Over the weekend, we moved our little family from Virginia to Ohio. It was a long weekend and a big move (but that’s a blog post for another time). Now that we’re getting settled in a little, it’s time to reestablish our daily routine. So, as I’ve been thinking through what I want our days to look like, I figured I’d share our tot school daily rhythm with you.
This is more or less the same rhythm I’ve been using for the last four weeks, since pulling our son out of daycare for the move, and, so far, it’s going well. Because we’re in a new place and my husband isn’t working for the next two weeks, my personal routine will change a few times over the next month, but, overall, my son’s routine will stay the same.
A Note on Schedules vs Rhythms
If you’ve been around the homeschool community at all, you may already be familiar with the difference between schedules and rhythms, but I figure it’s worth addressing here, too.
I love a good schedule, and when I’m planning for just me, having certain activities scheduled for certain times is extremely helpful. But what I’ve found is that toddlers don’t necessarily work within a schedule. The number on the clock couldn’t mean less to them, and if you create an elaborate schedule with times attached, chances are your little one will wake up late or nap long or throw a temper tantrum right when you’re “supposed” to be doing a fun activity together.
So, instead of having a time-bound schedule, I find it more helpful to have a general rhythm – an order for the day that isn’t necessarily tied to specific times. And then I hold that rhythm loosely, because… toddlers.
Within that rhythm, I do aim for just a few things to happen at the same time each day. I think of those things as being the anchors for our day, which helps ensure that naptime and bedtime generally happen around the same time every day and my little guy doesn’t get overtired.
Our Daily Tot School Rhythm
So here’s the general rhythm that we try to stick to and how we fit tot schooling into our day. Keep in mind that my son is currently 21 months old, so he’s a young toddler but also old enough that he’s starting to grasp some concepts like shapes, letters, etc. His capacity for doing and understanding various activities really changes every month.
Wake Up, Milk, & Play
My son wakes up around 7am every morning. We use this automated light and sound machine to help him know when it’s time to wake up. The light is on a very dim setting all night, then it and the sound machine turn off at 7am when it’s time to get up. Once he gets up, we get him a cup of milk and he plays independently for a while.
Breakfast & Bible Time
Breakfast is loosely around 8am every morning. I prep breakfast while he plays, then we sit at the table together to eat. He’s a slow eater, so when I finish my breakfast, I read a story from our children’s Bible out loud. He really enjoys this and normally asks to read more than one story.
Note: Prior to doing our Bible time in the morning, we did it at night before bed and he would get frustrated with it and want to read other books instead. Moving this to breakfast has made a huge difference and he now loves it!
Once he finishes his breakfast, we get his hands and the table all wiped down (because toddlers are MESSY), then start some kind of craft or activity at the table. This is the time that we use for any printables or crafts that go along with our current unit and are best done at the table. Some days this is a fancy craft that takes some prep or a messier play activity like play dough. Some days this is just a themed coloring page.
We do the activity for as long as he’s interested and then we’re done. There’s absolutely no pressure for him to participate, so if he decides he doesn’t want to color and would rather get down and play, that’s what we do. But most days he opts to do the activity for about 5-15 minutes.
I also sometimes include printables that are a little above his current understanding, just to introduce the concept and see how he does with it. It’s important to note that I don’t put any pressure on him to do the activity or printable “correctly”. I simply model the correct way to do it and then let him explore it on his own. For example, I’ll introduce a page with circles for tracing, show him how to trace the circles, and then let him just scribble on the page however he wants to. The goal here is to introduce tracing and encourage the recognition of circles, not to have a perfectly completed page.
Because I’m currently working full-time remotely, I wrap up my morning time with the little guy and then encourage him to play independently for about two hours. During this time, I try to get as much work done as possible. Some days this goes very smoothly, other days not so much. He’s great at entertaining himself, but two hours is a long time and, with the move, he’s a little extra clingy right now. If he’s really struggling to play independently, I’ll let him watch an episode of tv. It isn’t ideal, but it’s sometimes necessary for this season.
