5 Simple Ways Your Children Can Find and Feel Comfortable with Free Time

Remember the “old days”? You know, when kids played outside, computers came in the form of futuristic androids like R2D2 and C3PO, and free time wasn’t so much of a luxury as it was an integral part of the day? Yes, there were ballet classes to run to, soccer practices and games, Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, and other extra-curricular obligations, but when all was said and done, there was still plenty of time in a child’s life that had not been scheduled, left untarnished and sacred for children to enjoy authentically. Fast forward forty-plus years, and free time is seemingly elusive in the average household. Societal demands to be the best and establish expertise in multiple arenas has put an inordinate amount of pressure on the American family to enroll their children in a vast and varied number of formally scheduled activities, leaving little in the way of unstructured time.

              Is this such a negative development? Not necessarily. There is something to be said about challenging children to think critically about the world around them by engaging with others and experiencing different perspectives and opinions. There is value in mastering a craft, developing a talent, and learning the importance of commitment in the form of team membership to a sport or club.  It’s equally important to be comfortable with unstructured time.

              The pressure is on to outperform and overachieve in the world in which our children are growing up. Colleges have set a high standard for the caliber of student they are seeking to admit, and I am not just talking about the Ivy Leagues. Colleges that were once considered “safety schools” have raised their bars of expectations when they assess each year’s pool of admissions applicants. Travel sports teams are now the gateway to college-level programs, so students are starting to compete at an athletically elite level at an early age. Aspiring artists are creating their portfolios earlier and earlier in their creative careers. Adding to the mounting pressure is the ever evolving landscape of threats to our children’s wellbeing including school shootings, bullying and the free-flowing vitriol flooding social media platforms. The rates of depression and anxiety across the developmental life span is alarming. It is incumbent on us as parents and professionals to provide very practical self-care skills to help our children, clients, and patients, navigate these challenging times.

              One of the best ways to achieve this goal is by teaching kids how to not only feel comfortable with unscheduled time, but to deliberately carve it out in the course of their weekly schedules. Here are some strategies:

Hang Up the Phone:

It should come as no surprise that I am listing this suggestion first. In a survey of 1591 teenagers (ages 13-19) and 6,642 adults conducted this past summer, teens were found to spend an average of 4.80 hours on social media per day. That amounts to more than half of their school day. Whether they are communicating with their friends via Facetime or text, perusing the latest on social media, streaming a show, or watching YouTube, our kids are on the phone a lot. They do not know how to disconnect from their devices. As I have discussed in earlier blog posts, while the fear of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is very real, our children need to learn to silence their notifications and put down their technology long enough to recharge and create a sacred space untainted by these addictive devices.

Designate periods of time in your home when everyone, and I mean EVERYONE plugs in their phones and walks away from their phones, iPads, tablets, and computers. Create device-free zones in the house-kitchen table, bedrooms (I realize this is a tall order.), homework areas, and bathrooms. Teach your children proper etiquette when it comes to interacting with others-when someone is talking with you, the phone gets put away, and you make eye contact with them. 

The Great Outdoors:

Go ahead, give your kids the boot. That’s right, kick them out of the house and encourage them to participate in outdoor activities. Whether it’s riding a bike around the neighborhood, taking the dog for a walk (win-win-win for you, the kids, and the pooch!), knock on a neighbor’s door and shoot hoops, go to the park, fly a kite, take a hike, the list of possibilities is endless. Breathing fresh air and stepping away of the influence of screens-in all iterations- and the pressure of homework and structured activities is very calming and healing.


Taking time to sit in silence is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your child. There are plenty of apps including Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm have a variety of grounding and meditative exercises that help users to get comfortable with being present in the moment. There are variants on this idea including sitting outside and using the senses to take in all that is happening around the observer. A color exercise that requires the participant to seek 6 red items, 5 orange, 4 yellow, 3 green, 2 blue, and 1 purple item in their surroundings-the idea being that the task at hand teaches the brain to be in the moment, undistracted by anything else taking place around them. Yoga is another excellent means of being present in the here and now.

Spur of the Moment:

By now, the message that planning out the details of every minute of every day is not necessary should be resonating with you. Role model for your kids that making a spur-of-the-moment decision to engage in something fun can be exciting. On some random Saturday morning, announce to the family that you’re going on a hike. Or spring into action and make the kids breakfast in bed, or better yet, serve breakfast for dinner one night. Your kids maybe be jarred by the unpredictable decision their parents just made, but once they see how enjoyable the activity is, they’ll relax and understand the benefits of spontaneity!


If parenting teaches us anything, it’s the importance of learning to pivot. John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens when you’re planning other things,” could not be more appropriate. Kids need to understand this too. Show them how to switch gears, and change up their routines. Your kid usually goes to dance on Saturday mornings? Well, this Saturday, task them with trying a different activity (Give them a week’s notice so they can plan accordingly.). Your daughter usually hangs out with her set group of friends after school? She can be encouraged to try spending time with a different group of friends-perhaps her camp friends who she does not see very often. By engaging in new experiences, children learn to accommodate become comfortable beyond the confines of their usual routines.Here’s the thing: This generation of children does not know what to do with unstructured time. The lack of routine -especially for kids who have ADHD- can feel unsettling. But life is not always predictable, and to be able to survive, they need to be able to accommodate. If we are going to raise and empower a generation of emotionally and physically healthy children, part of that process needs to include coping skills. One of the greatest sources of empowerment is teaching our children to seek and find comfort in lack of structure. It allows for creativity, encourages problem solving skills, and enables kids to just be, something our society is sorely lacking.