When you see your kids lounging around the home “doing nothing,” or indulging in seemingly frivolous play activities, are you tempted to tell them to “do something useful” instead? Here’s why you should hold back.
All kids, including teenagers, need playtime, downtime, and family time every day, says Stanford educator Denise Pope. (She also runs Challenge Success, an organisation that works with families and schools to promote student wellness.) Pope calls this a daily dose of “PDF,” which, based on her team’s research, will help children guard against the dangers of risky behaviours, mental health issues, and poor academic performance.
Chances are — if you are a typical Singaporean parent — your family’s spare time may revolve around your kids’ tuition and enrichment schedules. How can you work towards a healthier daily routine for your kids? Read on to find out!
How Much Playtime Does Your Child Need?
Many parents are aware of the importance of playtime, as highlighted by research. Benefits of play include better physical and emotional health, improved social skills, and an increased ability to problem solve, think logically, and get along with others. What’s more, these benefits aren’t just apparent in the short run; for instance, a 2005 study concluded that the most active kids between the ages of 9 and 18 would be likely to remain active well into adulthood.
It’s hard to quantify playtime, but the American Heart Association has recommended that children aged two and above should be involved in at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each day.
If you can let your kids go beyond an hour of play each day, even better. In fact, let your children “play as much as possible,” says paediatrician Cindy Gellner, who hosts podcasts on raising healthy kids.
Wondering what qualifies as “playtime?” This refers to any sort of unstructured play that is child-directed. Younger children can find joy in playdates and playgroups, or simply tinkering about on their own with the toys and materials available at home. For older children, says Pope, “playtime” may include hanging out with friends, or spending time developing their interests. However, she warns that older children who participate in 15 to 20 hours (or more) of extracurricular activities per week could be more susceptible to a lack of sleep, emotional problems such as depression, and stress.
According to David Elkind, author of “The Power Of Play,” children should have as much time set aside for unstructured playtime, as they do for structured activities (e.g. an arts or sports enrichment class).
If you are looking at trimming your child’s enrichment schedule to free up some time, simply ask yourself: which of the activities are initiated by your child? Is the motivation to participate in these activities coming from you, the parent, or your child? Check in frequently with your child, especially if he or she has a variety of interests. Do allow your child the freedom to drop an activity, even if you have already invested a significant amount of time and money into it.
What If Your Child Is Doing “Nothing?”
As parents, there is a tendency for us to feel that our children should be doing something useful at all times. But in fact, downtime — be it lounging on the couch, consuming media, or napping — is crucial for a child’s well-being.
For parents who may equate downtime with laziness, here’s a useful analogy from psychologist Lea Waters (author of “The Strength Switch”): “It’s a little bit like if you have too many programs running on your computer. Your computer starts to slow down. And when you shut these programs down, the computer speeds up again. It’s very much like that for the child’s brain.”
However, if your child is spending hours playing video games, that’s not considered downtime. Video games may involve problem solving, competition, as well as some degree of socialising, and the activity can be overstimulating, rather than relaxing. (This may apply to other screen time activities too.)
There’s also the question of appropriate screen time for children. According to the World Health Organization’s 2019 guidelines, children aged two to five shouldn’t be exposed to screens for more than an hour a day, while those under two should avoid screens entirely. The research on older kids is less conclusive: some research has indicated that screen time can be toxic for teenagers, while other studies have concluded that the use of screens has little effect on a teen’s wellbeing.
As a parent, you can mitigate the ill effects of technology use by modelling healthy usage yourself and reading up on the latest technology trends — and threats. Putting in place guidelines and rules for technology use in the home will also ensure balance in the way that your child spends his or her time.
Is Family Time A Priority In Your Home?
If you want to raise emotionally healthy kids who are less likely to stray into at-risk behaviours, know that family time can constitute a “significant protective factor” for children.
Don’t worry if you can’t spend large blocks of time bonding with your children on a daily basis, as even 20 to 25 minutes of quality time spent together a day is sufficient to yield positive effects.
Your family bonding rituals don’t have to be elaborate affairs — you could simply sit together over a family meal, take a nightly walk together, or read a bedtime story to your children.
Whatever it is that you choose to do, you should ensure that you are giving the gift of your undivided attention (i.e. phones should be kept away during this time). Also, refrain from preaching, lecturing, or launching into interrogations during family time. Instead, use this time to have lighthearted conversations with your children, to find out about their day, who their friends are, or what they’re currently interested in and concerned about.