Technology has played a major role in wiring our kids’ brains for instant gratification. From fast-paced video games to interactive toys that flash and play music to streaming TV shows and other entertainment, kids are used to constant stimulation and getting their desires met quickly.
It’s a product of our fast-paced society and stimulating environment, said Laura Hlavaty, PhD, pediatric psychologist in Akron Children’s Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center. That’s why for today’s busy family, she touts the tremendous value in taking regular breaks and establishing daily downtime or quiet time for kids of all ages—even adults. Believe it or not, it can be quite helpful to kids’ healthy development.
“Constant stimulation can be harmful in some ways,” she said. “Kids find it difficult to know what to do in unstructured times, especially when there are no screens. They struggle to sit still, relax and unwind, and parents feel a responsibility to entertain their kids when they’re bored.”
Downtime or quiet time is unstructured time, away from screens or other stimulating play, to allow kids to engage in independent activities. It could mean playing in their rooms or outside, building with blocks, playing play dough, coloring, listening to audiobooks or even naptime for little ones. For older kids, it could mean reading, drawing, journaling or listening to music.
Kids are exposed to new information every day. But to make sense of that information, they need time to process and catalog what they are learning. Quiet time with little-to-no stimulation offers the best environment for this process to take place.
In fact, research shows downtime can help a child’s nervous system regulate to be more adaptive to our complex environments by regenerating new cells to help them process, organize and learn new information.
“It’s more than just a break for mom and child, research shows there’s tremendous value in just being,” said Dr. Hlavaty. “Studies show kids that have regular downtime are more creative, focused, energized, independent, can self-soothe and solve problems in innovative ways.”
So, how can parents establish downtime in their busy schedules?
Kids need time to be bored so they can learn how to solve the problem and figure out how to entertain themselves. It’s a learned behavior so for families without much downtime, they can slowly teach their kids this skill.
First, create a schedule for downtime. Kids thrive on predictability, so make it a part of their routine. It could be every day after school, after lunch or before bedtime. For younger kids, it might only be 15 to 20 minutes, but as kids get older increase the time to about an hour a day.
If you’re just starting out, offer a little structure for kids and then slowly taper that over time, reducing your effort as kids learn to entertain themselves. You can present options to guide them in finding something to do.
“Younger kids will still need supervision, but it’s not meant for partnered playtime,” said Dr. Hlavaty. “You’re there to watch and make sure they’re safe, but it should be individual playtime.”
If your children struggle with transitions, try using a timer to let kids know they only have a few minutes left for imaginative play.
Kids might push back at first, but eventually they may be surprised how refreshing and fun it can be.
“Show kids it’s not a punishment, but instead is something they can look forward to each day,” said Dr. Hlavaty. “It’s your child’s time to do what they want, relax and unwind from a busy day. Plus, it gives parents a break for their own much-needed refresher.”
Get to know Akron Children’s pediatricians and schedule an appointment online if you think your child may be struggling with a busy schedule. You also can contact our Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center at 330-543-5015 for concerns about your child’s mental well-being.