Gan Discovery

Child Care Routines - The Value and Importance


The concepts and examples used in this article are further elaborated in Emotional Connections: How Relationships Guide Early Learning, a curriculum for caregivers and teachers written by the author with Carol Martin and Arleen Prairie, to be published later this year by ZERO TO THREE.

he enjoyable and meaningful routines that are characteristic of good-quality child care for infants and toddlers can foster healthy development. In child care, there is a consistency of the patterns and routines that will shape habits of behavior. These help children build self-control and feel mastery. Child care presents the opportunity to interact with other children, teaching patterns of social interactions, as well as expanding language skills. The shared interest and joy of group activity motivates young children to learn. The patterns and routines of child care will augment the child’s home and family experience in ways that are valuable for future development.

Child Care Is Rich in Patterns and Routines

Two-year-old Johnny is at the door standing quietly on the red line before the caregiver has said it is time to go to lunch. Sarah gets her teddy and curls up on a cot, before the caregiver says it is naptime. In child care many routines are preplanned and consistent from day to day. Activities happen during the same time period in the day, such as lunch, nap, reading, or playground time. Many behavior patterns surrounding these activities are specific and always expected of the children. Because these temporal and behavioral patterns are so consistent and repetitious, they become quickly internalized. Toddlers anticipate events and learn behavioral and social patterns in child care that support and enhance their development.

Temporal patterns are believed to set the foundation for the infant’s ability to process subsequent cognitive and social information. Today, many children enter group care as infants, sometimes as young as 6 weeks. The younger the child, the more flexibility the caregiver must have to alter schedules and routines to fit the child. Most centers or family child care homes have their infants in a different room from older children so that caregivers can adapt their scheduling to the patterns the baby defines. They often prepare food that parents have brought so as to keep diets consistent and strive to match feeding times as much as possible to the home schedule. It is hoped that child care providers can manage their census so that there will be enough time to be responsive to the needs of each baby. Temporal patterns in

at a glance

  • • The enjoyable and meaningful routines characteristic of good-quality child care can foster healthy development.
  • • Child care patterns and routines are emotion regulators.
  • • Child care routines teach behavior regulation.
  • • Many children introduce patterns and routines learned in child care to their homes.
  • • Child care patterns and routines guide social development and provide opportunities for children to share their feelings.

the early months should be child directed. Each baby will need personal attention to be rocked when fussy or fed when hungry. For this reason, many centers feel that it is preferable to have no more than three infants per caregiver.

In the early months of life, parent and child care provider will work closely together on temporal schedules. Parents need to let caregivers know when there have been disruptions in the home schedule, caused by illness, lack of sleep, or disorganizing events within a household. Caregiver and parent will also make decisions based on where the child is spending most of his or her waking hours. For example, if the infant is spending 6 to 10 hours in child care 5 days a week, parents should try to frame their weekend days to a similar feeding and nap schedule. But if the baby is in child care for only a few hours on 1 or 2 days, parents should share their schedules with the provider so that the child care schedule can meet the home schedule. When the alliance between parent and caregiver is strong, infants may experience little stress in the transitions between home and child care.

As children mature, their temporal patterns will be more predictable and similar. A group of 6-month-olds in a center is likely to be napping around the same time, or together in highchairs, watching one another try finger food. Caregivers find that they can plan some shared activities that allow the more mobile babies to watch and interact together. Responsive caregivers will have arranged a safe space for babies to crawl or roll around freely while also encountering rattles, bells, balls, books, and soft blocks. Toward the end of the first year, temporal patterns for the 12- to 15-month-olds should be more structured, so that when these babies move into the toddler room, where schedules are set, they will be able to adapt easily.

Child Care Patterns and Routines Are Emotion Regulators.

