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Daily Rhythm: How to Create a Toddler Schedule You Actually Like

Mom and two kids sitting at small wooden table looking at toddler schedule cards

Get all the details on how to create a daily rhythm that works for you and your young children and why switching from a daily routine to a daily rhythm is so important!

Do you really need a daily schedule?

Routines/schedules can be a controversial topic in parenting (why is everything parenting related so controversial?!). As adults, some people love them and can’t live without them, and some people hate them and are fully anti-routine, craving all spontaneity. Lets try and make a daily rhythm less controversial shall we?

Most toddlers, especially the ones with extra worries, like and need routines to thrive. It gives them a sense of safety in the predictability. They crave that predictability, especially in the early years. Seriously, don’t you want to know what’s happening next in your day? The struggle comes with the rigidity that is implied in a daily toddler schedule. Toddlers are not rigid, they don’t understand a strict schedule. Toddlers are little free wild souls. This is why we are switching to a daily rhythm.

quote on daily toddler schedule, brown background with flowers and sun

WILD and FREE

Toddlers are meant to be loud, singing their made up songs, dancing in their underwear and rolling in the dirt. Even better if they can do all three at once! FREE! When we hiked in Alaska last year, my son decided he was a chinchilla and took a dust bath every chance he could all the way up the mountain. Then, when we got to the top covered in dirt, he promptly climbed a rock and started singing about his dance moves. FREE. The secret is that while THEY want to be free wild souls, they want YOU to be predictable. They want to be free inside of a predictable daily rhythm. Too much structure can stifle their creativity and block their own problem solving skills.

Note: all kids are different, my daughter often likes to be carried and picks and chooses when she wants to get messy and explore. Just make sure your kids are free to have the choice. Multiple kids, ages and stages are tricky. Join the fam email list for updates on a post on how to juggle the craziness of different kids while doing the same activities (or join the fam here and subscribe to my email list at the bottom of this post)
quote on daily toddler schedule, white background with green letters and leaves

So how do you give them the safety of a daily schedule but the space to be wild souls?

The answer is in the nuanced difference between a rhythm and a schedule. A routine has more of an implied rigidity and if you don’t follow it and its time table then you fail. A rhythm is a flow to the morning or day that can change and adjust with you as you go. There is space to breathe in a rhythm, a space for unstructured play, an ebb and a flow that can move with you.

Like I said, toddlers are wild, you won’t be able to put them on a regimented daily toddler routine with success. Often trying will just leave you feeling like you failed or wondering why you of all the people can’t get on a routine. Well nobody with a toddler can get on a “real” routine, so there is nothing wrong with you or your toddler. They just have an impromptu dance that NEEDS TO BE DANCED NOW! Somehow the “routine” forgot to add that in…

This way if your toddler takes longer to do something, or you both are enjoying a particular moment you can actually just live that moment without checking the clock to make sure you are on schedule and your little toddler routine is on track. That is one of the most wonderful things about a rhythm.

My Daily rhythm for my almost 3 old and 4.5 yr old

If you want to see my current daily rhythm (for an almost 3yr old and a 4.5 year old doing a nature preschool program) I am linking it below. But first, it’s really important to understand the whys and hows of it. Let’s talk about this before you jump over to the sample routine here.

When to start a daily rhythm for toddlers:

Two years old is the earliest I would try and start for most kids (some kids might be able to start around 18 months, but be very flexible). You can start small morning routines and a bedtime routine very early (3 months old kinda early). But, in this case, I am talking more of a routine for the day and its helpful for kids to be a little older.

When each of my toddlers reached 2.5 years old I started to crave more of a family rhythm. It just gives the day a flow and a purpose. And when done right it feels natural and creates space for creativity and real life. Before 2 years old, and especially the first year, can be too unpredictable to try and make a full daily rhythm for a little one. Besides, by the time you do two naps, 10 snacks and 3 meals the day is over and you haven’t had time to think about anything else! By 2 years old they are down to one nap (and depending on the toddler they may have already started to shorten it) and the day just feels like there is more time to fill.

Adjusting the Daily Rhythm with Seasons

Rhythms will be different depending on the season and the ages of the kids. Following the rhythms of nature adds some variety to the year. That is the beauty of a rhythm. It flows into new seasons of the year and new seasons of life. For example in the summer we have much more space for adventures and day trips. In the late fall/winter we are ready to be home more and have more time cuddling and reading books during the cold mornings. As your kids grow their time away from the home will grow too (middle and late childhood naturally involves clubs, sports and other activities). So rhythms constantly evolve with the family. Don’t be afraid to adjust with your family, especially as you are starting out with a rhythm.

2 year old rhythm – tips and strategies

  • BE FLEXIBLE, at two they are just learning that some activities will be picked and led by others and not totally by them. That adjustment will be hard. So be easy with them, it’s a rhythm not a routine so do not be strict, especially for this age
  • There shouldn’t be much or any time they are required to sit still and quiet. Even if you are reading a story, let them move around the room or ask questions. Some children enjoy sitting and that’s great too! Don’t force either way, let them decide. 
  • Make sure your rhythm involves lots of free play. At this age they need hours of free play each day
  • Make sure the rhythm involves lots of nature play, (like a nature walk!) at this age they need hours of nature time too (free play and nature play can be combined). For us, nature time is always wild and free. Check out my articles on exploring nature with kids here. Or if you want to go bigger here is my article on hiking with kids.
  • Don’t forget to add quiet time or nap time, they will need it!

