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The Need for Unstructured Time and Downtime—For Parents

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Recently, there has been a flurry of interest and popular support in the idea of downtime for children, spurred perhaps by a backlash against the push to become involved in activities, to do rather than be, to compete, to keep going, to perform.

As K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2016, we ought to protect children’s “PDF”: that is, playtime, downtime, and family time. That term, coined by Denise Pope and colleagues in their 2015 book Overloaded and Underprepared, is more needed than ever, given research suggesting that kids have increasingly less free time.

As Dell’Antonia complains one of her school-aged children said, “I hate school. You just get up and you go and you work all day and it’s really hard and not fun and then you come home and you have homework….” and so on. But what about downtime for parents? For many of us, our schedules are often no less busy, and can feel even more harried.

Ironically, for many children, most of their extra activities involve play, whether football practice, cross-country club, or soccer team. But this kind of play is highly structured by adults. It doesn’t involve a lot of time for dreaming or imagination, or a lot of downtime. Rather than “how should we play today?”—a question that lends itself to creativity—the question of the day often seems to be, “How can I become the best?”

It’s not that competitive soccer games are harmful—there is value, of course, in learning to compete and follow rules, to be a good winner or loser, and a good sport—but, in developing children’s abilities, they aren’t enough. But what about for us as parents? What about the kind of “pdf” we’re allowing ourselves?

In understanding the role of play for adults, Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College,  refers to hunter-gatherers’ rituals, which often had humorous elements, as they allowed participants to decide when, how, and even whether to engage in the activities. Play, he argues, is a way of helping meet the other’s needs while not neglecting one’s own, and figuring out how to keep another person interested. As he states, play allows us to think about hypothetical scenarios, to consider not only what is, but also what might be.

Although we often think of play and work as opposites, research suggests that they’re actually two sides of the same coin. When we play, we often think of feeling happier; now, as research suggest, we should also think about being happier as helping us become more creative and playful.

As psychologist Dr. Alice Isen and colleagues have found, becoming happier, even slightly, seems to support becoming more playful, and creative, at least in the context of a short task. These findings are surprising, since we often think of creativity, especially for adults, as something that is relatively fixed. Certainly we don’t typically think of something as simple as watching a film clip or eating a candy bar as improving our creative skills!

In a 2001 review published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Isen discusses the findings of many studies showing that having a positive mood actually has benefits on our thinking, in terms of our flexibility, openness, and creativity. In a later study in 2005, published in Motivation and Emotion, Isen and colleagues found that positive affect actually makes us more motivated to do a task, and not at the expense of completing boring tasks or those that need to be done.

Thus, if we’re in a good mood—or can get there—we not only play more easily and think more creatively, but also feel more motivated for the work we must do. Having downtime, ironically, will likely make our “on time” far more effective—all the more reason to consider unplugging, taking items off our schedule, and promoting time off for ourselves and our kids.

The Need for Unstructured Time and Downtime—For Parents

Rebecca Givens Rolland, Ed.D.

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APA Reference
Givens Rolland, R. (2017). The Need for Unstructured Time and Downtime—For Parents. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 May 2017
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