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The Environment: Schedules and Routines

The routines and activities that make up your program’s schedule are essential elements of your learning environment. Designing your schedule and space to support effective routines helps promote children’s and youth’s development and learning. This lesson will focus on constructing a schedule that is flexible but meets children’s need for routine and play.

  • Demonstrate how to create and maintain a daily routine that meets the needs of the children
  • Plan a well-balanced schedule with a variety of indoor and outdoor activities for school-age children.
  • Identify the elements of an effective schedule.
  • Promote independence by giving school-age children choice in their schedule.



A daily schedule should be well-established within your program. Children and youth should know the schedule, what is expected of them, and what is coming up next. There are many methods of creating and maintaining schedules. Though routines are essential within your program, they should be flexible and remain open to the needs of the children and youth.

Creating an effective schedule is like putting together a puzzle or a favorite recipe. There are certain ingredients, or elements, that go into an effective schedule. The order and style of those elements is up to you. This lesson will introduce some elements to consider in schedules for school-age children. Then you will have a chance to consider the best way to arrange these pieces for your school-age program. The schedule is the big picture of the main activities that you and the children and youth engage in daily. Routines, on the other hand, are the steps taken along the way to complete the schedule. Routines help provide a pattern and predictability to one’s day. This lesson will also address how to create and support your program routines.

Planning and Organization: Potential Parts of a School-Age Schedule

Each school-age program is different, so it is important to discuss the expectations for your setting with your trainer, coach, or administrator. You may wish to ask whether there should there be a brief whole-program meeting each day, for example, or if all children and youth must eat snacks together at the same time.

Below we outline the important daily elements that are part of most school-age programs. You will want to consider these elements when structuring your program’s schedule.

  1. Free-Choice Time
  2. Outdoor Time
  3. Small- or Large-Group Activities
  4. Transitions
  5. Routines

1. Free-Choice Time

Children and youth need many opportunities to engage in play and to follow their interests. An easy and effective way to provide these opportunities in school-age programs is to give children free-choice time. Free-choice time is a period during which children make their own choices about what activities they engage in. Typically, this involves children and youth choosing experiences at one or more activity areas in the program (see Lesson Two for more about activity areas). Your role during free-choice time is to make sure each child and youth has the opportunity to pursue his or her interests and to make the most of these learning opportunities. This requires that you plan high-quality experiences and offer developmentally appropriate materials in each activity area. You may also need to monitor the number of children and youth at each activity area to make sure that certain areas are not overcrowded and make yourself available to children and youth to support their ideas. Children and youth learn best during free-choice time when teachers and staff actively scaffold their learning (Chien et al., 2010).

In many school-age programs, especially in after-school programs, a majority of the time spent in the program is free-choice time. Remember that school-age children and youth may not have many opportunities for choice in the formal school day, so by offering free-choice time you are offering a much-needed opportunity to have autonomy over one’s time and ideas.

2. Outdoor Time

Like indoor free-choice time, outdoor time is also an important part of the day for children and youth. Outdoor time is similar to free-choice time as it often allows children and youth to direct their own play and learning and to follow their interests. But, unlike free-choice time indoors, outdoor time allows for greater opportunities to strengthen large muscles and to interact with the natural world. Research shows that children and youth who spend more time outdoors are more physically active and, therefore, are less likely to incur future health problems (Children and Nature Network, 2012). For school-age children and youth, the recommendation is to offer at least 30 minutes of outdoor time for every three-hour block of time in the program (Council on Accreditation).

3. Small- or Large-Group Activities

Small-group activities offer a chance to focus on important learning goals in a personal setting. These types of activities are ideal for promoting the active engagement of children and youth. Wait time is reduced because fewer children and youth are involved, and children get to spend more time actively manipulating and using materials. Small-group activities also allow children and youth to interact with their peers and receive one-on-one attention from the teacher or staff member.

In school-age programs, small-group activities may take place across activity areas. You may have a staff member helping to lead a small-group theater activity or a group project around football, creating a board game, or constructing a model arena. Compared to preschool programs, school-age programs offer children and youth more choice regarding the small-group activities they participate in, but this time is typically different from free-choice in that there is more direct staff involvement and scaffolding of a project or idea. This also provides opportunities for time to observe and document the ways children interact with the materials, which can support planning and curriculum development.

