What exactly is rest-time in childcare?

Does your child struggle at rest-time? Do they get into trouble for being unable to lie down, sleep or rest?  You may not be alone… researchers from the University of Queensland investigate what exactly children are doing and learning when they have a ‘rest time’?

Rest times are common in Australian childcare services and can be part of the daily program all the way through until the time they start school.  Whilst many childcare services are moving to more flexible rest times by allowing children to do alternative activities such as drawing, yoga or playing outside; group rest times, in which all children are required to lie down regardless of whether they need to sleep or not, remain common.

Parents and educators do not always see eye-to-eye when it comes to rest times. Indeed a recent study of Australian parents found that almost 79% would prefer for their preschool child (aged 3 to 5 years old) to never or only occasionally sleep at their childcare service.

Key concerns for parents include children being too old and/or naptimes disrupting children’s night-time sleep. On the other hand, educators often see rest times as a valuable ‘catch-up’ time in which they can complete cleaning and paperwork and importantly for children (including those who do not sleep) an opportunity to learn to rest and to practice self-regulation.

So what do children say?

A recent study published in the international Early Years Journal asked children what they learned during rest times in childcare. This study, conducted in Brisbane, interviewed 54 preschool children about their rest time experiences. Children were asked a range of questions about rest times, including:

  • what happens at sleep time
  • what they would tell a friend about childcare rest-time and
  • what do the children/teachers do?

The results showed that children differed in their feelings about rest-time. Whilst some children liked to rest, not surprisingly many talked about the difficulties and challenges of lying quietly.

Three key lessons emerged in children’s description of rest-times:

  • Firstly, and most commonly, children describe understanding that if and how they sleep and rest was determined by educators and parents. When asked what happens in rest time, children mostly discussed the need to follow their teacher or educator’s instructions: “You have to close your eyes or you don’t get a treat”; “the teachers like me to go to sleep but I, but my mummy likes me going to have a rest.” Descriptions of demands, rewards and consequences for not lying quietly were common amongst the children.
  • Less commonly, children describe learning strategies to ‘cope’ and ‘manage’ with lying still at rest-times. These children described learning mental (e.g. imagination) and secret strategies (e.g. concealed play) to cope with the rules at rest-time: “I would say dream about butterflies or fruit”; “I play in my head”.
  • Finally, a very small number of children describe learning about the importance of sleep and rest. While current childcare guidelines recommend ‘increasing independence’ and child ‘participation in sleep routines’, a rare few children mentioned understanding this in the study. These few children identified the importance of sleep and rest for their bodies and minds: “[Sleep] then you won’t be all grumpy”; “sleep make your body um, don’t hurt”.

The key lessons children draw from their sleep-rest experiences in childcare programs are focused on conforming and coping, rather than learning about the importance of sleep and rest.

Adult-determined and regulated sleep-rest times may miss opportunities for children to learn about recognising and responding to their own sleep and rest needs.

So what is the answer?

This study reported in the Early Years Journal indicates that talking with children about sleep and rest and including children in decision making, is an important step forward. Childcare services are required by law to provide responsive and individualised sleep-rest practices for children in childcare programs.

So if you have any concerns, speak to your child’s educator.

For more information, there are a range of resources on children’s sleep, rest and relaxation available at the Queensland Department of Education and Training website

Emma Cooke is a PhD Candidate (Sociology) and a Research Assistant in the Child Development, Education and Care Group (Thorpe) at the Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland. Along with Dr Sally Staton, Dr Sandy Houen and Professor Karen Thorpe, their Early Years Journal study is reported here.