Making Everyday ECE Routines Into Extraordinary Rituals

Everyday early childhood routines are a gold mine for finding rituals. That allows you and your staff to make a “psychological shift that impacts your attitudes and reactions.”

Toni Christie

Early childhood expert, Toni Christie, Childspace Early Childhood Institute based in Wellington, New Zealand recently presented an Educa webinar on thinking differently about early childhood routines, Rituals: Making the Everyday Extraordinary. Christie explored the differences between routines and rituals for children, self-regulation for them and the impact of a ritual mind shift.

A routine is not a ritual … yet

We’re familiar with the ‘big’ rituals or ceremonies of birthdays, marriages and deaths.  But the everyday offers routines poised for transformation into rituals. Consider your own daily, weekly or monthly routines that could become rituals if you “took your time, thought positively and became more grateful those things have become the rhythm of our lives”, said Christie.

“These routines, when we take time, become the rituals as we become mindful and conscious of them.”

Early childhood routines can be meal times, bottle feeding, nappy changing or bedtime at your service, for example. But each offers an opportunity to become a ritual.

Christie surveyed teachers to delve into the differences between routines and rituals. For routines, they came up with words such as predictable, secure, necessary, familiar, rosters, timeframe, checklists, structures and autopilot.

She said: “Routines are important to a point. When we get to have to tick lists and go on autopilot, we are really in trouble. What we offer children becomes so much less important and special. We are giving them less care, attention, creativity and, when we give that, that’s what we’re teaching.”

“Meanwhile, what we think of as a ritual is inviting, special, sacred, community, symbolic, caring and creative.  These words call on our full attention to be purposeful, aware and intentional.”

Ask ‘who’s it for?’

As a provocation, she asked attendees to think about each of the early childhood routines and say ‘who’s it for?’. And, if ‘the child’ is not your response, then review the practice.

“If we rush though doing the nappy change, who is it for? Is it so I can get back onto my lunch break? In the early days of my career running an early learning centre from home, I went about it the wrong way. I said I was the best at nappy changing because I was the fastest.

“I remember having a rest time where we expected these older children to lie down and said ‘shhhh, be quiet. It’s rest time’. We knew they needed time to down-regulate so they could relax and restore their energy. However, we had this enforced rest time that I now I reflect back on and don’t think was terribly restful,” she said.

Reframing feeding early childhood routines as rituals

Educators might think they have to rush to feed older children at their centre so they can “go back to the learning”, said Christie.

“But everything is the learning. What we actually need is a whole lot of people who care more about each other. When we’re chopping fruit on a cutting board, setting a table, picking flowers for the vase, all of these are core to caring and learning.

“You can promote leadership as well as exercise a child’s sense of respecting rituals by encouraging them to share in forming a place of grace and humility from which the whole group can benefit.”

When children take part in a ritual, spending time caring about the presentation, preparation and pace of mealtimes help them form a healthy relationship with food and their little tummies might rumble in anticipation – a good thing. Forcing them to eat removes their choices and adds stress to consuming food that could lead to eating problems.

Offering choice isn’t just about the food – toddlers could be encouraged to select a bib in their favourite colour, for example. Consider placing food in larger bowls so children can self-serve how much and what they’d like (within reason).

“I’m not suggesting any of this is cleaner, easier, quicker or tidier than you serving them, but it’s better,” said Christie. Before children and educators at her service start eating, they sit at the table and do big “volcano breaths” in and out to bring children to a place of calm.

Creating places of sanctuary

Rituals can be nested in places in your early learning service, too, rather than ‘occasions’. Places of sanctuary could be where children sleep or rest and provide an “irresistible invitation”. You could create that with mood lighting, warm blankets, homemade lavender bags, soft music, essential oils as well as calm and attuned educators.

“Our children do sleep outside. We have a covered area when it’s rainy, so children are dry. We invite them to sleep outside. I think it’s respectful, appropriate and offers children a proper full nature-based program. It nurtures their senses into tranquillity,” said Christie.

The norm – to place children into a room to sleep with a shut door – is “what we like to think of as a wee germ room”, she said. Now that’s a provocation to consider.

“No one person can make another go to sleep, but a familiar person and ritual can help. It should be an irresistible invitation.”

Helping children manage their energy states

Christie defined self-regulation as the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviours and attention. And, importantly, doing it in a socially acceptable way that helps achieve positivity that bodes well for relationships, learning and one’s well-being. The ability to self regulate doesn’t happen until you reach age 30, so children have just started their journey in acquiring self-regulation and executive function skills.

“Think of it as the old brain being reptilian, the limbic brain a puppy, and the new brain a computer. Our temptation is we put our teacher hat on and try to talk to children, rationalising for the child, trying to pump in information like their computer is on, but when they’re in the limbic-puppy mode, these toddlers’ computers aren’t on.

“When they are completed flooded [with emotion] they need you to say you feel their pain to help them find a way out of it.”And that’s what rituals seek to do – move you, children, educators and others to a better place mentally.

You didn’t miss out

Hook into a replay of Christie’s webinar ( ) for free professional development that staff at your early learning service can do in about an hour, or a little more. It’s made-for-you PD as she offers provocations throughout her presentation for viewers to stop and discuss. And while you’re there, check out the other free webinars Educa has scheduled.


Free webinars and workshops tailor-made for the early learning sector

Christie, T. & Loader, M. [2018]. Rituals: making the everyday extraordinary in early childhood, Childspace, New Zealand. To buy, visit (note to Toni, this website isn’t secure, so you might like to update your security certificate so it’s an https).

Dr Stuart Shanker’s self-reg(ulation) framework of five domains