Children play with building block toys

Children chisel a block of wood under their caregiver's supervision

Some programs, depending on size, may also incorporate a brief “large-group” or “whole-group” time where all children, youth, and staff come together. When programs incorporate a large-group time, they often use this as a meeting where staff members briefly share some activities and projects available that day or week. It could also be a time when children and youth share or present some of the work they have been doing in the program. Some programs may also choose to incorporate readings, outside speakers, or demonstrations related to children’s interests during this time. Incorporating a daily schedule will “allow for long, focused investigation periods and clear routines that children can count on for communicating with peers in whole-group experiences. ” (Broderick & Hong, 2020, p. 11).

4. Transitions

Some transitions are unavoidable in after-school programs. There are times when children and youth must stop one activity and start another (e.g., cleaning up activity areas and lining up to go outside). Transitions can be a difficult part of the day, especially for younger school-age children, as child engagement can be low during this time and distractions are usually all around. Even though some transitions are necessary, staff members can do their best to minimize transitions, keep wait time to a minimum, and keep children engaged during transitions. Both preventive and individualized strategies can help create smooth transitions (Butler & Ostrosky, 2018).

To minimize transitions, consider all of the activities in your day that require all children and youth to do the same thing at the same time. First, ask yourself: Are all of these transition times necessary? For example, the importance of small-group time was mentioned above but this does not mean that small-group time needs to be a separate block of time in your school-age program day. Instead, you could make free-choice time longer and include small-group activities as choices within the free-choice time period.

You can also consider if it is possible for children and youth to make some transitions on their own. For example, with snack time, you could decrease the number of whole-group transitions by offering “open snack.” Here, staff simply prepare the snack table and offer it as a choice, and children and youth come and go from this space as they are ready. In school-age programs, independence is often promoted by laying out picture cards or written directions to indicate how much food to take and reminders of what to do when finished. Open snack can not only decrease transitions, but it can help children and youth learn to be aware of the signs of hunger or thirst within their own bodies and give them greater control over meeting those needs.

There are also other ways to keep children and youth positively engaged during transitions. Like adults, school-age children appreciate knowing ahead of time when a change is coming. For example, before the end of free-choice time, it may be helpful to give children a “5-minute warning”, before it is time to clean up. This lets children and youth know they need to wrap up their play or that they should work on finding an appropriate space to save their work or project to continue at a later time.

Finally, work to make sure you have all the materials ready for the next activity in the schedule. If you are getting ready to go outside, for example, have one staff member gather all the necessary materials to take outside while the children and youth are cleaning up. You can also consider ways to incorporate children and youth into the transition process. Create jobs such as “door holder” or make lists of materials needed for the next activity that they can easily and independently gather. This decreases the “stop and wait” time for school-age children. Children and youth are more likely to act out when bored during wait times, so thinking about decreasing this time in your schedule can help ward off these problems and make the day more enjoyable for all.

5. Routines

Routines are also an important part of your program day. Routines in school-age programs may include things such as arrival time, cleanup time, lunch time, and departure time. Many routines, such as meals or group time, are necessary and helpful for building a consistent classroom community. Planning is the key to successful routines. Routines should match a child’s stage of development. For school-age programs, this can be tricky, as there is likely a large range of developmental abilities across the children and youth in your program. Although all children in your program should be encouraged to do things on their own and routines should be set up to support all children’s independence, for younger children in your program or some children with special needs, it is important to remember to keep routines clear and uncomplicated.

Some children and youth engage in these routines with no problems. Other children have a harder time. There are things you can do to help all children and youth make the most of these daily routines. First, you need to think carefully about what you want children to do. Think of a routine, for example, like afternoon arrival. What exactly do you want children and youth to do when they enter the room? Be specific and consider using a predictable sequence such as: sign in, put your belongings (e.g., backpack, jacket) in your cubby, wash your hands, find a quiet activity in an open activity area, and move your tag card in the activity management system or choice board to show you have chosen to start in that area. Can you see how children and youth would likely be more successful if they knew these details?

