Toddlers. They can be tricky little beasts. They’re adorable and cuddly and full of curious questions one minute. And then, with something as inconsequential as the wrong colored sippy cup, they turn furious and get all screamy. It doesn’t have to be the cup color, though. It could be that you cut the banana into slices instead of leaving it whole. Or you asked him to try, just try for the love of all things holy, to take off his own shoes. Or you got caught on a work call longer than scheduled and you parked an iPad in those needy little mitts to finish talking with your boss and now when you try to take it back, you’re worried you may end up needing a rabies shot afterward. Ah, parenting.
Welp, no one trick solves everything. Toddlers have got to keep us on our toes, after all. But one thing that can help parents and their toddlers float through the day with a little less drama is a schedule. (And less drama with your toddler is good, right? It’s not as though we want the day-to-day to feel like a reality TV show - the self-absorption of the Real Housewives coupled with the capriciousness of The Bachelor with a dash of the nudity and peril of Naked and Afraid. I don’t know though…maybe we’re onto some TV gold here?) No - less drama in the day. And I know, I know. It can sound like a lot of work to establish and stick to a schedule. And I’d be a big fat liar if I told you it didn’t take some initial effort. But here’s the deal - once you’ve got it in place, a schedule can make your life so much easier.
What’s the benefit of establishing a schedule? Well, I’m so glad you asked! (Let’s pretend you asked, ok?) Because there are some really good reasons! It’s no secret I love me a schedule. Print it out and color code it, maybe throw in some small caps headings…ooooh, you’re speaking my love language. But it’s not just the organization I love about scheduling. It’s the counter-intuitive freedom that comes with it. Let me clarify, I’m not advocating for a minute-by-minute chart you stick to like a drill sergeant. I’m talking more about a routine. The better word may even be flow. *Casually flips hair away from face in a free-spirited kinda way.* Your day should follow a pattern, not necessarily a rigid time clock.
For instance, wake and get dressed, eat breakfast, play, read together, have a snack, play outside, eat lunch, and so on is specific enough. Toddlers are terrible at telling time (some of them don’t even know the difference between ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ so why get all caught up in hour and second hands?) But little kiddos are great following patterns of a day. And the repetition of an expected schedule gives them security. With that emotional security in place, kids can begin to foster tools that help them with self-control. (Here’s where the less drama part comes in.) Consistent sequencing of a day lets them predict and prepare for what comes next. (This helps with transitions - again, less drama!) A major plus of that for both kids and parents is that their understanding of where the day is headed and the control they feel in that knowledge reduces a lot of battles and power struggles. Your kiddo understands that bath always comes after dinner, screen time comes after lunch, etc. If kids know when to anticipate an activity and that the activity is definitely going to happen, there’s little sense in arguing over it. The routine is boss.
Also keep in mind that toddlers change so much and so quickly during this rich developmental period - think language acquisition, both gross and fine motor skills, social skills. With all that change in the mix, consistency and daily predictability is a good thing. A schedule can also help toddlers learn some basic health and social skills. Like we always wash our hands before we eat; we brush our teeth before bedtime; we pick up our toys at the end of play time; we put dirty clothes in the hamper; etc. Most child development folks will tell you that when young kids can consistently anticipate what’s coming, they feel more secure and calm as well as self-confident. Isn’t that what we want?
And a daily schedule isn’t just for kiddos. I mean, we love doing right by our kids, but it’s nice when it has positive effects for us, too. Here’s the weird thing - a schedule is oddly freeing for parents. By that I mean, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every…single…day. When you’re not tied up with the stress of on-the-fly planning and entertaining and the potential disruption it may cause your toddler, you can find yourself with free mind-space to be more creative or relaxed or productive. The framework is already in place, you just have to fill in the details. It’s paradoxical that more structure allows more freedom but think of it this way: You set up your routine to have an independent project time every day while you cook dinner (or order it for delivery - we’re busy people and I simply can’t summon the strength to chop vegetables every night. Is that so wrong?!?) Once that time is established - and it may take some time to get this established - all you have to do is put an independent project in your child’s hands. With an established routine, your kiddo already knows that during the time you handle dinner prep, she’s occupied with her own independent project. Same goes with the time you and your toddler spend together. If she knows that you do an activity together every day followed by her independently looking through books while you catch up on work email, you will most likely actually have that time to do work while she entertains herself. When the expectation is consistently in place and followed through on, toddlers generally get on board.
