With a child’s greatest potential for learning being in the first six years of life, it is easy for a parent to get carried away and desire to cram as much as possible into every last minute of a child’s waking moment. According to the information on brain development and how we learn, that’s a mistake. Children (and adults, too) need “downtime” (periods of idleness) to help them consolidate what they’ve learned.
Downtime is important for:
- feeding creativity
- aiding memory
In “Bright from the Start”, Stamm explains that filling every waking moment of your child’s day with activity is akin to cramming the night before an exam. You may learn a lot in a short span of time and regurgitate what you learned in the exam the next day, but your retention of that information in the long term is very poor. Think about how much you can remember four weeks later. If you had studied that material over a period of time with suitable breaks in between, you would remember much more.
Without having “downtime” (periods of doing nothing), the brain doesn’t transfer what it has learned into the long-term memory banks. A two year old learns new words at such a rapid rate that he needs “downtime” to store those new words efficiently into his long-term memory.
To be creative we need to have quiet time to take what we already know and manipulate it before releasing it in some form, e.g. painting, writing. If we’re too busy receiving new information, we don’t have time to be creative.
Downtime helps improve accuracy and efficiency of our memory processes and it helps to lessen the impact of stresses on our memory system.
Examples of Downtime for Children
- Sleep – this is the ultimate downtime and where more consolidation of learning occurs.
- Undirected play – allowing your child to play on his own without input from you or others (providing input to your child as he plays falls under “directed play”. For undirected play, you can fill the room with interesting objects and let him investigate them on his own through “free play”.
- Hanging out – just lying around chatting and giggling and having fun together.
- Watching the world go by – sitting in a stroller or grocery cart where your child is free to let his mind wander.
Signs of Overload – When Your Child is in Need of Downtime
Babies will look away, refuse to follow your gaze (no joint attention), become wriggly/restless, whine, cry. Toddlers lose the ability to focus on the task at hand, demonstrate aggressive behaviours, become hyperactive (frenetically running from activity to activity), increase in defiance, become cranky or resist bedtime, have trouble falling asleep even though he’s tired.
Sleep is the most important of all downtime and Stamm believes that nothing should intrude on a child’s sleep pattern. Nap time can sometimes be contentious with children – especially toddlers who are beginning to come into their own and don’t like to “miss out on the fun”. Stamm advises not to skip naps, but if naptime is a constant battle for your child, then settle for “resting”.