When it comes to raising my children, my motto has been “Keep them busy to keep them out of trouble.” I was the champion of sports programs and after school activities. Now that they are respective teenagers I’m second guessing if that was the right decision. In our ever-evolving technical world my children struggle to find ways to wind down. While I don’t fully blame myself, I believe I contributed to their thinking process of finding ways to keep busy. Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford has looked at why introducing unscheduled time into your family’s day-to-day life can be so valuable and what you can do to bring it into your home.
Extra-curricular activities can be beneficial to a child’s development. Regularly meeting and seeing people can help to build and strengthen their social skills, while attending clubs can give them the opportunity to develop new skills and open their minds to new interests. But if back-to-back sports clubs and after-school hobbies start to take over their schedule, your child can feel the strain. Finding the right balance is important. Classes and weekly clubs shouldn’t take precedence over other important aspects of development, such as relaxing with the family.
Why is downtime important to a child’s development?
Downtime can help a child’s imagination run free. As they aren’t being directed by their parents’ predefined timetable, it also gives them an opportunity to be self-sufficient and structure their own time rather than being reliant on others. Unscheduled time can also be incredibly important during exam time. When overloaded with school work and extra-curricular activities, a child can start to feel overwhelmed and overstretched. Some young people who are talented academically and at extra-curricular activities can become very anxious as they feel a pressure to succeed in everything that they do. This stress can then impact on your family dynamics and cause the young person to become irritable and harder to talk to. Unscheduled time can also be a great way to reconnect and spend quality time together. It also gives the child a much-needed opportunity to rest and recharge outside of their busy schedule.
Stay away from screens during downtime
It is important that any unscheduled time that you introduce isn’t overtaken by phones, tablets, game consoles or the TV.
Hours spent using technology should be seen as the antithesis of quality unscheduled time. Rather than helping your child, the downtime can have the opposite effect if screens take precedence. It can lead to family arguments, as you worry about the content your child is engaging with and the amount of time they are spending on their phones or iPads. It can also prevent your child from being able to sleep and rest properly at night if they use screens in the hours before bed and when they are supposed to be asleep. Low self-esteem, cyberbullying as well as the anxiety caused by needing ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ are also factors that can have detrimental effects on your child. By having non-tech, unscheduled time together as a family, you grant your children the time to communicate in traditional ways, and give yourself the opportunity to have conversations with your children without distraction.
Some tips for your unscheduled time
To get the most out of unscheduled time together as a family, you may want to embrace the following ideas:
Walk and talk together – head to your local park to chat and get some fresh air together away from screens. As this gives you both the time to spend together away from distractions, it can be a great way to catch up on the day and also broach any sensitive subjects that you want to discuss
Get out the games – board games can be a great bonding exercise for the family. Get everyone involved; you might be surprised how much your child enjoys them and how they embrace the competitive nature of such games, playing against family members
Put a pause on extra-curricular activities – if possible, pause clubs and groups for two weeks to help the young person to have a rest. At the end of the fortnight, regroup and talk about what has been beneficial about the unscheduled time, what activities they would like to prioritise and how you can introduce downtime into the family going forward
Try to introduce some quality downtime into your family life on a daily basis, and certainly during weekends and school holidays. As a parent, make sure that you take part and enjoy this time as well to really reinforce the importance of not over-scheduling to your children.