Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rhythm or Routine :: What's the Difference?

Is there a difference between rhythm and routine?

Whenever there's a gathering of parents and a discussion of rhythm, this question always seems to come up. Someone asks, "What's the  difference between rhythm and routine, aren't they the same thing?"

Well yes and no. Sometimes they look alike and sometimes they do not.

Let's look more closely...

Rhythm is dynamic, it changes.

Dynamic, according to Google dictionary:

     1. (of a process or system) characterized by constant change, activity, or progress."
       "a dynamic economy"

When I started this blog I began by explaining its title Celebrate the Rhythm of Life, in a post, by writing about rhythm:

 "Rhythm is movement, flow, pattern, form, pulse, cadence. Rhythm is a place between polarities, that of being stuck and rigid on one end and that of flowing wildly… here

Rhythm involves movement and energy. Rhythm changes, yet it contains patterns and form. Night and Day. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Maiden, Mother, Crone. 

Rhythm is connected with life forces. Some are outside of us, forces of nature, beyond our control, yet familiar patterns. We can respond to these forces by flowing with them, in the rhythm of life.

Breathing in and breathing out, these words describe the energy  forces of breathing, a contraction (breathing in)  and an expansion (breathing out) - a movement and a flow, that changes with time and situation. Active play. Quiet rest. Running hard. Catching our breath. The coherence of hearts beating together. 

All life has rhythm.

Our bodies are enlivened by their rhythms: in our breathing, in our sleep patterns with circadian rhythms, in our digestion, in our energy levels during the day, in our biological clocks, in the menstrual cycle. Our rhythms change with time.

The earth has its rhythms of expansion and contraction.

The planets have their rhythms, each one has its unique orbit through the cosmos.

Rhythm is like a dance, in motion, breathing in and out, changing, full of energy.

Let's look at the Google definition of routine:

1. a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program."
"I settled down into a routine of work and sleep"

Routine on the other hand is static. It is not full of life or energy. Routines are like lists or habits. There is no energy or movement in routine. 

Yet we need both rhythm, for the movement, the patterns, the flow of life and we need routines, for the routines give us comfort and security. They give us predictability and certainty to rely on. Routines are simply repetition of the act informed by rhythm. Routine is often reflected in a sequence of activities. 

Repetition makes the activities we do predictable for ourselves and for our children. When we have a regular soup night each week, it's easy to plan, for I know when I am grocery shopping that I need ingredients for soup night. When I have a regular day to give the fridge a quick one over and sort out what needs composting, I know what's in there, so then when I'm are at the market, I know if we have carrots or not. These little routines, meal plans, bedtime routines, waking routines, morning routines, after school routines, these habits that are repeated give us ease and calm. 

Children thrive on predictability. For the child, the repetition, the predictability of routine makes life trustworthy and secure. When we are able to be consistent and repetitive, children trust us, they come to know that we mean what we say, that they can count on us to be true to our word. When children know what comes next, they are able to ease through transitions. They experience life as good. 

"Routine is to a child what walls are to a house: it gives boundaries and dimensions to his life… It is the obligation of the parents to set up a routine within which the family can function comfortably; to establish and maintain a daily order and let the children fall into line."  ~ Rudolf Dreikurs

When our rhythms are responsive to the energetic needs of the moment, of the child, of the family, of the year, then we can feel it, we are in a flow and it is the repetitiveness of what flows that helps carry the day, the week or the year. This is why rhythm feels so hard sometimes, because we are alive, life is alive, it is always in motion. Rhythm is about riding the wheel of life's motion in a way that brings balance to our lives, as individuals and as families. That reminds us to create the space for calm, soothing time with nothing to do. It is also rhythm that urges us to dress up and go out in the cold and snow to build a snowman. Whew! It's big stuff.

Rhythm and routine (or repetitiveness) need each other. 

For example, I might look at my child's diet and feel like I need to bring more nutrient dense foods into his daily eating with more protein foods in his diet, in meals and snacks, because I observe that he is growing rapidly and that he often reaches for sweets when he seems to be hungry, while I am suspecting he  needs more protein rich foods. This is a growth rhythm, a change that come out of growing needs.

So I look at the flow of the day and our routines and decide to add a daily snack that is protein rich, like yoghurt and nuts. Then I look at what we eat for breakfast and  decide to add eggs to our breakfast three days a week.

It is out of the rhythm of life, out of my child's growth spurt, that I see the need for protein. This is something dynamic and likely to change at some point. Growth spurts, by their very nature, come and go. The need is different than what it was before. 

The routine element comes in when I add yoghurt and eggs to my meal plan of what I intend to prepare each week. It's a list and likely to become a habit, based on the living needs of a particular child within the dynamic of the family. 

Another example, let's say you know your child comes home from school tired and wound up. You know that some time alone while changing into play clothes, followed by quiet time and a warm cup of soothing tea, and then a bite to eat, snuggled up with you on the sofa, will help bring your child back to a place of calm and a feeling of being energized. So you make this a priority in daily life, to have this time for your child to settle back at home after school.This is rhythm and routine, working together with the energy of the situation, in this case a pulling in, or a gesture of contraction imbued with warmth, setting the environment to create a predicable routine that serves the energetic needs.

We can easily slip into our habits of routine. The gift of living with rhythm in our consciousness, our conscious awareness of the energetic aspects of our days, is that we can adjust and make changes and decisions that are based on putting our awareness of what is needed into action.

Rhythm imbues routine with vitality, with life energy. They need each other. 

For me, this is what rhythm is about and how rhythm is distinct from routine.


  1. This is the best description and comparison of routine and rhythm I have read. They feel like the same words yet you explained the differences so well. Thank you. I’ll think more on this as I am presently babysitting my three little grand daughters. They thrive on routine - which I always felt was changing up on me! So I’m not messing it up, hopefully? :)

  2. Just seeing this comment. Hello Lois, I'm sure you're doing the right thing. Children change, our lives change and we adjust the routines as needed. Thank you for the kind words.


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