So figure out a daily routine that works for your toddler and family. I’ve always poked around on the internet for templates (there’s no shortage of experts and strangers telling you exactly what to do there) but I’ve also asked friends what’s worked for them. And keep in mind the general flow of your own kiddos and try to stick to any natural patterns that surface. Maybe they drift toward a quiet rest time after lunch or maybe they’d prefer to run off some energy then? There’s no sense in continually fighting an uphill battle everyday so go with the patterns that organically emerge. With a schedule or routine, they’re usually not one-size-fits-all. I’d just say you want to make sure and include the basic categories - time to play together, independent play, reading time, outside time, snacks, meals, rest or quiet time, etc. (And yes, I realize the inherent arrogance in saying, hey gang, do what I do! But pretty much anything I’ve done as a mom I’ve begged, borrowed, or stolen from another mom and integrated it into my own life to work for me. Hopefully there’s at least a snippet in here that works for you!)
Once you have your general routine in place, you know what holes you need to fill. For me, it helps to take a little chunk of time on Sunday to lay out the week ahead. (And I mean little chunk of time - you’re not becoming a full-time preschool teacher on the side of your other full-time career gig as well as full-time mom.) But planning out what activity will happen each day for your kiddo alleviates any stress you may be feeling when you wake up in the morning to a work emergency and a couple of little faces wondering, “What are we going to do today?”. The planning frees you from any decision paralysis or the inability to do something because it requires too much prep work or warrants a trip to the store, etc. When I take a look at the week, I keep my personal schedule and responsibilities in mind when I plan for my kiddos. If I know I’ve got a work assignment due on a certain day, I won’t plan something too involved until that deadline has passed. Sometimes Fridays have too much funk from the rest of the week stuck to them and I like to keep things low-key. Other days I know I’ll have the time (and patience) for a more elaborate project to do with my kids. It just depends on what each week looks like.
You can look at your schedule and put together a little pile for each day’s activities. Maybe a stack of books for reading time, an independent activity or toy, a project to do together, an errand or outing you’ll do, and the like. None of this has to be complex. The adherence to a schedule is supposed to make your life easier. Stuff as simple as crayons and paper, a sticker book, pipe cleaners, blocks, seasonal stamps all work for the independent play time. Maybe reintroduce some forgotten toys, or put toys together in new combinations. (What!?! Duplos with Play-Dough or My Little Ponies with dinosaurs might just blow your toddler’s mind - just make sure it’s only the herbivores with the horses - bad dad joke!). Some folks are organized enough to have a bin or basket for each day of the week that they park the books, toys, activities, and whatnot in so they are ready to roll. Whatever makes it easy and accessible to you is what’s best.
Some parents I know even add themes to their daily routines. (Gold star for you guys!) Each theme influences the books they read and the activities they do with their toddlers. Like:
- Make It Monday - crafts!
- Music Monday - listen and dance to songs; create music; read a book with a soundtrack
- Move Your Body Monday - do kids’ yoga; play soccer; go for a walk; extra park time
- Tasty Tuesday - cook something fun; try a new food
- Try It Tuesday - try a new task like dressing yourself
- Work it Wednesday - pick a job to read about or pretend play at
- Work Together Wednesday - choose something to do for the community like plant flowers
- Wacky Wednesday - read silly books or wear mismatched socks
- Thoughtful Thursday - do a kind activity for someone else
- Think It Through Thursday - read a book with a mystery or problem and think of solutions
- Field Trip Friday - go someplace fun like the zoo or even just a Starbucks drive-thru (cake pops for the win!)
- Feelings Friday - draw what a feeling might look like
- Family Friday - watch a movie or play a game together
If the framework helps, go for it. But if it becomes a cumbersome hindrance, ditch it. Personally, I don’t think I could commit to daily themes (I can’t even commit to a brand of deodorant), but more power to those who can and find it beneficial!
Understandably, things can definitely throw the routine out of whack - illness, a change in work schedule, travel, the sheer fact that it’s a Monday morning and we’re already missing the weekend, or I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here…a worldwide pandemic? There will be hiccups along the way that disrupt your predictable rhythm and make your routine go all wonky. It happens. But hopefully with an established routine and the benefits you and your toddler derive from it, you’ll be able to get back to stasis as quickly as you can. And no, a daily schedule isn’t going to prevent every toddler issue that arises. I mean, jeez, you’re still going to slice that banana wrong sometimes or let separate foods on the plate touch each other. (How do you even look at yourself in the mirror every day???) But, with a bedrock of consistency on the big stuff that does matter, the daily flow and energy of your household will be a little more calm and secure. (Flow and energy? This schedule loving lady is gonna need to do another free-spirited hair toss with that.)