Experts Agree Kids Need ‘Downtime’—but Here’s Why It’s Become Parents’ Biggest Uphill Battle

little boy playing a game with a hose and a weird hat

Downtime, or allowing kids to play freely without adult supervision, organization or intervention, is a hot topic. Neurologists, psychologists and other experts are adamant that kids’ brains require unscheduled time, separate from adults, to daydream, process and integrate information accumulated during their busy days—in essence, to function optimally. What kids get instead are organized activities directed, mediated and supervised by grown-ups.

According to Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range parenting movement and president of LetGrow (an organization that helps communities foster free play), and other experts, all of this is to our kids’ detriment.

Yet every parent we’ve spoken with about this has, in actuality, let go of the fantasy of offering their own kids the freedoms they themselves enjoyed as children. Perhaps experiences like author Kim Brooks’—in which she was charged with a crime for leaving her four-year-old son alone in the car (on a cool day, with the windows cracked and the alarm on) for a few minutes so she could buy batteries at a store mere feet away—deter us all from letting go.

We reached out to Skenazy to ask how exactly we can build downtime into our kids’ lives, given our current parenting culture. How can we give kids the freedom to play while keeping them safe and avoiding, oh… arrest? (That is, unless you live in a free-range state.) Here, her insights and advice.

Things Our Parents Allowed That We Would Never Let Our Kids Do

SZ: Why has unstructured downtime all but disappeared from our children’s lives?

LS: The problem comes from the twin fears stalking American parents: Either their children will be kidnapped, raped and eaten...or not get into Harvard. Either way, parents feel they (or some other approved adults) have to be with their kids every moment of every day, making sure they are safe, and that not a teachable moment slips by un-taught.

SZ: What could kids gain if we prioritized free play?

LS: Kids are primed to learn through their own curiosity, and if we just gave them some downtime, they'd start to develop their own interests and, through these, the persistence, practice, resilience and focus that we want to see in them in the classroom. Even if it's just getting really good at Minecraft, or drawing, or kickball.

SZ: So what are some concrete things we can do to offer them free play?

LS: First of all, you need free time for free play. They have to be free of their after-school obligations, whether it’s crocheting club or lacrosse. But most importantly, they need other kids to play with. Why are kids on their computers and not outside? The answer is, being outside in and of itself is not necessarily alluring; just letting them out to play in the backyard might not work because not every kid is fascinated by bugs or leaves or dirt. What kids love is other kids. They don’t have to be the same age but they do have to be other kids.

SZ: How can our kids play freely when there are no other kids outside to play with?

LS: One program we’re promoting is the Let Grow Play Club, where we convince schools to stay open for three hours in the afternoons for kids to just play. You’d have a critical mass of children all in one place—a place that parents trust. There’s an adult on premises in case of emergency, just like a lifeguard. And no devices. Schools are already best equipped to enforce that kind of [screen-free] policy.  

You could also seek out likeminded parents. Kids are as hungry for play as we are hungry for somebody to hang out with. Try to find other local parents who are willing to have a cup of coffee with you while you send your kids outside, and then don’t interfere. If the kids come to you [asking for direction, tell them], “We are not your playmates. Mommy has her playmate and you have yours.” Get them used to just having free time. Bring your computer over to your friend’s house and you guys have a work date while your kids have a playdate. 

SZ: So to clarify, it’s not just downtime, but downtime without adult involvement that kids really need?

LS: Yes. You can’t tell your kid, “Go organize a game” if all the games are organized for them and have been their whole lives. It’s free play that’s not for a grade or a class or a trophy. It’s just for fun. Kids have to come up with something to do, and convince their friends to change the rules and get along well enough to keep a game going. That’s learning social-emotional skills. Free play is the humanizing, socializing force that mother nature instilled in us—this desire to play. It’s not just thinking kids need time sitting on the grass or even riding their bikes on the street; none of those things are as enriching as free play. The lessons we worry kids aren’t getting—empathy, compromise, creativity, communication skills, leadership, joy—are gained this way. The brain is way more turned on in that time than when it’s sitting in class learning long division. You learn patience and perseverance because you want to get better at drawing or free throws. All the things you want to see in a kid, like excitement or discipline, those things happen when they’re pursuing something because they had the free time to stumble upon it and grow to love it. And it comes from them.

SZ: Some schools offer amazing after-school programming, from foreign language classes to yoga to robotics. The downside is, kids get overscheduled.

LS: What are the chances that your kid is going to spend the rest of his life as a chess champion, or crochet her way across America, as opposed to being in a relationship, learning to care, learning to make something happen, learning to get a group galvanized? In life, what’s your kid really going to need? And what’s going to give it to them?

SZ: This all sounds convincing and true. And somehow, sadly, easier said than done. 

LS: Look, you can’t raise kids in captivity. It involves expecting kids to be pretty resilient if they face physical or emotional distress. It involves not going to the darkest place all the time. When my mom sent me to school, she wasn’t thinking, “What if she never got there? What if she was kidnapped and killed?!” [Perhaps she was thinking] “What if she falls and is bleeding…?” Or “What if she is called a doodoo-head by her erstwhile friend?” So this [current climate of fear] is not instinctive. It is not the fault of "helicopter" parents. Our society has been scaring us to death! You’ve got to stop thinking that it’s normal to think of your kids dying the minute you let them out of your sight.