3 year old Rhythm – tips and strategies

  • Now you can start to introduce more parent choices into the rhythm. Parent choice means the parent picks the activity and the rules. Most play before this is child-directed, they make believe and play their own way.
  • They still need hours of free play and hours of nature play or a nature walk every day
  • Continue to let them move about and ask questions, this shouldn’t feel strict
  • Don’t forget to add quiet time or nap time, they will still need it at this age too!
  • Specifically for homeschool rhythms and nature study: if they want to repeat an activity or spend a longer or shorter amount of time on something then go with the flow. Some days my kids listen to one song and are done, other days they want to listen to every song we’ve studied for the last 6 months. We sing the songs, practice instruments, and re-listen to our favorite silly parts. This is why there are no times in my rhythm. Music time can take 3 minutes or 30 minutes and it just depends on how we are feeling. We still do music time, it’s part of the rhythm, but the length of time and how in-depth we go changes.
mom pointing to toddler schedule with little girl putting card on schedule

Setting up your own daily toddler schedule (aka rhythm):

A note on flexibility with the routine/rhythm:

A rhythm should be flexible. I don’t write in times after family connection as a reminder to myself to stay flexible with the times. We don’t have to move from breakfast to chores in a timely manner because we have nothing going on! I have to remind myself to slow down on the regular. So sometimes we make a bigger breakfast or bake something together just for fun. That means breakfast is long. Sometimes we brush my daughter’s head of wild curly hair, this adds 20 minutes to the chore time. I am not exaggerating (you other parents with curly head kids know what I mean). So the spesific times these sections take changes, but the order of how we move through them is consistent and dependable.

A note on breaks and rest:

The kind of parenting I describe is rewarding and fulfilling but also takes much more mental energy. This is multiplied if you have an atypical child with extra needs. You need time to rest yourself (subscribe to my email list below for my post on nourishing yourself and adding breaks into your day coming soon). Also, make sure you have created the space in your day. If the day is too busy then any rhythm will feel rushed. Check out my tips for creating space in your day (here) to give yourself a head start!

mom holding out cards for a daily rhythm for toddlers or preschoolers

Tips for toddlers who worry:

  • Use a visual schedule for your rhythms (we use the treehouse schoolhouse daily rhythm cards we don’t use the checklist yet, just the cards). 
  • Velcro the schedule up in the room you are in the most so your toddler can see it easily and frequently
  • Make sure they know what each picture represents
  • As you move through the sections let them remove (or move up on the velcro line) the things that are finished
  • Talk to them and prepare them before you start a new rhythm/routine. Let them know that the schedule is changing and tell them what the new rhythm will be and when it starts
  • When activities need to end, use a visual timer. Large sand timers are nice because they are slow and soothing to watch
  • Pick a word for when things change unexpectedly: we use “zigger-zagger”. When something unexpected comes up and the rhythm is changing say “oh boy there’s going to be a zigger zagger today” and explain the change. Make sure to talk to them about zigger-zaggers ahead of time so this is not a new concept when one happens. ps: zigger-zaggers can be things we think are good or bad, any change can add stress.

Ok now it’s your turn to create your daily toddler schedule or preschool routine (aka rhythm)

  • first decide your goal/reason for making a rhythm (this will be your guide as you choose how to focus your rhythm). See my sample rhythm here for more details
  • think about how you already spend your morning time, what flow you already have. Sometimes it just helps to be more intentional with the things you are already doing.
  • If you kids are still taking naps make sure to add that in
  • add in morning chores that are age-appropriate, kids should be apart of family life (I have a full series on chores and life skills for ages 2-5yrs old, check them all out!)
  • don’t forget to add space for wild and free time! And lots of time outdoor play and nature walks
  • depending on age you might want to add a small nature based curriculum. A nature study has been a game changer for me, I am not creative or crafty, so I use a beautiful ready to go curriculum. We can spend 5 minutes on it or an hour plus! It gives me fun ideas for adventures and a wonderful whole focus/theme for our week. I look forward to our home school rhythms just as much as the kids! If you are super creative and crafty and have the time to make your own things up then go for it! Just make sure this doesn’t add so much stress and take so much time you actually lose connection time.
mom adding a daily rhythm card to hanging chart

Gentle Guide

remember all feel like a new routine for your little ones. So pick a specific day and make sure to let them know the day may be changing a little. Start with a basic morning rhythm and then add to it from there. Gently guide them as you go.

Ok it’s your turn!

Make sure you take a quick peek at mine for some more ideas, then take the wheel and make it your own! Just start writing down ideas and feel it out. Don’t be afraid to adjust as you go!

Ok, now you gotta let me know how it goes!! What does your own rhythm look like? How does it feel to have a rhythm?

Post Disclaimer

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice.  Consult you health care provider for your individual nutritional and medical needs.  The opinions are strictly those of the author and are not necessarily those of any professional group or other individual

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