How does a child get real ‘downtime’ in the 21st century?

Why is downtime important?

Everybody benefits from downtime.  From the Chinese medicine perspective, however, downtime is not a luxury but a necessity for children. The first years of life are primarily concerned with laying down strong foundations for the child’s long term physical and mental health.  If a child’s schedule is overly demanding, it means that their resources of qi (vital energy) will be consumed by having to manage all these external activities.  There will then be less available to fuel the extraordinarily rapid physical and mental development that takes place during the first years of life.  This principle applies until after puberty, when the growth rate finally slows down.   

How can parents create downtime for their children?

However, many parents struggle to create an opportunity for their children to have downtime.  Many children ‘relax’ by looking at an electronic device of some sort.  Depending on what the child is doing on the device, this is often anything but relaxing.  Many video games are highly adrenalizing, and time spent on social media can cause agitation and anxiety.  So, what is the solution?

The key point is to look at the impact any activity has on a child, in order to decide whether or not it truly constitutes downtime.  For an introverted child, spending time alone will probably be relaxing and calming, whereas for another child, it may cause anxiety and they would be more able to relax by spending time with other people.  For one child, playing a game of football will help them to unwind more than doing a jigsaw puzzle might, because it gets them ‘out of their head’ and into their body.  For another, any competitive sport might wind them up and stress them out.  

In general, there are some common characteristics that we can look out for, that might indicate a particular activity is true downtime.  They are:

The activity nurtures the child’s feelings of attachment

One of the most universally reliable ways for a child to truly relax is to be with a person or people with whom they feel safe and connected, and for that person or those people to be themselves relaxed and present.  

The activity allows the child’s qi to flow

This means it has an effect similar to taking a big, slow deep breathe.  Their body and mind relax as opposed to tense up.  

The activity does not trigger an adrenaline surge

Anything that causes adrenaline to pump around the body is the antithesis of downtime.  Adrenaline is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, so it is produced in response to a threat.  For a child, that might be the threat of losing a match or not bettering a previous score on a video game. Or it might be the threat of being alone or, conversely, of being with too many people.  You will know an activity has produced an adrenaline surge if the child is grumpy or moody when the activity stops. 

The activity helps the child’s qi to ‘descend’

Anything that causes a child’s qi to flare upwards will not be relaxing.  There are two aspects to this.  Firstly, something that requires a child to have to exert their brain power beyond what is easy for them will mean their qi collects in their head.  So, for some children, even reading might not constitute downtime, when it is a struggle for them.  Secondly, an activity which is extremely exciting will mean that the child’s qi rises upwards.  This could be going to a party or watching a particularly thrilling movie. 

Balance is the key

As with most things, balance should be the guiding principle and the philosophy of yinyang is a good way to understand this.  If a child has had a period of physical activity, then it makes sense to follow this with something that allows their body to rest.  If a child has been working hard at school all day whilst sitting in a classroom, then it makes sense to follow this with an opportunity for them to run around.  If a child has been in a crowded, noisy shopping mall for a few hours, then it makes sense to find an opportunity for them to be somewhere quiet and get some fresh air.  Every child will have different ways of relaxing.  The key is for the parent to attempt to recognise what achieves this effect in their child, and to find ways to try to incorporate it into the child’s life as frequently as possible. 

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