It's a fact that children who have supportive and rich early educational experiences enjoy lifelong benefits. A study in Tulsa from 2017 found “enduring effects on math achievement test scores, enrollment in honors courses, and grade retention for [middle school] students,” and an NIH study from 2018 found early education impacted whether or not people completed a higher ed degree, which, in turn, positively affected their health as adults.
These benefits of preschool are supported by a daily schedule that takes into account children's developmental needs, from proper nutrition to motor skills.
Regimenting a day at preschool is all about balance: quiet time and play, flexibility and routine, structured lessons and free choice. While it may take you a while to find the formula that works for you and your group, the basic elements will remain the same.
This article will cover the components of an effective preschool schedule and give ideas on how to best manage activities day-to-day. If you want to check out the schedule ideas first, head to the bottom of the article where you can find two sample templates, one for a full-day schedule and one for a half-day.
Establish preschool schedule basics
The main objective of a preschool schedule is to structure the best environment for early childhood development. Since preschoolers can't self-regulate the same way older children can, your careful planning empowers their growth. A positive preschool experience is essential to optimal early childhood development, and this growth plays out daily in accordance to how well teachers plan for and engage with children.
No matter how you choose to schedule your time, what activities you engage in day-to-day, or what resources your center has, your daily schedule may include the following:
- Routine — children perform best when they have a regular schedule and know what to expect
- Play — children grow and explore through play, and every center should build playtime into the schedule
- Regular meals and snacks — preschool days require lots of energy, and children need to fuel their bodies appropriately
- Down time — adults often wish nap time was still a part of their daily schedule, and for good reason: nap time (or down time) helps children recharge so their brains can absorb what they've learned
- Physical activity — regular time and space to move around outside is widely regarded as a staple for any preschool schedule, and is important for developing motor skills
Incorporating all these elements is not just necessary for promoting early childhood development, it is often regulated by law. Check your state regulations to see what they require and ensure that your plans are in line with standards.
For example, South Carolina requires outdoor activity for children each day as weather permits, and Florida requires that snacks and meals meet USDA MyPlate guidelines. There may also be different required staff ratios for active time and down time, which should factor into your schedule and how you handle staff breaks.
Use flexibility to your advantage
Although routine is the bedrock of a preschool schedule, flexibility is an ace up your sleeve. Early on, let your timetable be a little fluid as all of your children settle into a new session. Preschool is a time for growth and exploration that will manifest in different ways for each child, so from one class to the next, you may face a whole different set of challenges.
For example, one group of children might experience a relatively smooth drop-off, while another may need more time to get prepared for the day. Maybe your last group was hungry long before snack time, and your next group isn't hungry during snack time at all. There's no way to know this ahead of time, but being flexible the first weeks of school can curb staff frustrations about moving through planned activities.
The secret to flexibility is patience — and not just being calm if you run behind or have to adjust your day's flow. It's also about being patient with the children in your care. Starting preschool is a big adjustment; it takes time for children to trust their teachers and feel comfortable sleeping at nap time, eating new foods, listening well to instructions or socializing. Your patience and willingness to spend a few extra minutes to smooth things over is a huge signal to children that you are trustworthy and on their side.
Another way to build malleability into your routine is to implement guided choice time, especially if you have a group of mixed ages and abilities. This will ensure that children are exploring and have “independent” time to socialize, take a break, or try something new at their own pace.
Moving from one task to another as a group can be a challenge for preschoolers. Managing your schedule's flow keeps your day and the children in your care on track. Approaching transitions with a firm, but gentle, hand will help you usher your class along more easily.
One key element of managing transitions comes before you even start your day. Post a visual schedule where everyone can see it. It's easy to make a child-friendly schedule using laminated paper or a whiteboard — no need to get fancy. As long as children know where to see the order of activities, the posted schedule is doing its job.
When it comes to transition times, use an audio or visual cue to signal the start of wrapping up. This could be a bell, a rhyme, a song or anything else that works for your group. You can incorporate children by making this a rotating classroom helper role, which will also instill a sense of the daily rhythm as each child assumes the role of “transition conductor.”
Use positive reinforcement and clear expectations to help your group transition smoothly. Set up rules around transition times, such as "Everyone does their share to clean up," and praise children who are following your classroom code each day.
Another good way to smooth transitions is to provide quiet options for those who finish their tasks early (e.g., finish lunch early, wake up from a nap early). Picture books, puzzles, pencil drawings, or making pipe cleaner shapes are quiet, solo activities that are easily set up. These help children occupy themselves so you don't have to rush anyone, and ensure that the whole group moves on from one thing to another together.
Plan the best you can
The “perfect” preschool schedule doesn't exist. It is contingent on what works for you, your preschool set-up, and the classes you are working with. However, the framework of a good schedule is made with building blocks that are tried and true, and classroom management can be all the difference in making a schedule work.
The routine you build with your preschoolers isn't just what order you do activities in; it is also about behavioral expectations and how you can set up your day to support each child. Your schedule lays the groundwork for all of the learning and development that occurs each day, so getting it right is essential for a functioning classroom.
Download our suggestions for a full- and half-day of preschool to see two examples of ways to lay out a daily schedule.