Is your schedule stressful with too many activities? Learn 4 reasons kids need downtime — and how to incorporate it in your days.
My son had one after school extracurricular activity… and I was already frazzled.
Every Thursday, he attended 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 picked up his twin brothers from preschool right before. So that meant I’d pick up the twins, hand them a snack in the car, and head to my six-year-old’s school. Once we had fetched him from his classroom, we’d snack again as we walked to science class.
Then, once he was settled in, I’d drive the twins home to play for a bit before going back to school once science class finished. We’d then drive home where we’d finally unwind for the day while I scrambled to get dinner on the table.
And that’s just one activity per week, for one child. Fast forward to today, and now it’s my twins who have a tae kwan do class once a week.
I can imagine that your schedule is more frantic than mine. One with extracurricular activities, play dates, and back-to-back birthday parties on the weekends.
But like me, you also understand the value of enrolling your kids in these activities, 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, all these activities can get overwhelming. You know you’ve got a busy schedule when weekend mornings with nothing planned are rare occasions. We forget that kids need downtime too, a chance to do what they want, to tinker, to be alone.
We risk depriving them of this important time when we schedule too many activities, despite our good intentions.
But why exactly is downtime so important? And what are a few ways we can avoid the downside of over-scheduling our calendars? Take a look at several reasons kids need downtime:
1. More family time
With a full schedule, kids don’t enjoy the impromptu but often enjoyable moments of time together at home. Siblings can create a clever new game, or the family can decide to take an unplanned visit to the park.
But a packed schedule risks taking over this precious family time. Extracurricular activities override family dinners or dinner at grandma’s.
A day filled with events also prevents family members from getting to know one another. Author Alvin Rosenfeld explains the importance of downtime:
“You know your parents, and your parents know you. 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.”
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2. Cultivating patience and tolerating boredom
Do you feel pressured to entertain your child all the time? Maybe you stress yourself out when you have nothing planned, as if weekends or after school hours demand constant activity.
Don’t worry: It turns out, boredom is good for her. Yes, even when she’s twiddling her thumbs or nagging you for things to do.
This isn’t to say that she’ll enjoy being bored. But she’ll learn to tolerate and cope with it, getting creative with overcoming this uncomfortable feeling. She’ll use these “boring” moments to entertain herself and develop patience in ways she would never have a chance to without downtime.
3. 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.
Why? They shouldn’t have to rely on other people or forms of entertainment to enjoy themselves. They should be able to find joy in creating and playing all on their own.
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.
Independent downtime allows them to play without adults directing their every move. They have much-needed 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.
And finally, they need time to decompress on their own, to process any stimulation they may have experienced that day. They might head to their bedroom or the backyard, away from the rest of the family, just for a moment of downtime.
4. A chance to tinker and experiment
My son’s science class wasn’t the only opportunity he had to create his own experiments. With downtime at home, he created his own inventions, from a pulley to a pop-up book. He also made Halloween decorations, his own checkers game, and drawings of maps.
I didn’t schedule any of these activities or even suggest he start these projects. But somehow, kids find ways to tinker and play all on their own in ways that might not happen with a full agenda for the day. They’ll find a way to use whatever materials they see to tinker and create on their own.
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? Take a look at these simple changes you can make:
- Ask yourself if your kids truly enjoy their activities. Some kids feel pressure, whether from us or their peers, to participate in activities they may not even enjoy. Ask yourself what would happen if you decide to stop—would your child fight to keep it, or would she feel relieved?
- Narrow down the activities. If you feel overwhelmed with a busy schedule, aim for a certain number of activities. Maybe that’s one activity per season per child, or one big outing per weekend. You’re not giving up these activities, but 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. 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 them 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.” Saying no to invitations or even obligations can be hard. 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.
Enrolling kids in activities and attending events have many benefits, but so too does having downtime.
You’ll enjoy meaningful family time as you get to know one another even more. Your kids learn the important skill of overcoming boredom and getting creative in the process.
They’re able to entertain themselves, solve problems, and process their thoughts alone. And they could easily tinker and create new ideas when they don’t have to follow specific directions or a set agenda.
This doesn’t mean you drop all activities or events—the right balance, after all, makes all the difference. At least enough to survive another school pick up and science class drop off.
p.s. Check out the book So Few of Me by Peter H. Reynolds, all about how kids need downtime:
Get more tips:
- Why We Need to Encourage Our Children’s Interests—Even when They Seem Strange to Us
- No Excuses: Why We Need to Read with Our Kids Every Day
- Why Parents Really Need to Stop Hovering
- Are You Teaching These Life Skills Your Child Needs in Adulthood?
- Toddler Routines: How to Structure Your Day
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