Preschoolers sometimes get an unfair reputation. This adorable group of humans is known for being high on energy and low on self-regulation. It’s true—as little brains and bodies develop, especially in group settings, there is a certain level of chaos that comes during the preschool years. However, children ages 2-5 are capable of much more than they are given credit for. When provided the right structure, early childhood classrooms can be a wonderful place for small children to learn and grow.
As children’s ministry caregivers, we can feel the pressure from the church, from families, and even from our own expectations to create an ideal environment for littles to learn about God’s love. We picture children sitting cris-cross applesauce, hands folded in their laps, listening intently to the teacher and then find ourselves disappointed when we discover that preschoolers just can’t deliver that “picture-perfect” ideal. We hear that children need boundaries … and yet, without experience and training, it can be super difficult to find the right balance. Often, this results in teachers either a) neglecting to create any routine at all or b) creating routines that are overly structured.
I’ve discovered when visiting early childhood ministry classrooms where there is no routine that the most common reason is that the caregivers are unaware of how critical routine is for small children. I’ve been told, “They’re just so young—they can’t listen to stories, so we just let them play.” Sadly, many times, these spaces are filled with behavior issues, endless crying, and high volunteer turn-over. It might seem easier to allow littles to do as they please, but the end result is never pleasant. Kids do much better at regulating their emotions and behaviors when they are given a safe place to explore. Providing a routine gives kiddos the structure that frees them of worries of “What’s going to happen?” and “When is my dad coming back?” and allows them to safely join in and try new things—like a fun game or a sweet song, or making new friends.
While the absence of routine is for sure an issue, it’s important to remember that expecting children to follow a minute-to-minute schedule is also an exercise in futility. It’s not developmentally appropriate for children in this age range to move as a group for long stretches of time. Instead, it’s best to work toward establishing a predictable routine, in which we do the same types of activities in the same order. For example, every day after you pray, you always sing a song together, and then you have your snack and then you have some time for free play and then you do a closing routine together. The prayer and the song and the snack and the activities will vary, but it’ll be easy for the children and adults in the room to catch on and be able to comfortably predict what will happen next, offering the stability they need among the “flow” of a predictable schedule.
Routines should be simple—offering young children a balance of structured and free play, group and individual activities, active and quiet adventures. Remember that kids this age love repetition, so it’s okay if you sing the same exact songs for a few weeks in a row, play the same games, even retell the same account from the Bible. The familiarity triggers comfort in little minds and hearts. Make adjustments as you go as to how long to allow for different parts of your schedule, based on how the children react. Give yourself permission to change direction if you discover that this is not a good day for a long Bible story—as long as you move on to the usual next thing on your schedule, it doesn’t really matter if you spend five minutes during story time or 15 (not longer than that, though! Tiny humans do best when they don’t have to sit still for long periods of time). It’s okay if you notice that the children are really chatty during snack time and you’re enjoying the conversation, go ahead shorten the next thing you have planned. Being flexible is key—a wise thing to remember in any ministry, but especially true when we are talking about kiddos with short attention spans, developing brains, and bodies that are growing at the speed of light.
Establishing a good routine takes time, but it’s an investment worth making. When you create a schedule that works for you and the children you care for, you’ll find that children behave better, learn more, and the bonus is that you’ll have a little margin to enjoy your time in early childhood ministry, too!