Learning Routines and
Routines to Learn

Dr. Rebecca Palacios

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An invaluable survival strategy for parents and teachers of young children is the establishment of daily and weekly routines.

To help your child learn and remember the daily routines that occur between waking up and bedtime, you can use pictures that you cut out, draw, or take with a camera. For young children, concepts of time can be difficult, and pictorial representations help them understand the order in which things happens. This is also an effective way to teach ordinal numbers (first, second, third, and so on) as well as sequencing and time concepts.

As a mother of five children and an early childhood teacher for more than 30 years, I can tell you firsthand that when the routine was disrupted without warning, chaos followed! We adults like to know what is going to happen when we plan our day; if there are changes, we like to know in advance, so we can adapt our schedules. This is important for young children, too. As adults, we sometimes take for granted that our youngsters will adjust and go along with us. But that adjustment occurs much more smoothly when they are prepared for what is to happen during their day and they have some choices in their routine.

So when you know the family’s routine is going to change, sharing that information with your child is always a good idea. Young children can be resilient when given a heads-up, or what I sometimes call an “advance organizer.” As a teacher, I advised parents to tell their children what would happen throughout the day and to prepare them for changes—such as when they were to be picked up early, when they had doctors’ appointments, or if someone else was going to come for them after school. As another example, weekends usually involve routines that are different than weekdays for families, so it helps to prepare children by telling them exactly what will be different.

It’s also a good idea to let your child help you establish the family’s routines. Giving your child the opportunity to make choices and decisions within the daily routine fosters responsibility and sharing. On laundry day, for example, asking your child to help sort colors from whites not only supports the development of responsibility and teaches your child that he or she can make valuable contributions to the family, but it also helps him or her to learn sorting and classifying skills, which are important in math, reading, and science.

My first four children were very close in age, but I had my fifth child eight years after my fourth. While my youngest was growing from toddler to kindergarten age, the older children were involved in tennis and tournaments, and their after-school activities dominated our lives. This meant that I had to prepare our youngest for after-school schedule changes that did not involve going straight home to cook dinner, so my routine included preparing sandwiches on those different days. My youngest child learned how to adapt to her four siblings’ schedules, and my job was to make sure that, as she grew from a toddler to a kindergartener, she knew what was going to happen every day.

I also wanted to teach my youngest daughter, as well as her older siblings, that the activities we were involved in did not preclude us from learning. As we sat waiting for a tennis match, we always had the children’s books that I had put in my bag, as well as small building blocks, crayons and paper, and small toys that allowed her to be creative wherever we were. Those times that she and I spent reading books, while the others were engaged in their activities and with their friends, strengthened our personal bond. Yet she was also still part of their lives and their friends’ lives.

I found that wherever our daily routines take us, we can find opportunities for teaching and learning. For example, just talking with your child about what you see in the environment will help him or her to build oral language vocabulary, which is an important pre-reading skill. You can also strengthen important foundational math skills by grouping nearby rocks into sets of five, sorting leaves into different shapes or colors, grouping sticks into tens like tally marks, and whatever else you can imagine!

My youngest is now 20, and she and my other children say that those busy times were also some of the best times they have had. Like us, many families today have complex and very full schedules before, during, and after school. Established routines make for smoother transitions and help children prepare mentally for the day and what is to come, while providing frameworks in which creative learning can occur.

So whether you are learning a routine or creating a routine for learning, think of it as an opportunity to spend quality time with your children—and you will also be creating wonderful memories of early childhood.

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