A chart on the wall

It is often helpful to plan your routines as if you needed to explain them to a brand-new teacher or child in your program. What details would that individual need to know?

If children and youth are struggling with a particular routine, it can be helpful to observe where the routine falls apart. Think about a routine in your school-age program that does not go as smoothly as you would like. Maybe children and youth in your program have a hard time during the last 15 minutes before program closing, when you typically ask them to focus on cleaning up the materials in different activity areas. Spend some time watching children and youth during this time.

  • Do they complete any of the steps in your end-of-the-day cleanup routine?
  • What directions do you find yourself repeating over and over?

If you notice that children often leave the activity areas without cleaning up to go gather their belongings from their cubby or locker when their family members arrive, this can give you important information. Your indoor environment and schedule may be set up in such a way that distracts from this end-of-the-day routine. Perhaps the cubbies and lockers are too far away from your activity areas at the end of the day, so children, youth, and their families may feel rushed to get their belongings before closing time. Perhaps there are so many choices at the end of the day that it feels overwhelming to clean everything up, especially at a time when children and youth may be excited to reconnect with their families. Consider offering just two or three simple activities near closing time, so there are not so many areas to clean up at once. Think about designing your program and schedule in such a way that it guides children and youth into successful routines. Perhaps at the end of the day, you can offer a clear path from your few open activity areas to the cubbies and lockers and the sign-out sheet. Think through other routines in the same way.

  • Are snack spaces situated near the sinks and kitchen supplies?
  • Are garbage cans located conveniently around the room?
  • Are there sinks, smocks, and cleanup materials near the art or messy project areas?

All of these factors can help ease transitions and minimize distractions.

The best routines have a clear beginning and end. For example, for a mealtime routine, children will know “I wash my hands, sit at the table, eat my food, and clean up.” A program routine should flow like a well-oiled machine. Do not forget that adults often need to teach children and youth these routines directly! Also remember that some school-age children may benefit from visuals that offer helpful reminders about the routines (e.g., how to safely wash hands, what to do after finished with snack).

hand washing steps diagram

Structured Schedules and Routines

Structured routines are important for children’s and youth’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, self-help skills, and well-being. Regular, predictable routines help children and youth know what to expect and to feel secure. The repeated nature of routines helps children and youth learn what to do in your program. For school-agers in particular, who should have more autonomy regarding how they use their time, structured routines and schedules can help support their own time management and decision-making skills. By carefully planning your routines and teaching children and youth how to be successful in those routines, you can maximize learning time. When children and youth actively engage in playing and learning, challenging behavior is reduced. Structured routines are especially important for some children with special needs or behavioral difficulties sa they may rely more heavily on routines for consistency and security. Thus, both you and the children in your classroom will benefit from well-organized, consistent, predictable routines.

Another important aspect of your daily schedule is your own time management. Having an organized daily routine will aid in keeping you and the children on task. Time management is also important for long-term projects, such as gardens and collective murals, or the incorporation of visiting presenters.

Flexible Schedules and Routines

Flexibility is an important aspect of daily routines. Although it is important to carefully plan out your routines and to teach these routines to children, it is also important to stay flexible. If a routine is not working, rethink it! Be comfortable with making the most of unexpected events. On the first warm spring day, it is OK to stay outside longer than usual. If a child needs more time to finish their homework, it is all right to give them time to finish. Spontaneity can be good; it builds your enthusiasm and keeps routines fresh for you and the children and youth in your care.

Your program’s schedule should support to the needs and interests of all children, youth, and their families. It should remain flexible enough to include the current and changing interests of children and youth. Your schedule should also be flexible enough to include current events from throughout the world or close to home. This is especially important when working with military families because overseas events may affect these children more so than nonmilitary children.

Know that not every activity will go exactly as you plan it. It is important to have backup activities. You may begin an activity and realize it is too easy or too difficult, or maybe the children are not enjoying it. You should be ready to change tracks if needed and move on to something more engaging or appropriate. It is also important not to confuse flexibility with chaos. Flexibility still implies that you are following a plan; you can simply stretch or shorten the amount of time you spend on each activity.

