Toddlers thrive on routine.
Children function best with structured schedules. Toddlers and preschoolers, especially, feel small in the world. Most things happen TO them. They crave predictability, knowing what will happen, because it gives them some sense of control. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives.
Kids who understand the routine, rather than feeling pushed around by what seems like arbitrary circumstance, are more likely to cooperate. Creating a regular routine is an essential way to give toddlers the security of knowing "what happens next" in their day. It also develops the prefrontal cortex, which is the planning and executive function part of the brain.
Having a plan for the day can also be important for adults caring for kids. True, many of us love the freedom of deciding on the spur of the moment what comes next, and sometimes that is the basis of creativity. But that works best when WE decide what rules to break.
Without a routine, life with children can overwhelm and derail us, leaving us feeling run over by life, rather than in charge.
To help your toddler feel secure, talk about what comes next in his day. So in the morning, after some "good morning" cuddles, you might say, "Let's get dressed so we can have breakfast... Then we can go on an adventure!" Maybe your adventure that day will be to the grocery store or the drugstore. If you treat it as an adventure and a learning experience, that's how your child will perceive it.
On the way home, you can review your morning: "What a great morning we had! We had cuddles when we woke up, then we had oatmeal for breakfast, then we brushed teeth and got shoes on like we do every morning. Then we went on an adventure to the grocery store! What was your favorite thing?"
Then, you can talk again about what comes next: "When we get home, I will put these groceries away. Do you want to help me? Then we will make lunch, read a story and it will be nap time. This afternoon, do you want to go to the playground or to the park?"
Does that mean we "force" kids into a routine that isn't working, or keep them on a rigid schedule so they can't stop to examine that bug on the sidewalk? Of course not. A child's routine needs plenty of ease in it to allow them to accomplish one of their most important life tasks: exploration and experimentation.
If you want a child who is able to feel joy, you need to let her seize those opportunities to smell the roses and enjoy watching the worm inch through the garden.
And children also need plenty of opportunity to make their own decisions and choices about how to use their own time within certain windows of their schedule. But knowing what to expect allows toddlers to relax in the moment, rather than frantically casting about for the next entertainment.
How to create a toddler-friendly routine chart
To help your child develop a sense of his "routine," I strongly recommend creating a "Routine Chart." There are many ways to do this, but basically this is just a poster with photos of your child doing his usual activities. You can buy these commercially, but you can also easily make your own, modeled after the ones used by preschools, but personalized with photos of your child.
Just take photos (or find pictures) depicting your child's daily routine: wake up, potty, dress, breakfast, errands, snack, play, lunch, nap, etc. You can write the words next to the photo. Some people like to arrange the photos in a circle like a clock, but toddlers think of time as more linear, so the clock may not help your toddler as much as a simple timeline. Just arrange photos on a poster board in the order they usually happen. It's good to use tape or velcro instead of glue, to allow for schedule changes, and in case you need to exchange "errands" for "Visit Grandma." You can even buy a magnetized bulletin board and glue photos of your child doing these activities to magnets, so you can move them around.
As your child gets older, you might want two separate charts of the morning and evening routines, so that your child can begin to take charge of her own schedule. Keep the "tasks" of the morning in an envelope under the chart, so your child can arrange the tasks in the order that she wants to tackle them. This kind of chart empowers your child to take charge of her own routine, reducing power struggles and the need for you to be involved in every move your 3-year-old makes in the morning.
You will still want to connect at the beginning of the routine, and throughout the routine as necessary to keep your child on track, but your intervention can take the form of hugs and checking in, rather than barking orders.
You might say, "I see you're dressed already! Wow! What's next on your chart?" Strong-willed kids especially love routine charts, because they get to be in charge of themselves. But all children love the chance to feel less controlled and to master the demands of their lives.