6 Ways to Keep Your Preschooler on a Schedule

Creating a schedule and sticking to it for your ever-changing little one can be challenging. But consistency and flexibility can help you get there.

Children need structure and predictability, and these needs are best met when they’re young.

By providing preschoolers with routines, parents create an environment that fosters children’s emotional and social growth. As a community, even one as small as a family, we teach our preschoolers that social groups have shared expectations. Laying these out clearly enables young children to master their environment and to develop trust in themselves and their caregivers. Without this sense of control, children can feel buffeted by unexpected developments in their daily lives, leading to anxiety and distrust.

So, how do you create a daily schedule for your preschooler? Here are some ideas I used when my children were young:

1. Create a Schedule Based on Everyone’s Needs

Think about the daily patterns of the children and adults in your family. Consider when you wake up, when you prefer to eat meals, who’s home at different times of the day and evening. Are these routines consistent throughout the week?

While parents often try to optimize schedules for their children, it’s important to also consider what the adults in the family need. If you need to get to bed at a reasonable hour each night, be sure to build a schedule for your children that allows you to do this. After all, no one is well served by having you wake up exhausted each day.

Preschoolers are young enough to adopt the patterns you want to establish, so think about the schedule that will work best for all of you. And don’t be afraid to make changes. Introduce them gradually, and your young children will make the shift.

2. Stick to the Schedule

Once you’ve observed your family and figured out the daily and weekly patterns you want to foster, be consistent.

Plan meals, naps, play, and bedtime for the same time each day. And this includes weekends! Notice how long it takes your preschooler to eat, clean up from play, get ready for bed, and so on. Gently and firmly move her forward in each of these activities. Remember too that we all have experiences or times of day that are most stressful, and young children are no different. Pay attention to your preschooler’s stressors, and build a schedule that works around them. My daughter was reliably irritable as bedtime approached, so I made this period one of our story times.

3. Mix In Energetic and Quiet Activities Throughout the Day

After you’ve determined the best overall timing of daily events, consider how to balance different activities throughout the day.

It can often seem as if young children never stop going, but the reality is that most of them need a mix of energetic and quiet activities. If your preschooler is slow to get going in the morning, as my son was, this may be a great time for stories. On the other hand, if he leaps out of bed and races around your home at the beginning of each day, this may be the time for some physical play. Schedules are meant to create predictability in your child’s world, but it’s still important to take his patterns into account.

4. Incorporate Activities That Keep Kids Engaged

Plan your daily and weekly schedules with enough activities to keep young children engaged, but not so many that they’re racing from one commitment to the next. Preschoolers need plenty of time to explore and imagine, and over-scheduling can trample on these needs. In addition, the amount of time that a two-year old can devote to an activity will be different than a four-year old, so you have to match your plans to each child’s stage of development. Activities with preschoolers should feel fun and engaging, but not leave you acting like a drill sergeant to get to the next event.

5. Give Space for Transitions

Children, especially younger ones, need help making transitions. It can be difficult for a preschooler to move from one activity to another, whether that’s going from eating to getting dressed or painting to playing outside. Use verbal cues to prepare young children for transitions.

Give 5- or 10-minute notices that it will be time to finish an art project or get ready for bed. And follow up your initial cue with one- or two-minute alerts because young children aren’t yet tuned into how time passes.

6. Display the Schedule for All to See

Many parents use a whiteboard or magnetic board to visualize their family’s schedule. I’ve also seen this done with a clear, plastic shower curtain that has pockets to hold pictures of the day's events.

Any of these ideas works by displaying the days of the week across the top of the board and putting each day’s activities in order underneath. We drew simple pictures of each activity, from eating breakfast to reading books to going to the playground. I wrote the name of each activity beside the picture to help my children learn these words as they became familiar with letters. I’ve also had friends who took pictures of their children engaged in each activity, and used these to create their family schedule. If you display this calendar in a location where you spend the most time, preschoolers can check it to see “what comes next.”

By establishing a daily and weekly schedule for preschoolers, parents teach young children that their lives are predictable and ordered, which, in turn, fosters feelings of trust and security. Armed with these tools, young children gain the confidence to move into the larger world. And families have solid structures to help them navigate both the expected and unexpected.

Sources:

SUPPORT US. (n.d.). ZERO TO THREE: Early Childhood Mental Health. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from Zero to Three

SUPPORT US. (n.d.). ZERO TO THREE: Early Development. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from Zero to Three

How Can We Strengthen Children's Self-Esteem? (n.d.). How Can We Strengthen Children's Self-Esteem? Retrieved July 31, 2014, from Kid Source

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