As much as we’d like to believe the myth of a carefree childhood, kids have a lot going on — from academic burdens to complicated friend and family dynamics to pressure to succeed at sports and other hobbies. Things can be even more overwhelming considering how chaotic the broader world feels at the moment. As such, they need plenty of downtime to recover.
“Kids need downtime even more than in the past,” says Denise Pope, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. “They can feel the effects of constant wars, climate change, political unrest, and all of the other events that cause adults to feel stressed. And then schools are trying to make up for learning loss that happened during the pandemic, so we’re just throwing more and more on kids’ plates.”
In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed to the point that they’re more likely to engage in risky behavior, experience mental health challenges, and struggle academically, kids need more downtime, Pope and her colleagues at the educational nonprofit Challenge Success have found. But that downtime can’t just involve playing video games all weekend; children need different types of downtime every day to thrive. Specifically, they need playtime, downtime, and family time, which Challenge Success refers to as the PDF framework.
“What we’ve learned about playtime, downtime, and family time is that those are protective factors,” Pope says. “We know from our student surveys that many kids are not getting enough sleep and rarely have unstructured time to explore new interests, read a book for pleasure, or simply enjoy their childhood. The challenge is obviously finding creative ways to incorporate each of those on a daily basis.”
A parent of teenagers, Pope understands firsthand the challenges of managing family schedules. But she also knows how crucial it is to work in the three types of downtime. Fatherly spoke to Pope about the PDF framework, what a healthy balance looks like, and the key to effective downtime management as kids get older and busier.
The PDF Framework
Playtime includes unstructured social time, playing informal sports or games, crafting, exploring outdoors, and other activities for fun. Although there’s value to structured extracurricular activities, playtime is specifically about unstructured play.
Downtime is time set aside beyond structured activities or academics to relax, reflect, or sleep. Kids should have windows of downtime throughout the day, as well as more extended periods at night, including plenty of time for sleep.
Family time creates a sense of connection and belonging and can include unplugged mealtimes, playing games together, going on walks, watching a movie or show together, or just sitting and talking. Consistency is key, with a recommended duration and frequency of 20 to 25 minutes daily, five days per week.
The PDF framework makes a lot of sense. But how does technology use factor into it?
We absolutely need moments of downtime and levity, and sometimes technology can help us do that. Just last night, I watched a television show to clear my mind. And for some kids, technology is also a way for them to have social playtime, like when they’re gaming with headsets and talking to their buddies.
So, I recognize the reality of technology in our society and how it’s incorporated into PDF time. And while I don’t have a blanket rule about how to use it, when it starts taking away from sleep, homework, family time, face-to-face relationships, and playtime in nature, technology use obviously starts to veer into unhealthy territory.
Also, I’d rather kids not play violent video games, as there's some good evidence that playing really violent video games leads to a lack of empathy. And mindless scrolling on social media that causes kids to lose track of time is not necessarily a healthy use of downtime.
There’s been a shift where kids are not only with their friends all day but also connected socially after school through their devices. Are there situations in which kids can have too much social time?
What we want to talk through with our kids about that social time and other forms of playtime is what they're doing, how long they're doing it for, and how they feel afterward. Are they feeling drained? Are they having fun, or are those social interactions making them anxious, indicating it’s too much?
Structuring life for PDF time can feel doable for parents during school breaks, but what about those busy times during the school year when it feels impossible?
It starts with taking a hard look at the family calendar. A lot of times, we as parents look at each individual child’s schedule and if it feels reasonable. But we don’t take into consideration how all of the moving parts leave little option for daily PDF time. Just because you can physically get everyone everywhere does not mean it's a healthy schedule. So everyone might need to do a little bit less. And you're going to build in PDF times on the weekend instead of going from sport to sport to sport or whatever your activity of choice is.
Kids don't have a fully formed prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that helps regulate our thoughts and actions. So we have to be that prefrontal cortex for them and say, “That schedule is going to be a train wreck,” or “We need time together as a family,” or “You need to sleep.”
How did that look for your family as your kids got older, when it wasn’t just a matter of managing their schedules like you did when they were younger?
Our kids wanted to be involved in a lot of activities. So we actually sat down and looked at the schedule and said, “Okay, if you think you can do these activities and get your homework done and still get your 8 to 10 hours of sleep, we'll allow you to try this schedule.” But we also built in some escape clauses together in case that agreement couldn’t be met or if they started to get stressed to the point where it affected their ability to handle their schedule.
My oldest was a junior in high school and got a big role in the school play and was also an elite athlete. We signed a family contract saying that if it got to be too much, something would have to drop. We had to be concrete with the schedule and decided together that they’d have to talk to their coach and let them know that it might be necessary to cut back on sports practice if it all got to be too much.
Have your kids ever tried to flip the script and tell you to give something up?
One-hundred percent. There have been times where they’ve said, “If you didn't write the stupid book, I would be able to do what my friends are doing.” But we prioritize health and well-being and PDF, and I have to walk the walk. They have to see me saying no to things I want to do, and hear me talk through that process.