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Oregon Family Magazine

Embracing Downtime

02/26/2010 ● By Anonymous
When the normal daily activities of the average school-aged child are factored together, they’re enough to make an adult scream “Uncle!” in defeat.

Rising extra early for lessons or before school practice, followed by a full day of classes, followed directly by after-school activities like football, basketball, softball, or soccer, or shuttled to dance, karate, or voice lessons. After which, home for dinner (or fed “in transit”), then off to finish homework before collapsing into bed. Does this sound familiar? Children are so immersed in activities (social, educational, and developmental), after-school programs, and play dates they don’t have time for anything else. When they squeeze in time for electronics like cell phones, iPods, game systems, and television – their plates are overflowing.

With such a hectic daily existence, it’s no wonder children often voice complaints of “boredom” when they have more than a few moments of free “downtime” on their hands. They’re not being antagonistic; they’re merely treading in unfamiliar water after so much scheduled time. They simply have no idea what to do with a surplus of unscheduled time.

The Truth about Downtime

In today’s society downtime is a luxury. The typical person is accessible to someone the majority of the day – and it's the accepted norm. Working hours are the worst as the average worker is encouraged to multi-task in order to get it all done. Between the telephone, computer, IM, cell phone, and in-person interruptions, it’s a wonder anything gets accomplished in its entirety. In a study performed by Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist, it was found that it took the average person fifteen minutes to return to his/her original task each time they were interrupted. The question then becomes - just how effective is multitasking to overall productivity? If each interruption causes a fifteen minute delay, wouldn't it be more effective to just complete each task before moving to the next one? Most importantly, if it takes an adult with a healthy concept of time management fifteen minutes to get back on track, just how long does it take a child to refocus and get back on task for homework, studying, or chores?

Downtime is something adults typically long for, but don’t really discuss with children. If children were taught by parents to appreciate free-time, perhaps they would better recognize it when it's presented and better utilize it when they have it.

Downtime is a hot commodity. It allows for regeneration, relaxation, and simply existing without outside stressors. It’s time to plan, reflect, or discuss whatever may be on one’s mind. It’s time that people seem to squander without realizing the potential ramifications. With the increase in the number of individuals plagued by health problems in this country, many of them complicated by or the result of sleep deprivation, it's surprising that more people are not embracing downtime. Over-stimulation is a large part of the reason why It's nearly impossible for sleep to occur for so many Americans, children and adults, alike.

Too much fun, too much work, too much studying, too much food, too much of anything – even money (though I’m sure many would like to test this one), is not advantageous to anyone. Downtime should be regarded as the balance to both necessary daily activities and extracurricular activities; not just for children, but for parents too.

The Advantages of Downtime

Multi-tasking has being touted as the wave of the future. In order to complete tasks in the finite amount of time allotted each day, adults are basically required to take on more than one project, household task, etc. simultaneously in order to make a dent in their daily to-dos. To this end, children are being taught to follow suit. In the most recent study conducted by Stanford University, it was found that most children “media multitask”, which is when various media are used simultaneously – like using the computer for homework while instant messaging, playing a video game, and texting. The study found media multitasking to be an unproductive way to complete tasks. Students were more easily distracted when media multitasking and other studies have concluded that young multitaskers, by adulthood, could be less able to focus on tasks requiring detailed concentration. Downtime should increase one's ability to focus on a single task for the length of time necessary for satisfactory completion.

In fact, working on a single task from start to completion is the optimum way to approach a project. It allows complete focus and the level of attention devoted to details typically results in a quality finished product. In an ideal world it might be feasible to label multi-tasking as an experiment, and abandon it in favor of the “old way” of doing things, but technology has made that impossible. The next best course of action may be to simply teach children to be selective about their time. Showing them (preferably by example) that it’s okay, and even enjoyable, to sit down and do nothing for several minutes/hours each day if they are able. Demonstrating the concept that a balance can be struck between being accessible to everyone, and valuing time devoted to individual pursuits can be a great gift to children.

Boredom is typically the precursor to rest and relaxation. In a society where so many people are dealing with insomnia and poor sleep issues, allowing a little downtime could be the answer. Doctors agree that there are several things that should not be done within a few hours of bedtime – computer use, television, video games, exercise, and anything that basically causes the brain to increase activity. With all of the stimulation bodies receive each day from work, school, technology, etc. it’s no surprise it takes the mind so long to quiet down and for sleep to come. Teach children to use downtime as a tool to help usher in a good night's sleep.

Bringing Back Downtime

Determine how to free-up time in a busy schedule. Keep activities that are truly important, like tutoring, but discontinue unnecessary ones. If a child is involved in five different activities, perhaps select the two or three he/she is most passionate about and abandon the others.

Let children see you freeing up a busy schedule and notice you actually relaxing during your downtime. Children learn from parents, so lead by example.

Unplug! Turn off the cell phone while driving. Make car time a cell phone/text free zone. It’s a great time to reconnect with the other occupants of the car, or to simply enjoy the scenery. If you’re normally the driver and get the opportunity to be the passenger, it’s amazing what you can uncover on a familiar route when you don’t have to concentrate on the road.

Encourage young children to take a few minutes every few hours, but at least once a day, to just relax by themselves. When left to their own devices, those few minutes often turn into an extended playtime when their imaginations engage them.

If downtime is difficult for some, encourage reading time. It’s a wonderful way to get a child to look forward to downtime, while expanding one’s imagination and unplugging.

Have items on-hand and readily available for curious children to occupy themselves with – should they want to. Is there a piano/keyboard in the house, a library of interesting books, or a drawer of arts and crafts supplies? Television is a huge time drain. If the average American could recover the hours he/she has spent watching television there would be an overabundance of time available. So, turn off the television, or at least limit the amount of time available for TV viewing.

That little bit of downtime could set the gears in motion for the next world renowned inventor who just needed a few minutes each day to daydream about a future invention while watching clouds take shape in the sky, or watching water flow over a dam, etc. You never know! However, the absence of downtime just may rob the world of potential extraordinary gifts.

If every child has a minimum of an hour a day available for downtime, to focus on a single task – no matter what it is, perhaps they will grow up better able to strike a healthy balance between work and play, and place their personal mental health ahead of accepted norms.

Kim Green-Spangler, B.S. Ed and M.S. Eng, is a freelance writer, wife and mother. Her niche is writing articles pertaining to family life, fitness, parenting and home based businesses.