Family Life

How To: Creating a Guilt-Free Toddler Schedule

Organizing the chaos to preserve your sanity

In recent months, we have been dealing with a shift in our schedule with my precious Leona, and it’s sent me on a rabbit trail of discovering how to keep my sanity in the midst of this new normal.

I think I have truly been eased into motherhood by my sweet girl– she is and always has been a sleeper. I’m talking at least 4 hours of naps + 12 hours of sleep every day for the better part of the last 18 months.

But as we launch headlong into toddlerhood, she is needing less and less sleep, which has resulted in much more awake time than I’m used to each day. If I’m not careful, I can wander through these days and extra hours aimlessly, which leaves me feeling uncomfortable at the end of the day– did we do anything worthwhile today? Is she learning? What even is parenting in the toddler years?

Grasping at organization

I am a lover of what I like to call “flexible organization,” or to use a term that my family members cringe at: “organized chaos.” It sounds like an oxymoron, but as a mom of 2 very young children, a wife, a community builder, discipler, blogger, clean beauty advocate, etc etc… I do not have the time to fit my life into a rigid organization system. I would spend my life trying to re-order everything (I mean seriously, anyone who ever had a toddler gives up on the idea of neat and tidy very quickly. How do they do so much destruction in so little time??)

But I also can’t survive on no structure at all. If I’ve got nothing, I get stuck in a haze of “not knowing what to do,” and end my days and weeks anxious and insecure, feeling unproductive and lost in the sea of chaos.

So, I went out in search of something that would serve as a sort of guide-post for my days of parenting Leona (and eventually my other children as they grow). A toddler scheduling tool that would remind me of the important domains of development, and also allow me to flexibly plan and subsequently check off ideas for meeting those developmental needs each week. But my search yielded no results that met my requirements, so I just created my own system and decided to share it with you here!

Here’s an overview of my organized chaos of a toddler schedule that has helped me regain my sanity, feel good about the day in and day out parenting, and me more productive in my other spheres as well.

Step 1: Have a Flexible Daily Schedule

I’m talking skeleton schedule. No need to rigidly plan things out by the minute, but have a skeleton that provides anchor points in your day. For my toddler at 18 months, these anchor points are usually breakfast + morning devotional, morning nap, snacks, lunch, afternoon nap, and bedtime.

As your child ages, these anchor points may shift and change, and that’s OK! The point is to have some moments throughout the day to be able to regroup, assess how the day is going, assess your child’s needs and what they’re telling you about how the day is going, and shift course if need be.

Since working this system out in our home, some days I feel like we’re coasting to each anchor point with ease and it’s like a breath of fresh air to sit back and marvel at how well the day is going.

However, there are other days that we come screeching into various anchor points with disheveled hair, tired eyes, wondering how close we are to bedtime. I’ve found that on these days, the anchor points help me to take a deep breath, pray, strap my toddler into a high chair so I can have a small break from her chaos, and establish new expectations for the day. It also helps the difficult days pass more quickly rather than just aimlessly swimming in the sea of tantrums and messes.

Step 2: Establish a few weekly "to-dos"

Again, I will emphasize flexible here. For my toddler’s schedule, it has been helpful to establish some domains of development, as well as some values-based activities that help me feel confident that I am meeting the needs of my children as well as cultivating my desired environment of home.

In other words, I do not view these “to-dos” as requirements that will spiral me into guilt if I don’t check off. Rather, I view these items as guideposts to keep the grand scheme of our home values and child development in my view as I navigate how to spend my days.

For the toddler years, we have decided on the following domains:

Morning Devotional:

 Establishing the rhythm and habit of daily bible reading and sparking conversations about the beautiful truths of scripture from early in life. At this stage, we are reading the Jesus Story Book Bible (affiliate link) which presents the Bible in a super approachable way without watering down the truth like some kids Bible stories do!

Physical Activity/ Gross Motor Development:

Research shows that kids should have about 3-4 hours of big body movements every day. Usually for us, this manifests in walks, gymnastics class, climbing on the couch, or rough and tumble play. We use this play mat set (affiliate link) for some easy gross motor play, but we would love to snag a Montesorri pikler triangle (or build one ourselves) for some more challenging play!

Sensory Activity/ Fine Motor Development:

Exposing my kids to different textures and fine motor tasks is difficult for me because this is usually where messes are made. These activities are usually the ones I will overlook, but are so important for child development. This can be outdoors in the form of water/mud play, or with a sensory table, or even finger paint on a butcher paper-covered table. For a very messy but easy clean up, check out oobleck and the associated Dr. Seuss book (affiliate link). My toddler loves this activity, and I have friends who say their 6-11 year olds still enjoy it!

