One of the things I really loved about being a preschool room leader was being able to stamp out the compulsory 'rest on a bed' after lunch.
And one of the greatest frustrations of being a casual worker these days is having to conform to the routine of each centre, which invariably means telling some 4- and 5-year-old children (and some even younger) who really aren't tired that they have to lie on their beds for a certain length of time. And them making them comply.
To me, insisting that a young child lies down and stays still and unoccupied when they're not tired- accompanied by the inevitable threats, pleading, raised voices, bribes, lies and confrontations when they won't comply- is a recipe for disaster. In some cases, it's completely disrespectful and in breach of the rights of the child (as laid down by the United Nations).
Does that shock you- that carers threaten, bribe and lie to children? It shocks me. I can't do it. So why is it such common practice?
And yes, it IS common practice. Here are a few anecdotes from 'rest times I have seen'.
1. Children's heights were measured before their rest. After rest time they were measured again, accompanied by enough intentional error to allow the carer to 'prove' that those who didn't rest wouldn't grow as tall- "see? Jake had a rest, and he's grown!"
Well, there's no need to tell kids the truth, is there??! What's wrong with blinding them with a bit of bodgy biology? They're too young to know the difference...
I might add that in this case, several of the children who wouldn't rest were clearly smarter than the carer- and they snickered. Remember- gifted children often sleep far less than their peers, so we're dealing with a pretty tricky demographic here. A little respect for the truth is advisable.
2. Children were refused the right to go out and play at the same time as their peers as punishment.
Oh great- they can't lie still because their bodies are telling them to use some more of that amazing little-kid energy, so the correct answer is to keep them inside longer? That's a perfect recipe for a trashed room! And why are we punishing them for listening to their bodies?
3. Children were refused a share of a birthday cake for afternoon tea as punishment.
BINGO- let's combine damaging attitudes to sleep with damaging attitudes to eating. See my post about using food as an emotional tool.
4. Children were told they were 'very rude' for trying to point out to the carer that they didn't need to rest because they weren't tired.
Excellent- let's damage their self-esteem when they use logic.
5. Children had comfort items and personal belongings confiscated as punishment.
Marvellous- they're already unhappy, let's up the ante and take away their stuff! Hey, we can do that, they're just kids.
6. Children were promised stickers for lying still.
Someone please tell me how that's different from bribery and how it respects the children's needs, because I'm having a bit of trouble following the train of thought.
7. Children were told they had to lie on their bed for ten minutes. The ten minutes was stretched to 45 minutes or more by carers who knew that the children couldn't read the clock.
Wow, that's a great way of teaching the children about time.
8. And the one that gave me the greatest cause for concern- a 3-year-old gifted child with high energy levels, when shouted at to lie on his bed and stop doing gymnastics on it, looked the carer in the eye and stepped off the bed. And then ran away laughing.
Showdown at the OK Corral, and the 3-year-old just won.
Where does a carer go from there? This particular carer turned it into an attitude problem towards that child and started to tell other carers what a difficult child he was, what a rude child he was, and so on.
And that's just a small sample bag of what happens. It's as though rest time is contained in its own little bubble, or conducted on another planet, where the normal rules of carer behaviour don't apply.
Everywhere I go to work, I see the same lack of respect at rest time. I see desperate attempts by staff to make the kids think that a rest is somehow special, desirable and necessary, even if one's body is saying otherwise. (Hello- children are smarter than that.) I see staff behaviour condoned which wouldn't be condoned in any other context through the day.
And I see half a dozen or so genuinely miserable children who can't understand why they're being penalised for listening to their body signals. Some use rest time as a spawning ground for creative naughtiness. (Wow, that's constructive use of their time.)
Rarely have I seen any attempt to talk to the kids themselves about the real issues at preschool rest time, to get them onside, to talk to the staff and work out another way of dealing with the great divide between the staff's and children's needs at this time of day.
So what are the real issues at rest time? Why do we make all preschoolers lie on a bed regardless of their needs, forbidden even to have a book or puzzle to entertain them, for a pre-ordained length of time? Are these reasons sustainable in the light of reality?
When I gave the children who never slept during the day the choice of staying up and doing some quiet activities instead, the other workers thought I was mad. In fact, they were furious with me.
When would we do our paperwork and cleaning? (This is why we need the children to effectively disappear for an hour or more- to fulfil the requirements of government authorities. Yes, it sucks.)
How would we get the other children- those who did need a rest- to sleep, when they saw some children still playing? (This is the default reason for not allowing books and puzzles on beds.)
Don't all young children need to rest during the day for optimum growth and development? (Um, this sounds like an afterthought to me.)
And that was about the order in which the issues came up, too. The children were last on the list.
Those were the overt issues. (Of course, there were also covert issues, like an unwillingness to change the familiar patterns of years of experience.)
Let's look at them in reverse order, and see if there's an alternative to 'rest time as war zone'.
No, not all children benefit from a daytime rest. If the 3-year-old in my final anecdote slept during the day, he was up till 11pm at night without fail. My own son was the same. Children have different sleep needs, just like adults. Recognising this is an important part of the 'being' facet of the new curriculum; each child is different, and we need to respect that.
Distracting the children who do need to sleep can be a problem, but it's a matter of using dividers, verandahs, curtains or any means you can to separate the two groups- even having separate rooms for rest and activities, if staffing and space allows.
You also need very firm guidelines for the non-sleepers about where they may and may not go, and how they may and may not behave, in exchange for the privilege of taking part in the new non-sleeper program (until it becomes part of the normal routine and the rules are understood by all). The success of a 'quiet activities' program will depend on how good your relationships are with the non-sleepers; if you are honest with them and they have respect for you, you have a very good chance of running a workable needs-based sleeptime program.
It's also necessary to maintain excellent communication with parents about their children's rest needs; 'mummy wants you to sleep, and I have to do what your mummy says because she's the boss', when you know it's the honest truth, works a lot better for the sleeper group than 'you'll sleep because I say so'.
As for paperwork and cleaning- I did my paperwork as soon as the 'quiet activities' group was settled. I often had to explain that I needed to finish my writing or I would get into trouble, which was an interesting concept to them and gave them an opportunity to be considerate (they took it, more often than not); the children were always interested in what I was writing, especially if they recognised their name or their initial, and watching me work was part of their pre-literacy program. Cleaning was done as soon as the sleepers were asleep- and any sleepers who just couldn't get off to sleep on a certain day were allowed to join the periphery of the quiet group and sit with a book near me.
I found the quiet activities time was a precious moment in the day, replacing a time when I'd felt extremely stressed and uncomfortable about what was going down around me. The children helped me set up the tables and choose the activities, or pursued an activity they'd started earlier in the day, or read books, or made artworks. Nobody who needed to sleep was denied that opportunity; nobody whose brain was still buzzing was forced into time-wasting inactivity.
I wish a few more preschools would try it.