Make Time for “Nothing”



What happened to lazy evenings sipping hot cocoa in front of a fire, kids stretched out on the floor playing card games and good old-fashioned neighborhood fun?

What happened to those quiet moments when parents and kids could do absolutely “nothing” and feel content?

Red Rover, fort building, dress up, and kickball are increasingly becoming a thing of the past as many forces conspire to make it more difficult for children to get the balance of active play they need, according to KaBOOM, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting play for kids.

Free play, where kids have unscheduled time to create their own fun with friends, seems to be almost non-existent. Although it sounds like a stretch, consider this.  Kids free time is cut in half compared to thirty years ago, states a national study of 3500 children, under 12, released by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. 

Think about how much unscheduled time to play as kids wish to play, if any, your children get daily. For kids getting less than 30 minutes daily, they’re the majority.  For kids getting 30 minutes or more, they’re the minority.  Thirty minutes is less than the 60 minutes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends kids get on a daily basis. Sadly, only 33 percent of today’s kids participate in daily active play. 

The decline in kids playing starts at age five reveals a survey by Dr. Pepper Snapple Let’s Play.  Could the decline be a result of five-year-old children being in school all day.  Add homework and organized extracurricular activities and there’s little time for kids to actually do “nothing”. The decline of “play” could also reflect the problem that one in three school kids have little or no recess, notes a 2009 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.  

Another culprit to this epidemic could be technology.  With iPads and video game, free play has fallen to the wayside.  Then, there’s structured schedules of activities, which become busy schedules and the key blame as the barrier to play, states 64 percent of parents surveyed in the Let’s Play initiative.

The lack of free play does come with a price. Consequences of being overscheduled can include depression, anxiety, a lack of creativity and problem solving skills, advises Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., author of The Over-Scheduled Child

Why We’re Overscheduled

What creates this overscheduled mindset and lifestyle?  Could it be a common fear of “missing out” and that’s why we fill our calendars? 

“Most of the parents we talk to believe that we live in an ultra-competitive world now and they feel that in order for their children to do well in life, they need to keep up,” says Donna Conroy, Vice President of House Monkey, a subscription-based mobile application and web-based tool to help families get tasks done quickly, allowing families to spend more time together.

“Gone are the days of ‘rec’ sports where you started playing a sport in 5th grade.  Now-a-days if you don’t start your children right out of kindergarten, they will never be good enough to get a scholarship for college.” Conroy feels parents fill their calendars with sports, arts, music and all these other things in an effort to create the perfectly rounded child who will be accepted to the best colleges.  Even though it’s with great intention, about two percent of high school student-athletes receive some form of athletic scholarship at the Division I or II level, according to the NCAA.

Wellness Benefits of Making Time for Nothing

With all the alarming data regarding the lack of free play, let’s talk about the advantages of having downtime. Having unscheduled time or blocked free time on your calendar is a necessity. “Most people consider it the opposite,” states Certified Wellness Coach Laura Crooks, R.N. “When you have unscheduled time, you enable your body to recharge.  When you’re having free time, you’ll also relaxing the nervous system and it lowers your heart rate.”  Crooks warns it can feel weird to most people blocking their calendar to do nothing, yet, it’s good for you.  Crooks suggests a bit of downtime playing with your kids because it boosts your oxytocin and dopamine levels, which makes you happier.

Lifelong Benefits of Making Time for Nothing

Many lifelong benefits happen as an outcome of free time.  Children who are encouraged and allowed to play in an open and creative way take on diverse roles, predict and imagine the outcomes of certain behaviors, provoke thinking and conversation with their peers, and strengthen their ability to problem solve, cites research from The Critical Place of Play in Education, A Collaboration Between the US Play Coalition and The Association of Childhood Education International-ACEI 

Taking time to “do nothing” has enormous benefits over time, says technology guru Conroy.  “Your kids will talk to you and tell you what is going on,” states Conroy. “In this age of social media, this is very important. More happens in a day than when we were growing up.”  Plus, kids develop stronger social skills like communication.  

Shift Your Mindset

Some people might need to shift their mindset, states Crooks.  In today’s fast-paced society, most people are conditioned to think they’re wasting time because they’re not accomplishing something.  Or they think they’re being lazy. “Instead, think of it as recharging,” says Crooks. 

Crooks suggests be present in whatever you plan to do with your downtime.  If you’re with your kids, be present by focusing on them. If you’re giving yourself free time, focus on you.  Let go of expectations that you have to do something.

Lyn Dunsavage Young, national media coordinator, agrees with Crooks’ sentiment.  Young feels the problem is “nothing” is not the absence of “something.” 

“Nothing, in fact, is one of the most valuable things you can do, because it is what you never have the time to do. I’m not talking about taking on a major project.  That’s work,” continues Young, “I’m talking about doing small things you either haven’t been able to do in a long time because you don’t have time or doing something you’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t because you haven’t taken the time.”

Young believes when you take the time to assess it, “nothing” is ultimately the loss of hours because it is so relaxing and different from the intensity in which we live.  It is so totally refreshing, it gives you the gift of a momentary different perspective of your life and priorities, which, over time, can ultimately make a difference in your definition of self.

With Young and her husband working long hours, they made the decision to take one day a week, Sunday, to do “nothing.” 

As a Saltsburg School District school psychologist, Dr. Christina Sylvester recommends everyone learns to take a break. “Taking a break from something is a coping mechanism.  It’s time for you to break from the norm, which oftentimes is a frantic pace, to rejuvenate.  Rejuvenating allows you to be still, recognize your thoughts, and let creatives juices and imagination flow.”

