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Child Development: The Value of Doing Nothing

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:

  • learning
  • 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”.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

5 thoughts on “Child Development: The Value of Doing Nothing

  1. Phew… We are actually doing all of the “downtime” activities! Currently, we only have a 1-hr stretch of learning activities directed by me every morning. The rest of the day is littered with free play alone, free play with cousins, chatting, and a long nap.


  2. Great to hear.

    Feels like life is speeding up faster and faster with the more modern technology we have in our lives. Used to be you couldn’t call a person unless they were at home or at work. Now you can call them while they’re having lunch at a restaurant, driving in the car, etc. We multi-task all the time doing several things at once and feel more efficient that way. It’s so easy to get the children into a routine that doesn’t allow any free time because idle time is considered a waste of time in our fast-pace, adult world.


  3. It can be a challenge balancing enrichment activities for the kids and idling time. Guess it’s also my personality: get very engrossed in the current activity then take some time off to simply be lazy. I still remember my schooling days: work hard and play even harder! Hope this value would help my kids enjoy their childhood. Like the Chinese saying “???????????”: rest is for completing a longer journey.


  4. Yeah, we do nothing a lot, just cause I am too darned tired.

    Jack at almost 4 is quite happy playing on his own and his 1 year old sister too, interestingly enough. So I kind of crash on the couch and rest (but can’t sleep though because I am on put-toy-in-mouth watch).


  5. I think Gavin and Gareth are going to get along famously when Gareth is old enough to play with Gavin. Last night while we were having dinner at a restaurant, the two of them were in their own little world giggling and laughing. Gavin has this magical ability to make his brother laugh in a way no one else can – or we rarely get him laughing like that.

    It’s great to see that the kids can get along so well, isn’t it? Even though Gavin and Gareth were disturbing all the tables around us, I was loathed to tell them to tone it down because they were so adorable together.

    But yeah, I’m going to have to be on toy-in-mouth alert, too. Unlike Gavin, Gareth seems to want to put anything and everything into his mouth. Gavin never liked exploring objects with his mouth so we never had to worry about him choking on small parts. Looks like Gavin’s entire train collection is going to be a hazard for Gareth…


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