As early years professionals, we're used to catering to children with diverse needs, differing backgrounds and varying developmental levels. This is a key underpinning of our work and something we often do without thinking. However, flexibility and catering to different capabilities often becomes challenging during rest times.
In many services, rest time is when educators take lunch breaks, clean their classrooms, tidy up from lunch and set up activities for the afternoon. But I'm sure every educator reading this knows that rest time is rarely ever restful for staff!
The EYLF asks that educators provide 'a range of active and restful experiences throughout the day and support children to make appropriate decisions regarding participation' (DEEWR 2009, P.35). However, it's hard to define what a rest time should look like in large groups of children, especially when they all have different routines. It's all too common that a few children in any group will have outgrown a day sleep while others rely heavily on their precious two-hour nap.
Rest time should not be about control
All too often, I see educators approaching rest time as a time where all children must be still and quiet for extended periods—even the children who have long outgrown their day sleeps. In order to allow for children who still have naps, the classroom's noise and activity level must often be adjusted to reduce distractions. We all know the pain of being unable to get a child to sleep because of doors slamming or other children playing loudly. However, it's important to remember that rest time shouldn't just be about control; that's never a part of a quality program. Instead, we must view rest time as a part of the routine where each child is enriched and able to relax.
We all experience restfulness differently
It can be easy to promote the idea that restfulness is only stillness and silence. However, it's important to acknowledge that being restful looks different for everyone. For me, resting can be reading a book, talking to a loved one, or sitting on the couch and watching my favourite TV show. Rarely (if ever!) do I find laying still and remaining silent to be restful; I'm not sure I could do that for more than five minutes before reaching for my phone or getting a snack. Furthermore, as adults, we know that being forced into something you don't want to do is rarely restful.
I'm not promoting the idea that rest time shouldn't exist, nor that children should be allowed to run riot at this time. However, as with everything we do in our work, it's important to set boundaries and rules around rest time. Have a discussion with your team about how you define restfulness. I often suggest to children that 'rest time is a time to be by yourself', and I remind the children to respect the needs of others—particularly those sleeping. Frame rest time in a positive light, ensuring that it's not punitive. Set exciting rituals and routines for the older children to engage in (i.e. helping clean up after lunch!). As with the rest of your program, you'll have to change this frequently to keep it engaging.
Developmentally appropriate rest time ideas for non-sleepers
Many services have a special basket of toys which are only to be used during rest times. One service I've worked at called it the 'treasure box', and in it was a trove of small but challenging construction sets (like lego), as well as special sticker/colouring books, and so on. Children could change the toys once finished, which kept them engaged for longer periods of time whilst being quiet and keeping to themselves.
Sensory toys are my go-to for rest times with groups of younger children! Fidget spinners, pop-its, liquid timers, putty and even a good old fashioned slinky, can provide lots of calming entertainment.
Books and puzzles are a great tool for rest times too. Many educators have copies of 'special' books that are often kept out of the classroom for safekeeping; rest time is the perfect time to let some children look at them independently, away from the business of the normal classroom hustle and bustle.
Reflective questions around rest time:
What do I find restful and calming?
Would I be bored if I had to [do whatever you are inviting the children to do]?
What boundaries/rules do I have in place and are they reasonable or developmentally appropriate?
How long can I expect these children to remain still and quiet?
All children have individual sleep and rest requirements. Children need a comfortable relaxing environment to enable their bodies to rest. This environment must be safe and well supervised to ensure children are safe, healthy and secure in their environment.
Under the Education and Care Services National Regulations, an approved provider must ensure that policies and procedures are in place for managing sleep and rest for children (regulation 168) and take reasonable steps to ensure those policies and procedures are followed (regulation 170) (NSW Department of Education, May 2021).
Members can download our 'Sleep and Rest for Children' Sample Policy from the member hub.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. In the comments, let us know how you approach rest time with different children and what your non-sleepers do during this time.
NSW Department of Education (May 2021). Sleep and rest for children—Procedure guidelines for early childhood education and care.
CELA (May 2021). Do you embrace year-round outdoor sleeping?
The Conversation (Oct 2017). Sleep and the restless preschooler: why policies need to change.