Research Stories

Reclaiming Downtime

For parents, a recipe for injecting a bit more “lazy" into the remaining days of summer

Bari Walsh
July 18, 2017
An image of a girl and her father blowing a dandelion

Is your child’s summer starting to feel a bit too much like the rest of the year — filled with skill-building camps, sports obligations, and lots of structure? 

Or maybe you're worried that your kid's summer doesn’t look enough like that — and that you’re putting her at a disadvantage that colleges will surely notice (even if she’s still in grade school).

In both cases, the prescription for fast-track summers may be a mid-summer dose of PDF — playtime, downtime, and family time — and a reminder that children of all ages need all three, every day, in order to thrive.

The PDF framework — a handy reappropriation of a common initialism — was devised by Denise Pope and her colleagues at Challenge Success, which helps families and schools restore a sense of balance in kids’ performance-driven lives. Pope and her team created the PDF shorthand after surveying the research on factors known to protect kids from risky behaviors, mental health challenges, and poor academic outcomes.

Playtime, downtime, and family time aren't just extras or niceties; they’re closely connected with building crucial life skills that kids need to thrive.

The three broad categories of wellbeing that emerged — playtime, downtime, and family time — are not just extras or niceties; they’re closely connected with building “crucial life skills that kids need in order to become happy and healthy adults,” says Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “Kids are getting to college today without a lot of the important noncognitive skills they need, without the ability to communicate and collaborate, because they’ve been so focused on resume building."

Young children need an ample amount of free-form play, Pope says —  “unstructured time when they can explore who they are, what kind of person they want to be, what it means to be a good friend, how to solve problems or navigate conflicts…. Parents may not realize that playtime is really where so many of the important life skills are built."

Older children, she says, need downtime to come back to themselves, to reflect, and to dream. As they enter adolescence, they need to refill their stock of what may be the single most important — and threatened — commodity of teenage wellbeing: Sleep. And children young and old need regular, sustaining time with family.

How to do PDF in the summer

Playtime:

  • Among the limitless examples: Hanging around with friends, riding bikes at the playground, digging and exploring in the park, playing imaginary games in the basement, camping out in the spare bedroom. Let kids choose their activities.
  • If they join a summer team, keep the focus on fun. Don’t worry if you have to miss a game or a practice.
  • Don’t over-schedule the summer downtime kids have — whether it’s after camp, on the weekends, or after a summer job. 

Downtime:

  • Leave time for sitting outside, hanging around on the couch, reading, listening to music, watching TV, napping. Let kids chill out.
  • Let teens sleep in.
  • Let kids be bored. Let them unwind.
  • Read together. Talk about the books or articles you’re reading this summer, and ask them what they want to read.
  • Fight the urge to tell kids to “do something” if they’re just sitting around. (Of course, parents should intervene if the lounging is too much, Pope says, or if the downtime is translating into multi-hour video-game marathons, for instance.)

Family Time:

  • Make it a priority.
  • Create simple family rituals, like game night or taco night.
  • Have dinner together.
  • Take a nightly walk.
  • Go to the library once a week and just hang out, picking books off the shelf to try.
  • Do inexpensive things together, like exploring a nearby neighborhood or the park on the corner. Go to the local pool together.
  • Know that it doesn’t have to require large blocks of time; even 20 or 25 minutes of time together is protective, Pope says.

Fixing the PDF balance for this summer:

If you’ve already enrolled your child in a full slate of summer experiences, fear not. By protecting and prioritizing downtime in your child’s off hours, you’ll be providing the space she needs to rest and to sustain her growth. 

Thinking ahead to next summer: 

If you want to change course next summer, or if you're just starting out on the summer journey, Pope suggests considering typical day camps — "the kind of old-fashioned summer camps that offer a mix of activities and that really prioritize play,” she says.

“There is a ton of pressure on parents to send kids to specialty camps — theater camp, band camp. Every part of kids’ lives is ramped-up, even the camps. But there really is a reason they need the downtime, a break from all that ramping up, given how over-scheduled the typical school year has become."

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.