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Piano lessons. Soccer practice. Homework. Activities like these can take up large portions of our children’s schedules, leaving them little time to be with friends and family or simply enjoy being a kid, whether they are seven or 17 years old.
Imagine a day in the life of a child. They’re engaged at school for six to eight hours. In addition to extracurricular activities, they might be responsible for caring for a younger sibling or have a part-time job. A relentless schedule doesn’t benefit a child’s academic performance or mental health. It’s essential to incorporate some time with family, friends, or themselves into their routine.
We’ll discuss some innovative ways to include downtime into your and your child’s schedule so they (and you) can foster a more balanced lifestyle.
What is “downtime”?
Think back to your own childhood. You might have laid on the grass to feel the warm sun and the breeze, or spent an afternoon engrossed in a book. Perhaps you built a blanket fort with your sibling on a lazy Saturday or play-wrestled with a parent. Remember the exhaustion after a morning of play leading to a satisfying nap?
These are instances of pure downtime: moments with no obligations or structure, just a quiet period to relax your mind and body. These days, academic commitments, extracurriculars and technology have made these times scarce. But modern problems have modern solutions.
The PDF framework
Denise Pope, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the educational nonprofit Challenge Success have developed three distinct types of downtime for children to succeed: playtime, downtime, and family time. The senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids refers to this as the PDF framework and has successfully integrated it into her own family.
“I think adults have to build time in the day to allow kids to decide what they want to do,” says Pope. “We know that a lot of times, kids don’t have that ability to choose. They’re very scheduled throughout the day and need to have that break.”
The PDF framework doesn’t necessarily mean that children should avoid screens or technology. As Pope explains, it’s up to adults to act as guardrails against overindulging in certain activities.
“The adult has to say, ‘Well, that’s fine for a certain amount of time, but we’d also like you to learn some activities that are not tech-related, and here’s why,'” says Pope.
She describes playtime as unstructured and child-led rather than an extracurricular activity led by adults. It can be as simple as hanging out with friends, playing with LEGO, or even creating music videos on their tablet.
“Playtime is really critical,” says Pope. “Kids need time to move their bodies, go outside, run around. and be in nature. That can be really restorative.”
Downtime is also unstructured. These are the moments throughout their day when kids read, relax, and reflect—but the most vital downtime is sleep.
“We know just how important sleep is to the brain,” says Pope. “Sleep is connected to learning and mental health.”
Because adults also have responsibilities, family time might be more challenging to pull off. It can consist of sitting together for a family meal, going for a walk, or taking part in little rituals at the end of the day.
“It can be literally anything that’s going to help you unwind, whether that is playing a video game for a little bit or watching some funny TV,” says Pope.
Pope also understands every family operates differently. Caretakers may have to work two jobs, so how a family implements the PDF framework may vary for some households depending on their situation.
Prioritize what’s important
Just because you can get your children to every lesson, practice, and game doesn’t necessarily mean you should. It’s likely something that neither you nor they can sustain over time. Pope explains that since parents act as the guardrails for their child’s schedule, it’s necessary to take a complete look at it and consider what is essential.
She recommends listing extracurriculars, deciding which ones you feel are non-negotiable, and asking your child to rank how much they love the rest on a scale from one to 10. For example, if they rate piano lessons on the low end of the scale, it might not suit them now, but it doesn’t mean they won’t play piano in the future. The number-one priority is that your family spends time together and your children know they’re loved unconditionally.
“If you only talk about grades and homework when you’re together, you’re sending certain messages about what the most important thing is in your kids’ lives,” says Pope.
Take time for yourself
Even when your kids are in bed, you’re probably still working. That could mean doing a load of dishes or spending some extra time answering work emails. While we’re concerned about over-scheduling our children, we’re probably doing the same thing to ourselves.
“I know for many people, they don’t have a choice,” says Pope. “They’re working multiple jobs. They’re a single parent. [But] if you can find a moment to do some breath work or appreciate five minutes of a sunset, it makes a huge difference.”