Communicate Your Schedule

Once you have designed an effective schedule, it is important to communicate this schedule to the children and other adults. You can eliminate many problems simply by helping children and youth understand the schedules and routines in the program. One of the best ways to do this is through the use of a written and visual schedule. Visual schedules use pictures or objects to represent times of the day, which can be helpful to younger school-age children who are still learning to read. Often these pictures are combined with words to help encourage literacy skills. Visual schedules provide children with a sense of predictability of what is coming next and are a great tool for children who may need support during program events or transitions.

Visual schedules work best when they are part of your daily routine. They are helpful as reminders for all children, but especially useful when a new child or youth is going to transition into your program, or when a personal event is going to make a child cling to something familiar. Here are ideas for making schedules work for you:

  • Make it a part of your daily routine.
  • Give children choices. School-age children can handle more responsibility. Let the class vote on how to arrange your schedule together.
  • Provide a job chart. This enables children to feel they have an active role in the classroom, and it allows them to actively demonstrate responsibility.
  • Individualize it. Consider making individual picture schedules for children who are struggling.
  • Remember to create a schedule to share with adult coworkers and families, too. This can be typed and posted on a bulletin board or sent home to families. Everyone feels better when they know what to expect each day.

Schedules and Routines

Learn about the different components to consider within a school-age program schedule.

Keeping a Balance

In before- and after-school programs, you are responsible for striking a balance between time spent playing and time spent on homework or other educationally enriching activities. It is important to speak with your trainer, coach, or administrator to understand what is expected of the school-age children in your program. You may want to ask questions like:

  • Is there a specific amount of time children must spend on homework?
  • Do children need to rotate throughout all the areas or can they choose how long they wish to be in each activity area?
  • Must all children and youth be accompanied by an adult if they are switching areas or rooms in your school-age program? If some children are able to move between spaces on their own, at what age is that acceptable?

Families may also have specific requests for their children. A family may want their child to complete all their homework before visiting another area, or they may wish for their child to play with friends in your program and to focus on homework at home. Again, it is important to speak with families and your trainer, coach, or administrator to understand what is expected of the school-age children in your program.

If your program allows children to choose how they spend their time (i.e., they are not required to rotate through some activity areas each day), it can still be useful to observe, over time, the different activity areas children and youth visit. If you notice that some children consistently visit only one space (e.g., the gymnasium for indoor gross-motor play), it can be helpful to figure out what these children’s interests are and think about ways you can incorporate those interests into other activity areas to help children and youth try a variety of ideas and experiences (e.g., art, writing, theater). With school-age children, you can even ask them to help you create activity ideas. For example, “I notice that you all have been spending lots of time playing football in the gym the past two weeks. I wondered if we could work together on a project about football. Would you want to construct a board game with me to help teach the other kids in the program more about football? What about creating a model of the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium?” Try to get their ideas and brainstorm together what materials would be needed. You can also decide as a group the best space in your program to carry out this new activity plan.

Promoting a Sense of Ownership

Children’s interests and needs should always be reflected in the planning of routines and activities. School-age children will enjoy giving suggestions and providing input about what they would like to learn. This practice will make the children feel valued and important and give them a sense of ownership over their learning environment. Furthermore, having a choice in their schedule often gives children and youth more pride and responsibility over their learning environment, which in turn motivates them to clean up after themselves and to respect the program. The video below shows great examples of ways to give children a choice over their activity.


Schedules Routines: Choice Boards

Learn about choice boards and routines for school-age program staff.



