There was a time when society functioned in relationship to the sun – rising with the first light and going to sleep when it set at night, sleeping more in the winter during the dark months and less in the summer when it stayed bright longer, eating foods locally and seasonally and marking the passing of the year with annual festivals. Not to sugar coat this time in our history – I can’t imagine the hard physical labor of living without the convenience of modern appliances, the organization needed to get necessary supplies without the abundance of stores nearby or the skills required to be self-sufficient on a potentially isolated homestead. No, it definitely doesn’t sound simple, but life was “simplified.” There were less choices and life was held by a predictable rhythm.
Our lives have become increasingly erratic. We are going in countless different directions and need scheduling tools to know what meetings, errands and responsibilities we have each day. Technology has allowed us to work and shop on-line later and later, even in the middle of the night if we can’t sleep. And we can’t sleep. So many people have sleep disorders and find themselves tossing and turning instead of resting and rejuvenating (and I’m not just talking about us mothers with little children – that is another story.) We have very little regular “time off” and so take expensive (and sometimes exhausting) vacations to “get away from it all.”
It is no different for our children. So many children today are overscheduled with extracurricular activities, play dates, and family outings. And that creates stress for the whole family.
What children (and adults!) need is a predictable and steady rhythm in life. Consider a piece of music. There is the underlying beat – how fast or slow a piece may go. And along with that is rhythm – the sounds and silences of the work. The music may change moods and tempo, but the rhythm carries it along. We all have rhythm in our lives. In order to be healthy, we must have regularity in our heartbeat and breath. And we can carry this pattern of rhythm throughout the symphony of our lives by creating predictable patterns within our daily, weekly and yearly schedule.
Rhythm is different than a schedule because it allows for flexibility depending on the moment. For instance, you may decide that after your child’s morning play time, you will have lunch, read a book and then settle down for a nap. One day, your child may shows signs that he is tired or hungry at 11:00am and so you start your routine at that time. But, the next day at 11:00am, he is completely engaged in building with blocks while you finish up making lunch. And so, you may decide to just sit and be with him until you feel that the mood has shifted and it is time to transition to your lunchtime routine. A schedule creates a start/ stop action, while a rhythm offers a “breathing in and breathing out” fluid activity.
While it seems ideal to create a simple daily routine for a young child that limits the amount of time in the car, offers ample time to play outdoors and is structured knowing their individual needs and interests, we also have to balance the needs of our child with the needs of the family as a whole. For most of us, we need to work, run errands, make appointments, and do household chores. Our “to do” list is long and varied. But, we can utilize “rhythm” to become more attune to the particular breath of our family life and provide anchor points for our children’s life experiences.
Here are some suggestions on how to bring more rhythm into your young child’s life. They focus on specific ideas, so you have to listen to the breath of your own child to know how to develop rhythm in your own home.
- Let your child know what you are going to do before and during care-giving routines, such as diapering or bathing, so that your child is able to prepare and have the opportunity to be cooperative during the activity.
- Have a collection of songs you can sing during moments of waiting. I keep dreaming of creating a “bag of songs” by painting wooden discs with images from songs my family enjoys. Then, one of my children can pull out a disc and we sing the song. This could be especially helpful in the car.
- Have a special box of toys that come out when you need (or desperately want) to take a phone call. Okay, I haven’t tried that one yet, but I’m going to ASAP. I mean, really, it can’t just be me that finds it so hard to have a phone conversation with toddlers and preschoolers around. Come on. I’ve spoken to some of you on the phone and you know what I’m talking about.
- Alternate between periods of free play and (as described by RIE) “wants nothing” time (out breath) with periods of care giving, “wants something” time, errands, and structured activities (in breath.) It can be stressful for a child to go from one activity to the next when there are a lot of expectations for her behavior. A true out breath comes when a child can let go and just be in the moment.
- As much as possible (and more times than not) have breakfast and/or dinner at home. Begin each meal with a blessing or other family ritual. Meal times can be an anchor in an otherwise chaotic day.
- Take a family walk each night before or after dinner. It is simple activity that your child will cherish and look forward to. It also allows for your family to notice the subtle changes that happen in your neighborhood with the passing seasons.
- Prioritize nap time and bed time. Allow your child the gift of sleep, in their own bed and around the same time. Create a bedtime ritual to support your child’s transition to sleep. It can be simple and short, but will provide the necessary cues to your child that it is time for bed.
- Preschool and kindergarten can offer, what my friend has described as “a homeopathic dose of rhythm.” I strive as a mother to create a peaceful and healthy daily rhythm for my child and yet, there are so many outside demands and expectations that I am also dealing with on a regular basis. School has provided a predictable rhythm for my child focused on his developmental needs and given me time when I can more easily get errands, work and other tasks accomplished (with maybe a moment for myself snuck in there, too.)
- Have certain meals that take place on the same day each week. I have done this for brief periods in my life, but the start of school always reaffirms this idea for me. I especially like the idea of finding casserole and crock-pot recipes to make meal time planning all the more easy during the work week.
- Errands, activities, and household chores can also become easier to plan for and track when they happen on the same day each week.
- Special projects, activities and chores that only need to happen once a month can be a nice way to mark the passing of a month when they happen rhythmically.
- Say goodnight to “Mother Moon” (as my children call her) each night and notice her changing form.
- Create a space in your house where you can arrange special items and found objects from nature to mark the season. Children love to help create this kind of “nature table” by finding and making things to include.
- Holidays, festivals and birthdays show the passing of time and can become even more rhythmic by having traditions that happen year after year. There are likely many things that you already do in this way – a Christmas tree, the birthday song, hiding Easter eggs, fireworks on the 4th of July – and there may be new traditions that you want to include that are unique for your family.
- I think it would be lovely to have a certain place that you visit every year at the same time as a family. It doesn’t have to be the most posh or exotic. In some ways, the most ideal place for me would be simple, without the need for too much travel and, most importantly, a place free of “to do” lists, work and chores, if just for a moment. What your children will remember, perhaps without any words, is this is the place where we are together without distractions. I would love that for my own family.
The point is not to become “perfectly” and rigidly rhythmic in your home. But, rather, to find little places where you can slow down, become more aware of the flow of your child’s day and week, and celebrate the passing seasons during the year. It isn’t as if on one day summer instantly becomes autumn. It happens gradually. You feel the ebb and flow of summer leaving and autumn returning. This is how rhythm can be in your home, too. Take little steps, maybe just one small, easy change, and allow it to take hold in your family’s life. And then see what comes…