Taking a thoughtful approach to scheduling
If quality is the goal for early childhood programs,
the daily schedule is a critical element. You can find sample
schedules appropriate to different age groups in resource books,
college textbooks, and online.
But appropriate scheduling—scheduling that meets the needs of individual
children as well as children in groups—requires a thoughtful approach that
recognizes the limitations of the environment, equipment, and materials. In building
a great schedule, consider these issues:
routine activities versus schedule flexibility,
individual versus group activity, and
choice versus compliance.
Start with a recipe
A daily schedule is like a recipe for optimal child development. All the ingredients—children,
parents, other caregivers, directors, teachers, volunteers, cooks, maintenance
workers, physical space, and materials—can combine to create a product
of high quality. But adults, using their knowledge and experience, can adjust
the recipe for the sake of the main ingredient: the child.
Evaluate the daily schedule to determine whether all domains of development
are included weekly (see the domain chart on page 5). Ask: Are daily schedules
posted so all family members and staff can follow the same recipe? Are both
small- and gross-motor activities listed? Does the schedule adequately address
language and cognitive development?
Let’s extend the metaphor. Exactly how does a daily schedule resemble
First, you , including the right materials and
the best people for planned play and learning activities. These ingredients
need to be readily available when you plan to use them. If you plan for the
children to finger paint, for example, you place smocks near the art table.
Second, you . Have you ever tried to
bake bread before it rises? A schedule reminds us, for example, to wash our
hands before we eat and to eat before we nap.
Third, based on individual needs, you are with the amounts and types
of ingredients in the recipe. Just as salt can be more or less acceptable to
different tastes and for different health needs, different topics and activities
can match different children’s interests.
Finally, you with family members, friends, and even strangers!
You can share children’s daily accomplishments in newsletters, art shows,
and open houses, just as you would share a favorite dish.
versus schedule flexibility
A daily schedule is a recipe for a routine, and a routine is important because
children thrive on predictability. Predictability can mean security to children.
Even adults like to know what to expect wherever they are. Grown-ups usually
want events at a restaurant, the bank, the doctor’s office, and the grocery
store to follow a , or a typical pattern or way of doing things. For
instance, the hostess seats us before the waitress gives us menus, and our
drinks arrive before the food that we have ordered. Psychologist Jean Piaget
pointed out that young children rely on schemata even more than adults.
Children are generally more comfortable when they can follow a regular schedule.
A schedule helps lessen behavioral problems by helping children know what comes
next. Secure children are less likely to lash out, get involved in inappropriate
activities, or show their frustration when free play ends and the block construction
Predictability builds cognitive skills that allow children to recognize patterns
(red-black, red-black in a checkerboard, for example) and understand cause-and-effect
relationships (turn faucet, water comes out). Most importantly, the security
that grows from predictability builds children’s self-confidence to take
the future risks necessary for lifelong learning.
Eventually, predictability leads to , the ability to perform some
tasks without thinking about them consciously. Just as you no longer need to
tell yourself to turn the key in the ignition and press down on the brake before
you start the car, children will begin to flush the toilet, wash their hands,
stand quietly in a line to leave the classroom, and write their names on their
papers automatically. Because health and safety routines are so important,
we stress these routines until they become automatic.
Individual versus group activity
Within your schedule, however, allow for flexibility. Flexibility is sometimes
necessary to meet individual children’s needs that may not match the
needs of the group. For example, Anna may need snack earlier in the day if
she didn’t have breakfast that morning. Or Reid, a child with a vision
impairment, may need additional time to complete a puzzle.
Your flexibility can also support group needs under certain circumstances.
For instance, you adjust to a series of rainy days by planning specific activities
for physical play in the gym.
Build schedules to meet the developmental needs and ages of the group. Schedules
for school-age children differ from schedules for infants or preschoolers.
Naptime is longer for toddlers than 4-year-olds, for example. But snack time
might be similar for these two age groups because toddlers need small and frequent
meals and 4-year-olds burn up lots of energy in play.
Build in regular opportunities for free-choice play, allowing for individual
as well as small- and large-group activity. If children need guidance in selecting
an activity, make a job chart posting a child’s name next to a specific
activity like setting the table with placemats and napkins for lunch. Other
meaningful tasks include watering the plants, feeding the fish, checking the
outdoor temperature, recording attendance, replacing building blocks on shelves,
gathering library books in a basket, sorting crayons, and testing markers.
Rotate the tasks regularly as interests and skills develop.
To meet both individual and group needs, many activities happen simultaneously.
Here are some examples of flexible scheduling: You feed two infants sitting
in highchairs while two others play on the floor. You provide self-serve snack
food for preschoolers who prepare and eat snack anytime. You read to a small
group while other children use manipulatives on the rug. You ask a volunteer
to supervise an art activity with three children while you make observation
notes of children engaged dramatic play.
Consider setting up some centers (like the discovery table or the computer
corner) so they are available throughout the day. Invite two children to use
Choice versus compliance
Although you plan a schedule that allows children to choose their own activities
for much of the day, some activities are mandatory. For example:
When the fire bell rings, all children must participate in the fire drill.
When lunch is served, all children must come to the table with hands washed.
When the whole class steps outside to enjoy the playground, an adult counts
heads to make sure that no child is left alone in the classroom.
During naptime, all children must be quiet with puzzles or books on their
mats so a few tired children can sleep.
Schedules are not the same as road maps. If you turn off the road, you may
not reach your destination, and if you take an alternate route, you may not
arrive on time. But a daily schedule, like a recipe, leaves room for thoughtful
improvisation. Try honey instead of sugar. Use yellow wax beans instead of
green pole beans. Try garbanzos instead of kidney beans. The recipe just might
About the author
Theresa M. Sull, Ph.D., is an author, trainer, and early childhood educator.
During her 25-year career, she has taught young children both with and without
special needs, taught college students and teachers, published articles,
and coordinated public school, university, and nonprofit programs.