These days, children rush through a tight schedule of school requirements, sports, music lessons and after-school activities.
Let's be honest, it can be overwhelming for them and for us.
Developmental experts advocate playtime, free time and down time. Even boredom can be beneficial, they say. Yet, sometimes parents are concerned their kids will engage in TV or electronics if they’re not busy.
Advantages of down time
Down time, particularly no screen time, is essential for children of all ages to rest and take a break from the daily stress of school and hectic schedules.
Everyone needs time to refresh and reset, particularly children, says Renée Layman, chief executive officer of the Center for Child Counseling. “There are many valuable lessons in down time, often coming from feeling bored. Yes, it’s okay not to rescue your kids from boredom.”
Boredom can spark the imagination, inspire daydreaming and spur searching inward for entertainment.
“Kids will increasingly learn to rely on themselves, becoming more independent. That’s a parenting win!” Layman says. But prepare to deal with a bit of whining at first.
Living in a world of daily stress, anxiety and high expectations can be tough for today's growing child.
“The human mind can come under a lot of pressure, which can then affect our children's moods,” says Olga Viera, Triple P — Positive Parenting Program supervisor at the Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County. Triple P is funded by Children's Services Council and offered free throughout Palm Beach County.
“This moodiness can lead to children feeling less positive and self-assured," Viera says. "By having down time, kids gain self-growth. Putting aside some time for children to do what they wish allows room for reflection, happiness and focus, and it relieves stress.”
Ways to provide breaks
As ironic as it may sound, it’s important for parents to plan down time for their children.
“If the whole summer is usually packed with camps, classes and activities, try planning three weeks of unstructured time for things like lying in the grass and daydreaming. Watch the clouds together and let your imaginations go wild,” Layman says.
And during the school year, she suggests squeezing in unstructured family time a couple of times a week – no screens or phones. “Remember, you are the role model for your child. Just play,” she says.
Time with grandparents can provide the perfect setting for imaginative role-play activities. Palm Beach County resident Fran Marcone and her husband, David, are an example of this with their 5-year-old granddaughter.
“Everything she is exposed to in school and through her time with us turns into an opportunity for her to see what new experiences feel like,” Marcone says. “If she wants to be the dance instructor, the salon operator, the doctor, the soccer coach or the Spanish teacher, the two of us let her take the lead, then join right along, playing whatever parts she assigns to us. Together the three of us work through real-life issues, like what if feels like to be the new kid in class or the brave patient getting blood drawn for the very first time.”
Playtime, especially for younger children, boosts healthy growth and development, Layman says. “For older kids, not only will you learn more about each other, but this time becomes a treasure that your child holds inside forever,” she says. “This provides the foundation for emotional health.”
Practical ideas for unplugging
Structure and routines can help parents and children. “The child and the parent can together come up with a schedule or routine that will allow the child to choose what day or days of the week he or she would want to exclusively dedicate to some down time,” Viera says.
However, coaxing younger children to unplug from their devices can take a little extra ingenuity.
"I'm only saying this because my child is too young to read, but I've used some subtle Jedi mind tricks to reduce his amount of screen time,” says Leslie Streeter, a Palm Beach County mother. “He has a tablet that he usually uses only when he's falling asleep or having quiet time. I just try to not let it charge past 30 percent — or 15 percent if he's on his way to bed.”
A similar approach can work with other family entertainment devices. “He knows that TV is a reward, not a right,” Streeter says. “We set the timer and say, ‘You have five more minutes of TV.’ And when that timer goes off, we seldom have any sort of issues. Here is the biggest thing: I am the parent; he is the child. He doesn't dictate what he does. I do. I feel no need to ultimately negotiate with a person who can't even reach the sink without a step stool.”
Parents can challenge their child to start these habits once a week. That way, you encourage them to change a part of their daily routine (unplugging) while still respecting their time. You can't force anyone into down time. The practice comes with time and experience. Guiding children to discover the benefits on their own can be more powerful than we think.SOURCES:
- Renee Layman, CEO, Center for Child Counseling
- Olga Viera, Positive Parenting Program supervisor, Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County
- Sabrina Jay, Positive Parenting Program practitioner, Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County