The stability of the childcare routine provides physiologic stability for the child: "I will be fed at the same time each day." It also provides emotional stability: "I can trust that they will feed me, and I feel safe in knowing who, where, and when." Consistent routines are comforting. It gives children a feeling of continuity when temporal expectations are met. There is a feeling of safety and trust in knowing that the same thing will happen every day. Children do not become anxious about what is going to happen. When children feel safe, they are open to exploration and learning.

Toddlers gain confidence in their knowledge of the daily routines and take pride in showing this to others. Like Johnny and Sarah in the opening examples, this confidence in knowing the routine will transfer to the child’s internal sense of identity: "I know what will happen next. I am okay. I will show everyone, my caregiver will hug me, I will be first." Learned behavior patterns contribute to systems of self-con-trol. They represent inner resources, which will lessen chil-dren’s anxiety. As children anticipate actions and activities correctly and choose their behaviors to fit, they feel worthy and competent within themselves. They also experience less negativity or sanctions on their behavior, which reinforces a pattern of positive behaviors and rewards.

For some children, child care routines are an oasis. Family life today can be chaotic, with busy parents managing complex and changing household schedules. The "typical" household, where the family all sits down together at the same time for dinner and young children are all in bed at 8:00, is a rarity.

When child care centers have sufficient resources, they can offer children continuity of care through people, as well as in the form of predictable schedules and routines. This means that there will be primary caregivers who can remain with a specific group of children. An emotional connection can be established with a caregiver the child knows and trusts. This will add to the emotional stability of the child. Likewise, a consistent caregiver will also know the child well. A primary caregiver will be able to respond with positive emotions when a child anticipates a routine and chooses helpful behaviors. A primary caregiver provides direction and interpretation to the child’s behaviors, thus expanding the child’s sense inner control and self-worth.

A consistent caregiver can also detect anxiety within the child she know well. When incidents occur within the day that cause fear, sadness, or anger, the primary caregiver will be responsive. When a child comes to child care with physiologic or emotional patterns that are disorganized, a consistent and responsive caregiver will detect this and be able to provide emotion regulation as well as addressing the child’s needs.

Child Care Routines Teach Behavior Regulation.

Routines define and direct behavior. A behavior, such as hanging up your coat when you take it off, is learned quickly in a group setting where children are motivated to "fit-in" and to imitate: "I can manage my own coat." "I am like the other children." "I am part of this group." These routines also give children feelings of continuity: "I know where my coat is." "It is always there." As a behavior is repeated day after day, it becomes internalized into a habit, and the habit provides a sense of comfort. This is true for adults as well as children. Patterns organize our behavior, organize our thinking, and help us fit in successfully with others.

Patterns of behavior (sometimes called "procedural knowledge") that we learn early often become personal routines that we l take with us to any new environment. They do not require conscious thought or energy. When we maintain these routines or patterns of behavior we are reducing stress. For example, do you need to be concerned about where you will find your clean socks each morning, or is finding them automatic? Where is the can opener? Automatic? Which side of the bed will you get into tonight? Always the same? When a person moves or changes jobs, this procedural knowledge is temporarily shattered. We are disorganized and sometimes anxious. Where are my socks?

We usually try to transfer our personal routines to the new environment because they give us comfort.

Some Child Care Patterns and Routines May Go Home.

The child care setting may give the child behavior patterns that are not used at home. Many children want to continue these patterns and will initiate them in their home setting.

Twenty-eight-month-old Kim and her mother arrive home from child care. Mrs. B walks past Kim to the kitchen to set the groceries down. She throws her coat on a chair and calls to Kim to come get some juice. When she decides to put her coat away she looks for Kim’s coat and finds it in a pile next to the door. The next day Kim again puts her coat and hat together next to the door. The follow-

Child Care Sets the Pace.

