Young children need a lot of sleep. Often, they don’t get enough at night. They may go to bed late or be awoken by bad dreams, street noise, the crying of a younger sibling, or any number of things. Whatever the reason, children should nap during the day. Just as we give children a good breakfast because food ensures they will function well, we must apply the same thinking to their need for sleep. Tired children simply cannot perform effectively in the classroom.
Over-stimulation is another reason young children need sleep. Being around twenty or more other children in a small space all day can be exhausting. Children’s senses are bombarded with sounds, sights, smells, and so on. Resolving conflicts, learning to play together, responding to the demands of adults who also must consider the needs of the whole group—it’s all hard work. During the day, children crave a “time out” that isn’t punitive, a chance to be alone with their thoughts. Even if they don’t fall asleep, rest period frees them from the all-consuming demands of structured activity and social interaction.
Not all children need to sleep, however, and some are totally unfazed by social demands. These children’s needs must also be considered. Constantly trying to keep active children still and quiet can make you and them feel anything but relaxed! Here are some suggestions to help make rest productive for everyone.
Teacher Tip: Get a Jump on Rest
Before the school year begins, during a home visit or an orientation, discuss the importance of rest period with parents. If you can’t have a face-to-face meeting with them, send home a note that explains when rest period occurs, what children lie on, and what objects they should send in with their children to help them feel more secure—small blankets, stuffed animals, and so forth. If possible, ask parents about their child’s sleeping habits. This kind of initial assessment will help you identify the children who may have difficulty napping or resting peacefully.
The ABCs of Catching Some ZZZs
There aren’t many children who can fall asleep anytime or anywhere. At the beginning of the year, encourage children to bring a soft toy and small blanket from home, to help them feel secure. Most children will choose to leave a security object at school. Some, however, may choose to shuttle their very favorite object between home and school. That’s okay, as long as they are reminded to bring it in each day.
Storing Security Toys and Blankets
Where you store these objects is important. Many state and local health departments require teachers to store children’s blankets separately. If children have individual cubbies, use them as safe, hygienic spots for blankets and toys. But if they don’t, or if they share one cubby, you’ll need to store their security objects elsewhere. Small, drawstring bags are a good option. If you sew, you can create them from fabrics such as denim or heavy cotton. Just attach a label with the child’s name to the drawstring. These bags can be washed and used year after year. If you don’t sew, use paper shopping bags or more durable string shopping bags.
Preparing for Rest
Finding enough space for children to lie down may be a problem, too, especially if you have a small room. But if they clean up well after morning work time, you can use the block and meeting areas for rest.
You may want to assign rest spots. That way, children who have difficulty relaxing during rest can be kept apart from the others. If you allow children to choose their own spot, however, make it clear that you will move them if they bother the children around them.
Children can set up for rest, as long as they have adult supervision. Let the day’s “mat helpers” assist you in laying out and putting away the mats. (For more information on class jobs, see Chapter 2.) If rest is scheduled just after lunch, have mat helpers set up at the start of lunch, so they have plenty of time to eat as well. When lunch is over, all the children can get their blankets and toys, and move to their mats.
But if your children eat early, as many kindergartners must, you’ll need to choose a different pre-rest activity. You may want children to gather in the meeting area for a story, while another adult assists the mat helpers. Mats for those resting in the meeting area can be set up after the story, when children leave to collect their toys and blankets.
Teacher Tip: Use All-Purpose Mats
Asking children to rest at their desks is neither practical nor comfortable. To really relax, they need to lie down. We prefer giving them mats over an unpadded rug or clunky cots. Try to buy durable, thick ones, enough for each child. Storing them can be a challenge. Closets, shelves, empty room corners—leave no space unturned in your quest for the perfect solution.
Setting the Mood
Lower the shades, turn off the lights in stages, put soothing music on your tape or CD player, and ask children to use their “quiet” voices as they settle down. Don’t expect children to stop talking right away; give them time to slide gradually into the silence of rest. Say things such as, “In five minutes, it will be time to stop talking” or “In two more minutes, I’m going to turn off the last light, and then it will be time to stop talking.”
After turning off the last light, circulate around the room. Offer to cover children with their blankets. Remind anxious children that they don’t have to fall asleep, but they must rest quietly. You may want to confer with parents about methods they use to calm their children at home. For example, one little girl, Sandra, had been especially restless. During the initial weeks of school, she chatted, squirmed, and prevented others from falling asleep. After a brief conversation with Sandra’s mother, the teacher learned that rubbing Sandra’s back was part of her bedtime routine. So the teacher tried it. She began rest time by sitting on the floor next to Sandra and gently massaging her back. From that point on, Sandra would fall asleep within minutes.
You might also try reading chapter books to the non-sleepers, since hearing your soft, familiar voice may help them relax. Explain that during rest time you read stories quietly and without showing the pictures. Encourage children to create pictures in their minds as you read. And be sure to find books you love because if you enjoy reading them, chances are the children will enjoy hearing them.
After you’ve read for twenty to twenty-five minutes, walk around the room and give any remaining children who are awake picture books or magazines to look at on their own. You might also consider giving them small puzzles or buckets containing Legos, table blocks, or connecting cubes. Just be sure to tell them to play quietly because other children are still sleeping.
Once the class has settled down, it may be tempting to do paperwork or talk with your colleagues, but don’t. Rest happens when children are confident that you are paying attention to them.
Teacher Tip: Try These Great Read-Aloud Books at Rest Time
Series books such as Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel and Little Bear by Else Minerak are perfect read-alouds for rest time. As children become familiar with the characters and authors’ styles, following the plots becomes easier. By the middle of the year, my four- and five-year olds loved hearing Ruth Gannett’s My Father’s Dragon series. They also enjoyed the Catwings series by Ursula LeGuin. Some teachers we know also read the earliest books in Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” series.
Some children may still be fast asleep at the end of rest. You’ll have to decide whether it’s in their best interest to wake them or to let them sleep on. The conversation with parents about the child’s home sleeping habits should help you here, as will your own observations about the child’s behavior, mood and energy that day. If you do let a child continue sleeping, move his mat to an out-of-the-way spot in the classroom. If he is a heavy sleeper, the movement shouldn’t wake him. Even noise from the woodworking bench shouldn’t!
Children who are ready to rise will need assistance in putting things away. Mat helpers should be called first, so they can help you or your assistant store the mats. Then ask the rest of the children to put away their security objects. Calling on only a few at a time prevents traffic jams.
Once they’ve put their things away, children need to know what to do or where to go. If work time follows rest, you may want them to gather on the rug for a brief meeting to discuss which centers they’d like to work in. Or ask them to come and tell you where they want to work. Once you’ve approved each child’s choice, have him indicate it on the choice board and get to work.
If rest is followed by a whole-group activity such as music, gym, or story time, children who rise quickly will need something to do, while their classmates reorient themselves. Since this is a transition time, don’t offer choices that require extensive clean up. Looking at books, drawing pictures, writing with friends are all good options. When everyone is up, have the quick-risers put away their materials quickly and move on.