One thing that I’ve found the most helpful for this time is rotating toys. Switching out his toys (and books) about once a week keeps things fresh for him and helps him stay interested in his toys for longer periods of time.
I start to wrap up what I’m working on and prep lunch around 11am. While I’m prepping lunch, I encourage the little guy to start tidying. He’ll normally put away a few toys by himself and then I help him finish the cleaning once I’m done prepping. Then we sit down for lunch together.
After lunch is naptime. The predictability of this is extremely helpful for him. I also start talking about naptime as soon as we sit down for lunch, so that he remembers and knows it’s coming. Our naptime routine is to read a book or two together in his room. Then we turn off the lights and cuddle in the chair for just a couple minutes before I set him down in his crib.
Recently, he’s wanted a book in his crib with him, which is fine with me. He’s normally tired enough that he falls asleep right away but will then wake up slowly and read his book for a little while before calling for me at the end of naptime. Right now, his naps last about an hour and a half, and I use this time to get more work done.
This is our other tot school time during the day. I use this time for more messy and movement-based activities. When he wakes up, we head outside for a little while. During this time, we use chalk or do a sensory bin or explore birds or bugs or plants or cars or whatever we happen to be learning about that week. He LOVES being outside, so I try to let him enjoy this time and follow his lead, while occasionally directing his attention to things that relate to our current unit. Like with our morning time, I’ll show him a planned activity and then let him engage for as long as he’s interested, but there’s never any pressure for him to continue with an activity once he’s no longer interested.
Snack time also happens while we’re playing outside after nap. He’ll just hold his snack and munch on it as he runs around and plays.
The length of our outdoor play time differs depending on when he wakes up from his nap. I’ve found that it’s fairly important for both me and him to get away from the house almost every day, so around 2:30pm I start to prep for heading out. Where we go differs each day. Sometimes this time is for grocery shopping or other errands. Sometimes we go to the library and sometimes we go to the park. Regardless of where we go, I try to be home by around 4:30 or 5pm to start dinner prep.
Once we get home, he plays independently while I prep dinner. Then we do a quick tidy of the house, just like before lunch.
I aim to have dinner ready at around 6pm every day. The little guy is a pretty slow eater, so by the time we eat and get cleaned up, it’s more or less time to start getting ready for bed.
Bath and Bed
Every other night, we do bathtime, starting around 6:45pm. Then we start our bedtime routine. The routine is fairly simple. We put on his pajamas, get him a cup of milk, and then pray together as a family and read a few books in his room. Then it’s lights out and a couple minutes of cuddles before setting him in his crib. We’ve been very intentional about making his naptime and bedtime routines as similar as possible.
And that’s it. That’s our day.
With all that being said, no two days ever really look the same. While we do follow this rhythm most days, there’s a lot of room for fluctuation within this structure. Some days he plays well independently and I’m able to accomplish quite a bit for work. Other days he really needs to be on top of me all day long and work ends up happening mostly after bedtime. Some days he naps for two hours. Other days he nap for thirty minutes. Some days my husband is at work all day and I handle the toddler on my own all day. Other days my husband will be home in the afternoon and will take the little one on his afternoon outing while I stay home and get stuff done.
More than anything, motherhood has taught me to embrace uncertainty and be okay with letting go of expectations for the day. I remember early on in motherhood being very frustrated when naptime didn’t go as planned and I “had to” spend more time caring for my son during the day.
It wasn’t until I really stopped to consider my priorities that my mindset around this changed. Yes, I’m a full-time employee, and, yes, I want to and need to accomplish certain things each day, but, ultimately, my son is more important than any of that. I don’t ever want him to feel like he is getting in the way of my other responsibilities, like those things matter more than he does. So, as those unexpected changes in our day arrive, I try to remember that it’s okay to be flexible. That there will be more time later for the things that need to get done. And that this time with him is precious and short.