Good habits - learning through routines

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The routines necessary in caring for very young children offer opportunities for bonding and learning, says Jennie Lindon

The routines necessary in caring for very young children offer  opportunities for bonding and learning, says Jennie Lindon

Routines are an important part of the day for babies and very young children, whether they are within a family home or in a day nursery. These routines can be a source of learning which is just as important as their exploration of play materials. They can be:

  • The personal physical care routines necessary for young children who cannot yet take care of themselves, such as changing, cleaning, dressing and feeding.
  • Daily routines of care and support for everyone, such as arrival and leaving times, meals and snacks, rest or sleep periods, shifts within the day when some tidying up is needed.
  • Daily and weekly routines of regular events in a family home or nursery such as the arrival of the post, deliveries like milk or groceries, taking care of pets or plants in the garden, selected television programmes and local outings that you plan for a regular day of the week.


What's the rush?
If children are to learn through these routines, helpful and supportive practitioners need to value routines as a time of possible learning. Children cannot benefit if they are bundled through changing time or made to wait while adults tidy up just because it's quicker.

  • Time any routine so that you do not have to rush young children and they do not feel left out of a regular activity. You do not need considerable amounts of extra time, and in any case, caring for a jangled or distressed toddler actually takes longer. Experienced childminders in Warwickshire recently expressed this
    idea to me as, 'If you give time then you gain time.'
  • Communicate positively about routines through any displays in your nursery, including photos. Share your ideas and swap anecdotes about the babies and toddlers with their parents.
  • Make sure that written plans for children's learning through a wide range of activities include how they learn from involvement in routines as much as from suitable play activities.

Practitioners who value routines are more likely to be relaxed and to let young children take part, expressing themselves through choices and making decisions.
Children like to be consulted.


Can routines go wrong?
Of course, not every day goes smoothly with very young children, and early years practitioners need patience and willingness to start again. Everyone needs to avoid bad habits in routines.

  • Watch that routines never become more important than the children they are supposed to support. Is the pattern and timing of routines in your nursery organised to suit adults more than children?
  • Priorities will have been confused if children are rushed through a meal because trays need to get  back to the kitchen. And the wholeness of young children's learning has been misunderstood if there is any sense that 'But we have to change children quickly or they don't get to do all these educational activities'.
  • Early years teams need to challenge notions such as 'But we have to get all the babies to sleep at the same time'. Is it really quicker for adults to dish up and pour out at mealtimes, and why is speed a priority? What are the consequences in lost opportunities for children's learning?
  • Children like a sense of what happens next, and they can learn about time and timing through routines, but a timetable still needs to be flexible. Avoid any implication that a daily routine has to be started at an exact time. I still occasionally see schedules with times like 10.32am on them - nothing in a child's life needs to happen with this kind of precision.

Inflexible routines can make adults feel that daily life is boring with very young children. This negative outlook filters through to the children, who experienced it as a feeling that they are boring - a serious consequence for children's emotional and social development.

Physical care routines
Children's physical care demands a great deal of attention, especially with under-twos. The routines of feeding, changing nappies and dressing will occupy more of the carer's day than with older children, but this is not lost time.

On the contrary, when you treat babies genuinely as individuals, your warm communication supports their emotional development. Very young children can develop a positive sense of personal identity because you make personal contact with them during mealtimes. You can show them how you realise that their likes and dislikes are different from those of their friend in the next chair.

  • A relaxed changing time can also offer personal communication with very young children, exchanging smiles, happy glances, sounds and chat. By doing this you will be creating the building blocks for the give- and-take of later conversations with recognisable words.
  • As children become more able to take part in their own care, you can show how pleased you are with their growing skills. Create time for them to help in dressing or feeding themselves. Children get personal satisfaction from being involved with day-to-day activities, and self-care also offers excellent practice for developing fine motor skills.
  • You can also promote children's development by showing you notice their personal preferences in care routines. Perhaps Jessie and Anil are happy to sit on their pots together because they like a chat, but Stevie prefers his privacy and wants to sit on the toilet with the door pushed close.

Learning through routines
Part of young children's learning is to sort out the familiar from the unfamiliar and the ordinary from the extraordinary. They are helped by routines that follow a recognisable pattern but with some flexibility so that they do not become rigid.

  • Tell and show young children what is about to happen. Say that you are going to change them or wipe their face. Avoid any sense of scooping them up or leaning over them without warning.
  • Offer babies and toddlers a chance to take part in routines. There are many opportunities that are safe. They can help in daily routines such as tidying up, laying the table, pouring drinks, or offering food to other children or the adult.
  • You can support children's early understanding of abstract ideas like number because these ideas are used in a meaningful context. For example, you count how many we have to tea today and then match plates to children and staff, counting as you go. Ideas of sequence and order make sense through experiences, such as, 'We wash our hands, then we have our meal, then we have quiet time'.
  • There will be spillages if under-threes help with say, pouring drinks, but these will be minor and children will improve with practice. Even spills can be an opportunity to learn when adults say calmly, 'Where do we keep the cloth (or the dustpan and brush)?' and let children wipe or sweep up.
  • Under-threes can take simple messages within a family home or in the nursery. This activity helps with recall and communication. Children can also be given a written note to deliver - not only to back up the message but to show trust in them to hand over something of importance.
  • Give children warning of shifts in the day's routine. For example, 'We've got time for one more story, then it's tidy-up.' This prior warning not only helps children to adjust but gives them a sense of sequence, First we'll.. and then we'll...  Words and gestures help even toddlers to understand sequence.

Think of routines as shared activities with children and not as lists that are stuck on the wall to direct adult activities. There is nothing the matter with a written guide to the day or the week, but look for ways to make it one that can also be consulted by children. You could also use visuals like photos or children's drawings to illustrate and bring the children's perspective to the timetable.                                  

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