have a story and it will be nap time. This afternoon, do you want to go to the playground or to the park?"

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.

To help your child develop a sense of his "routine" I strongly recommend creating a poster with a written schedule and photos of your child doing his 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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