Interactive Play:

If I get locked into cleaning or cooking, or some other household tasks, it’s easy for me to neglect getting down on the floor and playing with my kiddos– especially on days that they’re more content. I keep this as one of my guideposts to ensure that I meet my kids on their level in the context of their play each day.

Independent Play

Montessori education models show that kids benefit from the ability to play independently. Though I don’t employ every Montessori perspective, this one I feel is consistent with a toddler’s need for autonomy. Check out this video series from Tinkergarten if the thought of your kid playing independently feels like a stretch to you.

Reading Aloud

Reading aloud is a major factor in strong language development and socioemotional development, as well as provides a base of connection with your child around story.

In our home, we have a wide variety of books placed in strategic locations around our house, but Leona likes to grab her books spread them even further around the house so that each room has a book for her to look at.

Reading together is an incredible habit to get into, and will provide so much benefit to your toddler’s cognitive development as well as your connection throughout the day. If you need a head start in choosing a great book, check out some of my book review posts here and here.

Practical Living

This is taking another page out of the Montessori perspective. Even though we don’t utilize Montessori with fidelity in our home, this principle feels like such a no-brainer but is also so difficult to remember to do in the midst of the chaotic days. The idea is this: bring your child into the tasks you are doing. This way, you provide a base of understanding for the tasks of everyday living, and similar to the reading aloud habit, you are prompting connection.

I will concede that bringing an 18 month old into my cooking, cleaning, or gardening makes that task way more difficult than it would have otherwise been, but that’s basically the anthem of parenting, right? We don’t do what’s easy, we do what’s best. There’s also some evidence to show that bringing your toddler into your cooking, for example, can help mitigate “picky eating” because they feel included in the process.

Social Interaction

I would never have thought that I would ever need a reminder to be social with my children (can I get an Amen from my fellow extroverts?!), but this era of COVID-19 quarantine combined with a stressful season of hubby finishing his master’s degree and having two children 14 months apart brought us to extreme isolation that was crushing me.

Without the regular rhythms of church, play dates, and other social outings, the creativity required to actually get with other people stretched social interaction just out of reach for us.

It wasn’t until I realized Leona was having a really hard time in our sporadic social interactions that I decided to make this a weekly task that I try to make sure to include. Whether it’s a walk with friends, a play date at the park, or having dinner together, we try to see people from outside of our immediate circle at least once a week!

Free Spaces

In the printable I’m including for you in this post, I’m providing two free spaces so you can fill in your own “to-dos.” For us, these are library time and treat. I like to make sure at least once a week we are going to the library (there’s a park near our library so this is usually coupled with a walk), and having a treat. I love to go to a local bakery here and grab some cookies or brownies to provide some delight in our afternoon snack time.

Eventually, my hope is that this “treat” space will help refresh the days that become overwhelming, stale, or frustrating, and provide an occasion to talk with my kids about whatever needs to be talked about over a delicious snack.

Step 4: Map it out!

I formatted this toddler schedule printable to be both a checklist and a planning page. The boxes are large enough that you can look at the week ahead and map out the different ways you’re planning on meeting that need each day.

Because I’m visual, I like to see everything laid out so that I can make sure I’m not overloading one day, or not having a treat 6 out of 7 days a week!

I also like to use this space to get creative and plan our art and sensory times, since those activities don’t come naturally to me. It’s a great way to draw yourself out of what’s comfortable and gives you a tool to use as you strengthen these rhythms and routines.

Step 4: Stay Flexible!

If you have a toddler or preschooler, you know that even with the best plans and best intentions, many days will go awry. I want to encourage you not to get discouraged if the boxes don’t get checked off some days (or weeks) due to stress, life circumstance, or just plain forgetting.

Personally, I created this as I emerged from a season of Postpartum Depression. It came down to my mindset- to see this as a tool to help me have ideas and variety in my day, not to bind myself to expectations. On the days I was feeling stuck, I could pull out my Activities List and see which boxes hadn’t been checked for that day.

Please know that these activities don’t have to be Pinterest worthy. You can be messy, unorganized, and chaotic in your delivery and still provide rich experiences for you and your child. Ultimately the most important thing is that you are present and joyful with your young children. They won’t remember each individual activity, and they’re not judging you against Suzie’s mom with the picture-perfect Instagram account.

I have a highlight on my Instagram for low-key kid activities, so check it out if you’re needing some ideas!

They love you. They want you. They crave interaction with you. Don’t become bogged down by anyone’s expectations of “all the things” you should be doing, rather open your mind to the joy and satisfaction of getting down on their level and experiencing the world with them!

Download the Printables here!

To download the Weekly Activities list for toddlers aged 1-3y click here.

To download the Weekly Activities list for preschoolers aged 3-5y click here.

Share your tips!

Was this helpful? Let me know in the comments how you’re coping with the crazy hazy days of early parenthood. Or, head on over to my Instagram and engage in the conversation there!

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