How to Start

One simple way to start is by cutting back five-to-seven percent of your family’s scheduled activities, suggests Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over-Scheduled Child.  Not only will this decrease the family’s franticness, it will enable character development and interpersonal relationships can become central again.

Laura Crooks, Pittsburgh author of Wellness Made Simple, warns the most crucial part of making time for “nothing” is to schedule it.  “Downtime is as important as a scheduled appointment,” says Crooks.  “Block the time on your calendar. If you’re unaccustomed to scheduling downtime, start with only five to ten minutes.” By doing so, you’re taking away the assumption it needs to be a large amount of blocked time. She suggests once it becomes a routine, it could be 30 minutes or four hours scheduled timeframe.

Parents can follow Dr. Sylvester’s advice by isolating one evening a week as “I have nowhere to go” night.  In the book The Frantic Woman’s Guide to Life, this “nowhere to go” night means no errands, appointments or car pools to lure you from the house. Even if it sounds impossible, give it a try.

Another idea is to create calendar “nothing” space when something gets cancelled or postponed. The next time a soccer game, an appointment or dinner with friends gets cancelled, make it a “do nothing” night.  Ignore your to-do list. Turn off your cell phone and enjoy the moment.

It’s Time for Fun!

As you make time to “do nothing” or make time for free play for the family, ask your kids how they would like to spend the unscheduled time. Here’s a sampling of family-friendly ideas for you.

Out and About

  • Cloud gazing. With or without a blanket, lie on the lawn and look up at the clouds on a clear day.
  • Car talk. Ban cell phones and video games in the car. Use this time to hear more about what is happening in your kids’ lives. If you’re alone, let your mind wander and listen to your thoughts.
  • Outdoor games. Skip plopping in front of the television after dinner. Instead, start a game of tag, kick a soccer ball around the yard or play Mother May I.  For more ideas, visit,
  • Family walk. Enjoy a family walk around your neighborhood.  One single mom walked while her junior high son dribbled his basketball beside her.  The evening stroll became a tradition throughout the rest of his school years and created a stronger bond between mother and son.

On the Homefront

  • Family breakfast.  Though the traditional family meal was dinner, breakfast time is the new dinnertime.  Mom-of-four Donna Conroy cautions you might have to wake up 15 minutes earlier so it isn’t rushed.  Be sure to block 20 minutes for the entire meal so everyone can enjoy it and keep technology out.  What a great way to start everyone’s day.  Can you smell the pancakes?
  • After-dinner connection. With teenagers in the house, Laura Crooks finds her sons love the after-dinner hour to talk, enjoy each other, or play a board game. The dinner dishes can wait; phone calls are returned the next day or later that night because after-dinner time when my boys are home is unscheduled time.
  • Board game request. The Crooks have created a ritual of playing board games.  “They usually don’t balk,” says Crooks. “If they do, I throw out the Mother’s Day Gift request.  Mother’s Day Gift request can be any month of the year,” says Crooks. The favorite board game remains Masterpiece, a 1970’s board game.
  • Unplugged day. In his book, The Secrets of Happy Families, Dr. Scott Haltzman suggests families unwind.  “Devote a day to turn off the electronic devices.”  Consider the amount of time gained because you’re not checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email.
  • Vacation pursuit.  Unscheduled time can be used for a future event that involves everyone.  “We’re talking about the route for our Summer 2016 trip, looking at the map,” continues Crooks, “How do we want to get there? How long do we want to take? What do we want to see?”  Without racing to the next event or appointment, the Crooks family relaxes during the unhurried time, and enjoys the lively discussion about next year’s trip.
  • Fun-time can. The Conroy family gets creative during the warmer climate with the “fun-time” can.  Mrs. Conroy figures out how many “do nothing” days and divides it between four kids.  Next, her kids get a Post-it note size paper, for each of their days, to write down an idea of something they want to do. Once everyone has their ideas written down, she reviews the ideas with each child. “We started reviewing when some of the comments started coming back with unrealistic ideas (we can’t fly to Disney for a day, but kudos to you for dreaming big!).”  All the ideas go in the fun-time can and when a “nothing to do” day pops up; they pick a slip of paper from the can.
  • 100 fun ideas. Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, takes Conroy’s idea a step further.  Vanderkam suggests creating your List of 100 Dreams.  In her list, Vanderkam includes a variety of personal and professional dreams.  To spin off of this idea, gather your kids to create your family’s List of 100 Downtime Fun Ideas. It could be making a tent, pulling out the photo albums or playing a game from yesteryear like hop scotch. 

 What’s Stopping Free Play

What is keeping kids from more play? In the Let’s Play survey, parents were polled to discover the barriers to active play.  Although it isn’t a surprise, technology stands at the top.  From the biggest barrier down, here’s what parents revealed.

  • Watching television (78%)
  • Playing on/using a computer or electronic device (71%)
  • Doing homework (51%)
  • Technology (64%)
  • Busy Schedules (64%)
  • Cost of Sports Equipment/Participation (55%) 
  • No Playmates (53%)
  • Focus on Academics (46%)
  • Safety Concerns – Neighborhoods (33%), Play Spaces (32%)

Once you make time for “nothing,” it will surely become a family favorite. Now, pull out your calendar and block your “nothing” time.

Mj Callaway, Pittsburgh author and woman business owner, blocks her calendar weekly to make time for nothing.