There are many more established patterns of behavior within a child care situation than in most homes. It is not uncommon to have the child care center be the first place in which a child is asked to pick up toys, to share, to use the potty, or to feed himself or herself. For example, children begin to learn that materials from one activity must be put away before another begins. Such simple things as having face and hands washed before getting out of the highchair sets a pattern for cleaning up before leaving an activity. If these patterns of behavior, such as "pick up" and "clean-up" are continued at home, children will internalize them. These children will have an easier transition to school, where they will be required to keep track of their own things. They may also become adults who automatically put pens in the drawer as they get up in morning, when Mrs. B. drops Kim off at child care, she stays to visit a bit and watch the children arriving. Each child in the 2-year-old class puts their coat and hat in a cubby by the door when they came in. "Oh," thinks Mrs. B. "This is a nice habit. Perhaps we should carry this through at home" She asks Kim if she would like a cubby at home. Kim smiles and nods. That night, some low hooks are installed by the door at home.

Kim’s parents were able to understand that Kim wanted to continue her child care routine by hanging her coat by the door at home. By making this possible, the B’s reinforced this pattern of behavior. When Kim’s parents adopt a routine that happens in child care, they are bolstering Kim’s feelings of competence and continuity. They are also helping Kim internalize this pattern of action. Routines and patterns established early are often enduring. Many people unconsciously plan their homes and offices to have hooks and drawers by the door for car keys, and outside clothes. These routines continue to give them feelings of control and emotional and behavioral regulation.

As Kim matures she may extend this pattern to other things and in other rooms. Many 3-year-olds make special spaces for their special toys. In child care, things are kept in special places: the blocks are in the blue cupboard; the books are across the room. Toddlers very quickly learn what belongs where, and enjoy the feelings of control, safety, and knowledge that this constancy provides. When children have been in child care for 2 or 3 years, they frequently try to organize family members around behavior patterns learned in the center.

Most 3-year-olds have internalized some routines. They become very upset if these patterns are disturbed: "I sit in that place." "I want the blue cup." "I choose my own cookie." A primary child care provider will know the individual expectations of her group of children. She will also have asked the parents about home routines and expectations that a child brings into the child care setting. When home and school patterns do not match, children quickly adapt to the routines of place. In child care, they may be proud helpers in cleaning up after an activity. At home, they feel confident that Mom will not expect this. Many toddlers are also dealing with the routines of a grand-mother’s or noncustodial parent’s house. When routines and expected patterns of behavior are too many or conflicting, a toddler may feel overwhelmed rather than comforted. This can lead the toddler toward behaviors that are disorganized, such as acting out, or having tantrum. It is important for family caregivers and child care providers to share with one another what the expectations will be for the child.

Patterns of Behavior Increase Safety and Decrease Conflict and Anxiety.

When children learn a positive pattern of behavior they are less apt to choose a disruptive, dangerous, or disorganized behavior. When a coat is hung up, it is not tripped over, stepped on, or lost. When toddlers sits to eat, there are not as many spills or slips on food. Setting patterns is a form of discipline. Because patterns and routines serve as guides to positive behavior, they also decrease the instances when children act out or feel out of control. Structure provides a guideline for behavior without the need for sanctions or negative interactions. Children do not need to experiment with actions in order to find out what brings approval or success.

Rules set expectations for individual behavior. They make tasks easier by guiding performance. Rules are like instructions; they define steps of action toward a goal. For example, when a child learns to find the corner pieces of a puzzle first, the task takes on clear focus. Rules also set expectations for everyone’s behavior in a group. They establish what behaviors are acceptable and what are not. They serve the group by allowing people to function safely together. For example in child care, it is common to have rules for lining up to prepare for a group event, sitting down to read a story, or holding a rope to walk to the park.

Rules also guide children in their relationships with others. There can be set patterns for turn taking, for passing and sharing food, and for using the sand pile or the climbing toys, which will decrease power struggles and accidents. In the child care setting, rules and limits seem to be easily accepted and followed. Children are motivated to fit in and to imitate. They will adapt their individual goals and needs in order to belong to the group

Rules and limits vary widely in home settings. Guidelines for behavior within some families may be confusing. In other households, toddlers direct the activity. The adults support and facilitate seemingly anything the child wants. These children have a difficult transition into the child care setting, where group activity requires group structure and where rules and limits are clearly defined.

