Playful Bedtime Routines That Work

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Photo: Anna Louise Jiongco

Getting kids to bed tops the list of parenting challenges. Playful routines, that make winding down pleasurable (and especially predictable), can help with bedtime. Kids may even look forward to each step of your personal process since it represents quality time with you.

While winding down for sleep is half the battle, it doesn’t have to be a battle per se. Build-in little benchmarks of play along the way. Additionally, since the concept of time is so hard to grasp, the activities you do closer, closest and then at bedtime, will help establish a rhythm so that kids feel in charge of–and aware of their own bedtime schedule. In my training as an actor, relaxation was the name of the game. In graduate school, we had classes in Alexander Technique and Yoga and even deep relaxation! I was taught that I needed to be calm—in body and brain—enough to listen, focus and do really good work.

Now, more than ever, I rely on those methods when I’m putting my kid to sleep!

Share the Science of Sleep. Thanks to science, we know that a healthy amount of sleep yields more productive, intelligent and thriving humans. Conversely, a lack of sleep can lead to bad moods and takes a toll on your emotional intelligence. After reading Ariana Huffington’s “The Sleep Revolution,” I changed my own bedtime habits and started talking to my son about how important sleep was. I now believe it is essential to educate kids about the benefits of sleep. “Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise. It’s when the body repackages neurotransmitters, chemicals that enable brain cells to communicate. And experts have recently been able to demonstrate that sleep allows brain cells to “take out the trash” each night, flushing out disease-causing toxins.” (Parents, October 2014). Help your children understand some of this science so bedtime can feel as important as taking those gummy vitamins!

Use the Bath as a Sleep Aid. Whether you use a bubble bath, a shower, or even just a fun foot bath, cleansing the day off is a time-honored bedtime ritual that works. Drop-in some essential oils, play relaxing music, facetime with the grandparents…anything to get the cozy feelings flowing.

Unstructured Playtime. Provide your kids with some simple tools for a “last playtime.” Maybe it is silly putty, animal figurines, scarves or empty boxes. Any of these toys are great for the last wind-down.

Great Kids Lit. Reading a beautiful book – or two or three – before bed is an obvious way to usher in sleep. Check out my favorite books that promote kindness and also my favorite wordless picture books.

Make-Up A Story. Use tools like a one-word story or story clap to let your kids make up their own story before sleep. Sometimes unexpected topics surface right at bedtime.  Use these storytelling games as a means to find out about their day or just have a last moment of creative expression. This is a lovely way to soothe kids and usher in sweet sleep.

Sing Those Lullabies. Singing to your kid is such a meaningful, even intimate, activity, so you’ll want to get personal with the songs that you choose for lullabies. Especially given that most of us don’t make music professionally, it can feel vulnerable to open your mouth and let out some notes. But rest assured, that our kids don’t care if we are a little “pitchy” or don’t remember all the words. Rather, they will feel a connection to us as we share music and our voices with them.

Mindfulness Sensory Exercise. I love to pick a location (like the beach, forest or even a setting from a book we are reading) and describe the sights, sounds and smells of the world. For more info on how to do this check this out.

Breathing for Relaxation. Doing calming breaths together is a great way to connect and calm the brain and the body. You can play follow the leader with breath or pick a yogic breath that works for you.

Have a Meaningful Conversation. I love to have a last moment before bed where we talk about something positive and calming. Here are some things to try: Play a Game of Body Phone Dial into your feelings with this silly game. Kids will express unexpected things and it is the perfect way to release feelings and connect before bed. Here’s how to play.

Best-Self Moments. Have your kid pick a moment from her day, where she was her best self, and talk about it. I like to share about one too so my son knows I’m working on being a better person all the time as well. The anticipation of getting to share (and get praised for) these best self moments, actually lead to more of them.

People you Love. Make a list of people you love, family, friends, classmates can be a great way to feel warm and fuzzy before sleep.

Final Tips for Sleep

  • Play soothing sensory games like Test Your Touch or Sculpture.
  • Invest in cozy kid sleepwear, even a robe, and slippers. Make those nighttime clothes fun to dress up in!
  • Make lighting soothing. Lava lamps, twinkle lights, glow-in-the-dark stars, and simple night lights are fun tools to set a relaxing mood.
  • Start the bedtime process early, especially if you are involving games. Whatever combination of pre-sleep activities you hit upon, everything takes longer than you think! Make sure you don’t have to rush and you can model calmness too.
  • Set time (or amount) limits on all these activities. The timer itself is a great tool – make sure you communicate with your kid about how many minutes they get for each step, and then keep your word!
This post originally appeared on Child’s Play In Action.

Jocelyn Greene is a Brooklyn based educator, director and mom.  With her company, Child's Play NY, she teaches hundreds of kids a year and is equally joyous adapting fairytales for 4s as she is staging Shakespaere with the teens. Check out for video tutorials on game-based play to do at home!