As the school year comes to an end there may be two different outlooks in your home about the potential that summer break holds for your family. Your kids may be excited for days without the highly structured grind of school schedules and what they imagine will be the freedom of a summer spent sleeping in and hanging out. As parents and caregivers, you may be experiencing some stress related to how you will keep your children occupied during the summer break from school. Research teaches us that having predictable and consistent family routines can benefit your children’s language development, academic performance, and social skills development, as well as enhance your family’s emotional bond with one another (Spagnola and Fiese, 2007). In Occupational Therapy, we help children and caregivers by considering the different areas of life they participate in, also known as their occupations. In this article we’ll focus on how you can use your family’s occupations to create a daily routine that provides consistency, sustainability, and flexibility.
The Daily Routine Machine
Depending on the age and interests of your children, you may have seen an animated movie about a variety of animals participating in a singing competition. In this movie, one of the animal characters is an overworked, do-everything mother to two dozen piglets. In order to find the time to pursue her passion for singing, she sets up some elaborate DIY machines that automate her daily household chores including cooking, cleaning, and packing the piglets’ backpacks. Using this metaphor, we’ll think of our daily routine as a machine that makes certain parts of our day automatic so we can focus on our families and address the challenges in our day that we can’t plan for. A well-oiled Daily Routine Machines needs to be 3 things: Consistent, Sustainable, and Flexible. A consistent daily routine provides emotional security for your kids and reduces their anxiety about what comes next. A sustainable routine means you don’t have to stress to come up with new things to do every day. A flexible routine allows you to manage all the unexpected parts of a day without your Daily Routine Machine breaking down.
Making Your Routine Consistent – Building A Frame
The foundation of your routine will be the basic components of life that need to happen every single day. Likely, your kids have consistent meals, are expected to get dressed and cleaned up, and go to sleep. Mealtimes, snack times, hygiene, and sleep are excellent places to start building your routine because they are consistent. In Occupational Therapy we call them Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs. Also, in OT we view the occupation of Sleep as its own separate activity. Because ADLs and Sleep happen in some form every day, they serve as an excellent frame for your Daily Routine Machine:
- Wake Up
- Get Dressed
- Pre-Bedtime Hygiene
Making Your Routine Sustainable – Adding the Features
After we plan for our ADLs, we can start adding additional parts to our Daily Routine Machine. These additional parts need to be sustainable. Another word we can put in place of sustainable is realistic. One great way to do this is by observing what your family already does now. A sustainable and realistic daily routine takes advantage of the other occupations your family naturally performs and places a structure around it.
This is different for everyone, but chances are members of your family spend some portion of their day playing, resting, running errands, and doing chores, entertaining themselves, and playing or socializing with others. In OT, we consider these activities as their own separate occupations. Play is the primary occupation of children, Rest (and Sleep) gives us short breaks throughout the day to collect ourselves. Running errands and doing chores fit into what we OTs call Instrumental Activities of Daily Living or IADLs. These are important things we need to do to set up our ADLs. For example, eating is an ADL because you have to do it to live, and grocery shopping is an IADL because it supports eating, but it’s not something you have to do every day. Entertaining yourself with an activity that has no purpose other than enjoyment falls under the occupational category of Leisure. The last occupation we’ll consider is Social Participation, which is fairly self-explanatory, but is sometimes hard to be intentional about in a family context.
Making Your Routine Sustainable – Customizing Your Machine to Your Family’s Specifications
As you observe your family and their natural daily rhythms, consider which occupations they are engaging in and when. If you can notice when your kids need to move, when they need to rest, when they need to be around people, and so on, you’ll have a better idea of when to encourage them to do these things within their daily routine. If you start to notice that your child is grumpy every afternoon around 2:30, that would be an excellent time to encourage Rest. If you notice that your child is bouncing off the walls from 10-12 every morning, that’s likely not the best time to try to take them with you to the grocery store. Another thing to remember is that creating a new daily routine is not always the best time to be too ambitious. If your family is not already doing Living Room Yoga and memorizing Shakespearean sonnets together, introducing those things now may prove too complicated and overwhelming to sustain. Keep it simple and familiar.
It’s helpful to remember that you don’t have to do everything every single day. A sustainable and realistic daily routine uses broader categories to let everyone know a general idea of how they’re expected to spend their time in that moment. Once everyone gets used to the different categories, you’ll need less time to plan them out and your family will have their own ideas for what to do during those times. Using our foundation of ADLs and Sleep from earlier, a daily routine with Play, IADLs, Rest, Leisure, and Social Participation might start to look like this:
- Wake Up
- Get Dressed
- Light Chores
- Play time outside/inside
- Light Chores or Run Errands
- Play time inside/outside
- Rest (No screens!)
- Leisure and Independent time (Yes screens because you need to cook dinner!)
- Family Social Time (watching a movie together counts!)
- Pre bedtime hygiene
Making Your Routine Flexible – Keeping Your Machine Running Smoothly
In the movie mentioned earlier, the elaborate DIY machine set up by the piglets’ mother ultimately breaks down because it’s not flexible enough to handle a minor change in her family’s needs. If we don’t want our Daily Routine Machine to break down, flexibility is it’s most important component. Your daily routine can always start with your basic frame of ADLs and Sleep, but you can plug the other categories in whatever order you wish, including leaving some of them out altogether. Another part of being flexible is incorporating the rest of your family into building their day. If everyone feels they have a say in what they are doing, they’re more likely to buy into the rest of the day’s happenings.
You may have noticed that none of the examples had times next to the categories. Putting a specific time of day on an activity that doesn’t need it can often make it very difficult to be flexible. If you need to put a time on a category, try using a time frame around the activity, as in Rest time lasts for 30 minutes, or Leisure time lasts for 45 minutes. Focusing on the order in which you do the activities, rather than at what time of day, gives you more flexibility if things take longer than you planned or if your family is having too much fun to stop an activity just because the schedule says you have to.
Maintaining Your Daily Routine Machine – What to Do If It Breaks Down
And finally, don’t get discouraged if your Daily Routine Machine breaks down every once in a while. Breakdowns happen from time to time and when they do, it’s an opportunity to find the parts that don’t fit and replace them. If you find that your Daily Routine Machine just can’t stay consistent, sustainable, or flexible enough, or you’re just not sure how to help your family engage in their daily occupations, Carolina Pediatric Therapy has a team of caring Occupational Therapists ready to help support you.
Philip Pearce, COTA/L is a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant and the Lead Clinician On Site at Carolina Pediatric Therapy in Waynesville. He is a part of an interprofessional collaborative team including behavioral health, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and psychologists dedicated to supporting and promoting children’s development and wellbeing.
APA Spagnola, Mary PhD; Fiese, Barbara H. PhD Family Routines and Rituals: A Context for Development in the Lives of Young Children, Infants & Young Children: October-December 2007 – Volume 20 – Issue 4 – p 284-299