Child Care Patterns and Routines Guide Social Development.

A major developmental focus of the second and third year is to master social interactions. This requires learning patterns of communication and rules of social behavior. Typical physical development leads children toward expanding their social world. Even if they are not in group care, as children begin to crawl and walk, they wander into interactions with people other than their parents, and their social world expands. Babies soon learn that most strangers will respond to their smile. The smile is a social behavior that is welcoming and fairly universal. Waving bye-bye is another social pattern of behavior that is taught to most proverbial children and also universally understood. Most cultures have established patterns of greeting, engaging, and saying goodbye. Although these may be different in different cultures — some greet with a bow, some with a kiss on each cheek, some with a high five — established social patterns of behavior are at the foundations of human connection. Patterns of social interaction are also patterns of communication. They lead children toward learning and using language.

The child care setting can be a prime place to learn social interaction patterns. There is ample opportunity for the 1- to 2-year-old to engage many different adults and interact with or watch other children. Defined patterns for greeting and saying good-bye, for approaching a new person, or for listening and watching others interact are first modeled, then initiated in the child care setting. Words such as "mine" and "my turn" are quickly learned, then expanded into "may I?" and "you, too?" In child care, there are constant opportunities to experiment with different kinds of social interactions and the words that reinforce social skills. Toddlers extend the social experiences observed or experienced in child care to their toys. The 30-month-old will teach social rules of courtesy and sharing to her dolls as she plays alone at home.

As infants mature, more complex social patterns, such as turn taking, sharing toys, waiting for others, or helping others, are guided by child care providers. Very young children easily learn social rules of order in the group setting. Many of these rules constitute limits on behavior, such as lining up for activities, staying quiet at prescribed times, waiting for a turn, or choosing "just one." Some other social patterns which are learned easily in the group setting are behaviors such as toileting and self-feeding. All of these patterns of behavior follow social rules that also lead children to social success and to self-control.

In child care, toddlers have opportunities to experiment and experience the results of many different social behaviors. Trained child care providers know appropriate ways to intercede in disputes, set rules about sharing toys, and demonstrate negotiation skills. They also guide children toward empathy and respect for other: "Do you think Ben would like a turn on the trike?" "Maria looks lonely, let’s ask her to play with us." "Rajiv is just learning, wait, don’t rush him." Helping others is a way of life in good child care settings. Toddlers are asked to help get out materials and put things away, help one another get ready or be quiet, and help to comfort a crying child. These patterns of empathy help toddlers learn and internalize values of group participation and of relationship.

Child Care Routines Provide Opportunities for Children to Share Their Feelings.

Most child care providers will talk about how it feels to share a walk, a song, or a story. They will talk about the feelings of characters in a book or attribute feelings to dolls and stuffed toys in the play center. Caregivers will also talk about how social interactions feel and urge toddlers to learn "emotion words" and declare when they are happy, sad, or mad. Caregivers also guide toddlers to consider the feelings of others: "How does Becka feel when you push her?" "How does Damon feel when you won’t share the buckets?" Toddlers who learn to understand how others feel when social interactions have hurt or disappointed them, and to understanding their own feelings and goals, are building a foundation for learning patterns of negotiation and collaboration that they will need for the rest of their lives.


Good-quality child care for infants and toddlers is rich in patterns and routines that support children’s cognitive and social development. Child care patterns and routines offer physiologic stability and emotional security, and teach behavior regulation. Learning positive patterns of behavior helps young children succeed within the child care setting; children also carry internalized routines to their homes and, later, to school. In group care, children begin to learn patterns and rules of interaction. These social patterns become more complex as toddlers, guided by trusted caregivers, learn and practice turn-taking, sharing, negotiation, helping, and comforting – routines that build empathy, and respect for self and others. 1

ZERO TO THREE February/March 2002