Is your schedule stressful with too many activities? Learn 4 reasons kids need downtime — and how to incorporate it in your days.
My six-year-old has one after school extracurricular activity… and I’m already frazzled.
Every Thursday, he attends a one-hour science class on campus. But on the first day, he freaked out about walking to the class alone, without me. He needed someone, understandably, to help him get acclimated and meet the instructors.
Thing is, I also pick up his twin brothers from preschool right before. So that means I pick up the twins, hand them a snack in the car, and head to my six-year-old’s school. Once we’ve fetched him from first grade, we snack again as we walk to science class.
Then when he’s settled in, I drive the twins home to play for a bit before going back to school once science class finishes. We then drive home where we finally unwind for the day while I scramble to get dinner on the table.
And that’s just one activity per week, for one child. I can’t even imagine if all my days were like that, or if my other two kids had activities of their own.
Perhaps your schedule is even more frantic than mine. One with extracurricular activities, play dates, and back-to-back birthday parties on the weekends.
But like me, you may also understand the value of enrolling kids in activities, of fueling their passion for a sport or hobby. We wouldn’t do this if it weren’t worth it.
4 reasons kids need downtime
That said, it can get overwhelming. You know you’ve got a busy schedule when weekend mornings with nothing planned are rare occasions.
Just as kids find enrichment in activities, so too do they need downtime to tinker and be alone. In fact, we risk depriving our kids of this important time when we schedule too many activities.
Why exactly is downtime so important? And what are a few ways we can avoid the downside of over-scheduling kids?
1. Kids enjoy the benefits of unplanned family time
With a full schedule, kids don’t enjoy the impromptu but often enjoyable moments of time at home. Siblings can create a clever new game, or the family decides to take an unplanned visit to the park.
A packed schedule risks taking over family time. Extracurricular activities might override family dinners or quality time at grandma’s.
A day filled with events also prevents family members from getting to know one another. It’s crucial for us to develop relationships with one another through family play. PBS explains the downside of no downtime:
And unplanned family time has the added benefit of helping parents and children learn more about each other. “So you know your parents, and your parents know you,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s an essential facet of emotional health. If you feel your parents know you, love you and care for you, life can be difficult, it can challenge you, throw you curves, but you’ll always have that recollection inside and feel beloved.”
2. Kids learn to tolerate boredom and learn patience
Sometimes we feel pressured to entertain our kids all the time. We stress ourselves out when we have nothing planned, as if weekends or after school hours demand constant activity.
But it’s good for kids to be bored, when they’re twiddling their thumbs or nagging us for things to do.
Boredom itself isn’t a good feeling. But it’s an inevitable part of life we all face. The more your kids can learn to tolerate and cope with boredom, the more creative they’ll be with their time. They’ll learn to use boredom as an opportunity to entertain themselves or learn patience.
3. Kids benefit from independent play
One of the benefits of downtime that you don’t find anywhere else is the opportunity to play alone. That might sound terrible, but independent play is an important skill kids should learn.
They shouldn’t rely on other people or forms of entertainment to enjoy themselves. They should be able to find joy in creating and playing with their own play alone.
After all, kids who can play alone learn to self-entertain and solve problems. They can’t learn these skills when they’re shuffled from one activity to the next. And playing alone allows them to play without adults directing their move.
Independent play gives kids privacy without the watchful eye of an adult or even other kids. This is their chance to be silly, vulnerable or play without judgment from anyone else.
Finally, kids need time to decompress on their own or quietly with family members. My kids tend to be overstimulated if we’re out the entire day, for several days in a row.
Sometimes you can’t avoid this, such as if you’re hosting out-of-town guests or attending a grand family reunion weekend. But if I do this too often, my kids get too wired up, feel cranky and otherwise don’t function well.
4. Kids have an opportunity to tinker and experiment
My son’s science class isn’t the only opportunity he has to create his own experiments. With downtime at home, he has created his own inventions, from a pulley to a pop-up book.
He also uses this time to make Halloween decorations, his own checkers game and drawings of maps. My twins meanwhile use downtime to play cars, write letters and play in their pretend kitchen.
I didn’t schedule any of these activities. But somehow they find ways to tinker and play all on their own in ways that might not happen with a full agenda for the day.
How to incorporate downtime even with a busy schedule
Now that we know the reasons kids need downtime, how can we include it in our day-to-day lives?
- Ask yourself if your kids truly enjoy their activities. Some kids feel pressure, whether from us or their peers, to participate in activities. Ask yourself what would happen if you decide to stop—would your child fight to keep it or would they feel relieved?
- Narrow down the activities. If you feel overwhelmed with a busy schedule, aim for a certain number of activities. That may be one activity per season per child. Or one big outing per weekend. You’re not giving up your activities, just narrowing them down to the most important.
- Prioritize one part of the day for downtime. Rather than schedule your day around activities, schedule it around downtime. Protect this slot of the day by not scheduling anything during this time as much as possible. This might be family dinners at 5pm or Sunday mornings lounging at home.
- Let your kids be bored. Don’t feel like you need to entertain your kids every minute. Give them a chance to experience boredom, and let them struggle with how to cope with it. They’ll gain so many benefits, no matter how much they might complain at first.
- Say “no.” It can be hard to say no to invitations or even obligations. This is why we often find ourselves attending many events on one day. But it’s really okay to turn invitations down if it means less stress and more downtime for your family.
- Reevaluate. Any time you or your kids feel stressed about your schedule, reevaluate your priorities. See where you’re stretched too thin or what areas are most important to you.
We get so many benefits from activities and events that I’d never drop them from our lives. My husband and I are fortunate to have our families nearby to spend time with on weekends. We also understand the value of enrolling our kids in activities, from science to swim.
But we also know the importance of downtime in our lives. We aim for the right balance of activities, outings and events with free time lounging at home. My kids benefit from puttering around and we also avoid potential outbursts from a packed schedule.
The right balance, after all, makes all the difference. At least enough to survive another school pick up and science class drop off.
I also recommend reading the book So Few of Me by Peter H. Reynolds with your child to discuss the importance of downtime:
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