Design an Effective Schedule

All of these elements will help you create an effective, developmentally appropriate schedule. Within your schedule, you have freedom to design activities, interactions, and materials that meet the individual needs of children and youth in your program. Here are tips to help you make the most of your day:

  • Provide at least 60 minutes of free-choice time each day. Move around to support learning goals while children and youth engage in interest areas.
  • Provide at least 30 minutes of outdoor time per three-hour block of program time each day. Provide many of the same indoor interest areas outdoors.
  • Provide warnings before transitions. Although children and youth may be used to the sequence of routines in your program, many children and adults find it challenging to switch immediately to a new activity, especially if they really enjoy the one that they are currently working on. This can also demonstrate that you value the children and youth, their work, and their time.
  • Be structured in your program routines. Predictable routines help children and youth know what to expect and feel secure. Structured routines are especially important for some children with special learning needs or behavioral difficulties. These children often rely on routines for consistency and can benefit from visual supports to help them successfully complete routines (see the “Explore” section for more details).
  • Be flexible in your classroom routines. If a routine is not working, rethink it!
  • If there will be a change in the daily schedule for some reason (e.g., a special visitor that day), make sure children and youth are aware of the change.
  • Make sure the physical environment supports your routines. For example, move personal storage or afternoon check-in as needed to support arrival routines.
  • If you use a choice board or activity management system, make sure you take time to explain how to use the system. You may have to help create plans (e.g., “what if you each get 10 minutes there?”) or scaffold wait lists to help assure that each child’s interest is met.
  • Teach all children the skills to navigate routines by using the following strategies:
    • Modeling. Demonstrate the steps in the routine while explaining aloud what you are doing (e.g., handwashing).
    • Use peer partners. Ask a child or youth who knows a routine well to demonstrate the routine to the child who is new or struggling.
    • Use prompts. Although you may have visual supports for routines in your program, some children may benefit from verbal reminders regarding specific steps (e.g., for snack cleanup: “OK, you have finished your snack. What is the next step?”).
    • Give encouragement. Provide specific, positive feedback when a child or youth navigates a routine successfully (e.g., “I saw that when you came to our program today you went straight to your cubby and put your things away”).


Read the scenario and respond to the questions in the Individual Schedule and Environmental Adaptations activity. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator, and compare your answers to the suggested responses.


Take some time to think about your own program schedule and how well each day flows. Do you experience challenges with particular parts of the day? Which parts run smoothly, and which seem to be more problematic? For example, perhaps the arrival routine runs really well in your classroom, but children are restless and squirmy during large-group time. Think about what makes some parts of the day especially difficult. What do those daily “trouble spots” have in common? Complete the Day Planner activity. Use it to help problem-solve difficult parts of your own day. Talk to your trainer, coach, or administrator about your responses.


Free-Choice Time:
A period or periods of the program day when children and youth make their own choices about what activities to do; typically involves children and youth choosing to play at one or more activity area
Activities that take place every day such as snack, lunch, transitions to outdoors, and arrival or departure time
Small Group:
Time in which a few children and youth are together doing the same teacher-guided activity
Structured Activities:
Time in which an adult leads the work
Usually physical movement from one area of the room or building to another when one activity ends and the next begins
Visual Supports:
Pictures, images, or cues in the environment that help children know what to do


True or false? It is best to carefully plan and never change routines and schedules in a school-age program.
Finish this statement: School-age children need…
Which of the following strategies can help make a daily schedule work in your school-age program?
References & Resources

Broderick, J. T., & Hong, S. B. (2020) From children’s interests to children’s thinking: Using a cycle of inquiry to plan curriculum. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Butler, A. M. & Ostrosky, M. M., (2018). Reducing challenging behaviors during transitions: Strategies for early childhood educators to share with parents. Young Children, 73(4).

Chien, N. C., Howes, C., Burchinal, M., Pianta, R. C., Ritchie, S., Bryant, D. M., ... & Barbarin, O. A. (2010). Children’s classroom engagement and readiness gains in prekindergarten. Child Development, 81(5), 1534-1549.

Children and Nature Network (2012). Health benefits to children from contact with outdoors and nature.

Council on Accreditation. (2019). Standards for child and youth development programs. Out-of-school time. Programming and activities.

Harms, T., Jacobs, D., & White, D. R. (2014). School age environment rating scale. Teachers College Press.

Ostrosky, M. M., Jung, E. Y., Hemmeter, M. L., & Thomas, D. (2007). Helping children understand routines and classroom schedules.Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

Vitiello, V. E., Booren, L. M., Downer, J. T., & Williford, A. P. (2012). Variation in children’s classroom engagement throughout a day in preschool: Relations to classroom and child factors. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 210-220.