Teaching Our Kids The Importance of Downtime Without Screens

Today’s hectic lifestyle means kids need downtime more than ever.

Caitlin Reid is an accredited practising dietitian, yoga teacher and accredited exercise physiologist from Health & the City. 

Kid’s today are busier than ever with jam-packed schedules containing everything from school and homework to play dates, birthday parties and multiple sporting ventures. Then there is the ever-present lure of screens, which can seem like the perfect option when parents need some peaceful minutes to complete everything from household chores to work calls.

While time lazing on the couch watching Netflix or playing video games might seem like downtime, these activities still require children to be fully engaged. Too much screentime overstimulates kids instead of giving them the break they need to chill out1. So if true downtime does not involve screens, what actually is downtime you ask?


What is downtime?

Downtime is a time to relax and to not do too much. You can think of downtime as simply playtime without any structured activities that involve rules and directions2. When play is unstructured, children are free to do what interests them without any guidelines set in place.

Psychologist and teacher at Kid Psychology, Kate Plumb, says downtime is an opportunity for kids to be kids.

“Activities for downtime can be anything that interests your child, gives them the freedom to choose what they want to do and uses the brain and body in different ways. Whatever it is your child chooses to do, the point of downtime is to enhance creativity, imagination, executive functioning and social skills,” explains Plumb2-3.

Things like playing outside, daydreaming, creative play, taking a bath, arts and craft, walking in nature, reading a book and playing a card game are all examples of downtime.


Why do kids need downtime?

While parents have been guilted into thinking that good parenting comes with exposing our children to endless opportunities, this overscheduling can lead to stress and anxiety2. Children need time to rest, relax and recharge. Downtime allows your child’s brain the break it needs to consolidate memories, revive focus and renew the drive to learn4. Downtime is also vital for all aspects of your child’s development.

“Downtime is vital for your child’s cognitive, academic, social and emotional development. Giving your child the time and space to have downtime enables them to develop self-determination where they express their own wants and needs. Kids develop best if they are free to create, use their imagination and explore the world around them,” says Plumb2.

Free time or that feeling of “being bored” also helps children to learn how to manage their feelings. This time teaches children the ability to occupy themselves without relying on others to amuse them, while also giving them the ability to cope with uncomfortable feelings like impatience5. Children who are constantly occupied with structured activities don’t have the time to engage in problem-solving like children who experience downtime6.


How much downtime do kids need?

A little bit of downtime each day is recommended for all kids. However, exactly how much they need depends on a few things7.

“In terms of how much downtime is needed on a daily basis, depends on the age of the child, the amount of structure they already have in their lives and the competing demands of sticking to a routine,” explains Plumb.

“Generally though, the younger the child, the less they need an itinerary of structured activities.”


How to schedule in downtime

Downtime isn’t something that just happens – we need to schedule it in. Creating regular and frequent time for children to unwind is essential for keeping them in balance. Each day set a limit on screen time and encourage your children to spend some time outside each day2. You could also set up a special place like a reading corner to encourage relaxation.

Establish a household rule of quiet time before bed where you children can either a read a book or draw quietly. This is a great way for the whole family to reduce stimulation and get ready for bed.

As parents, we should lead by example and make downtime a priority. Children tend to mimic the adults around them, so if we want our children to participate in regular downtime, we need to take the time to relax.

“This can be done by organising a relaxing outing as a family, chatting to your child about how much better you feel when you get your own downtime, or even making appointments for downtime if your current schedule is that jam-packed,” explains Plumb.

When you make downtime a priority, you show your little people the importance of having unstructured time each day where they get to take the time to follow their own interests and just be8.

It isn’t always easy to protect this downtime so parents need to remain vigilant in making sure their children have space to take a breath and relax. Give yourself and your children permission to enjoy free play each day.

“Play together. Play alone. But make sure you play. Your mental health depends on it,” finishes Plumb.


This article was brought to you by Kidspot, encouraging you and your little one to find time for downtime. Click here to find out more.

1Tamana S, Ezeugwu V, Chikuma J et al. Screen-time is associated with attention problems in pre-schoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study. PLOS ONE; April 17, 2019. Available at URL https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0213995 Accessed April 2020. 

 2Ginsburg K and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics January 2007;119(1):182-191. Available at URL https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182. Accessed April 2020. 

 3Tamis-LeMonda CS, Shannon JD, Cabrera NJ, Lamb ME. Fathers and mothers at play with their 2- and 3- year olds: contributions to language and cognitive development. Child Dev 2004;75:1806-1820. Available at URL https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8161865_Fathers_and_Mothers_at_Play_With_Their_2-_and_3-Year-Olds_Contributions_to_Language_and_Cognitive_Development. Accessed April 2020.

 4Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, Hirsh-Pasek K & Golinkoff M. The power of play: a pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics 2018;142(3):e20182058. Available at URL https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/3/e20182058Accessed April 2020. 

 5Sigman A. The Gift of Boredom. Brain and Behaviour. Available at URL https://www.casaverams.com/public/articles/montessori-parenting/Gift_of_%20boredom_m108.pdf Accessed April 2020. 

 6Burdette H & Whitaker R. Resurrecting free play in young children. Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation and affect. Arch Pediatri Adolesc Med 2005;159(1):46-50. Available at URL https://www.childrenandnature.org/uploads/Burdette_LookingBeyond.pdf. Accessed April 2020.

 7Walsh B. Reclaiming Downtime. Harvard Graduate School Of Education Available at URL https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/07/reclaiming-downtime Accessed April 2020.

 8Collins, W.A., Maccoby, E.E., Steinberg, L., Hetherington, E.M., & Bornstein, M.H. (2000). Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist, 55(2), 218-232. Available at URL https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12597856_Contemporary_research_on_parenting_The_case_for_nature_and_nurture_American_Psychologist_552_218-232. Accessed April 2020.

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