Hitting the “Off” Switch – Valuing Sensory Downtime and Unguided Discovery for our Kids

So the school holidays are drawing to an end. For some of us it’s been a juggling act while others have enjoyed a slower pace of life with their kids. But one common thread unites most parents as they think about the beginning of the school year – a knowledge that life is about to get busy again as the merry-go-round of daily activities swing into full force.

Let’s face it, our children’s days are generally quite busy. After the morning routine is tackled and they have combated a few curve balls and last minute demands (locating those swimming goggles or dance shoes or remembering to pack their recorder two minutes before leaving the house), children go to school where they are then required to apply their focus, learn new information, play nicely and do their best.

They are ‘on’ all day. After school is usually filled with an activity, often structured, and then homework, jobs and the evening routine before hitting the hay. Then press repeat. Phew! No wonder our kids feel tired come Fridays and that spark we saw in the holidays begins to fade.

As good parents, we want the best for our kids – we want to see them happy, having the opportunities for growth while discovering and realising their potential. We want them to develop all the skills they need to be functioning adults one day, to have good things in their lives, lovely friends and to have confidence in themselves. So before we know it, their ‘down time’ is filled up with new activities, courses, play dates and challenges. And they like this, mostly. But what if our good intensions are actually not doing them good?

What if we valued ‘downtime’ more? What if we expected them to do very little and just ‘be’?

Could this actually be the magic that holds everything together and inadvertently keeps them achieving, doing well and feeling happy? Let’s break it down then.

Firstly, downtime is not strictly doing nothing. Downtime means freedom from structured work, instructions, and goal-oriented activities. No one telling you what to do, how to do it, or what to do next.

In a 2012 study published with the title “Rest Is Not Idleness” from the University of Southern California, scientists used MRI scanners to look at the brains of people who were lying down and letting their thoughts wander.

The article discusses evidence that the default brain systems activated during rest are important for recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations (Immordino-Yang, 2015).

As Occupational Therapists, we always look at the science behind something. So what does the science tell us about downtime?

  1. New learning is strengthened during downtime. Taking a break from acquiring new knowledge and skills gives us a chance to review what we have just learned.
  2. Our brain needs time to consolidate new information. Little memories are given space to emerge, be mulled over and then stored away for safe keeping. Something their teacher had said ‘popped up’ in their thoughts and suddenly made sense. Or realising a joke that everyone else laughed at was actually funny, in reflection.
  3. Downtime allows the brain to make new connections. When we allow ourselves to be creative and explore something new, then our brain has a chance to grow new connections instead of reusing the existing connections for our most common activities (Kobilo, Yuan & Van Praag, 2011).
    Neurogenesis is the process of nerve growth in our brains, forming new pathways, increasing complexity and connectivity. This occurs when there’s space and time to grow, rather than constant expenditure.
  4. Downtime reduces anxiety and stress. Children and adults all benefit from some time when they are free from expectations to recharge their emotional batteries. High or moderate levels of stress in our bodies increases levels of cortisol and this does not support neurogenesis (Natarajan, Northrop & Yamamoto, 2015).

When we are free from pressure to perform, to think quickly and keep up, we feel more relaxed. This chemical change in our brain provides the environment for growth. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to stress leads to a decrease in the size and function of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is deep inside the brain and plays an essential role as it processes everything that happens. It associates these current events with other past events stored in our memories and the emotions associated with these memories.

We definitely want to lessen the impact of stress on the hippocampus and favour activities that will promote its healthy development.

So with the science being unanimously in support of this break time, maybe we should start working on making this happen in all of our lives. Regularly.

Notice the urge to make suggestions, give feedback and create structure for your children – these impulses come from years of believing that time should be ‘filled’ and accounted for with a productive activity.

Downtime can mean allowing your child to explore new things, without specific directions, and letting them choose how they want to spend their time. We call this unguided discovery.

As Occupational Therapists, we also know that achieving a calm, regulated state is enhanced through the use of a sensory activity – something pleasant that is received by our senses – visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, vestibular and gustatory (taste).

So, here’s the trick: Think of a pleasant sensory experience and pair it with the downtime experience for maximum effect.

  • Put a soft picnic rug on the grass in the backyard,
  • Roll out a fluffy blanket on top of your child’s bed inviting them to lie down for a bit,
  • Shut their bedroom door gently so they can just ‘be’ in their rooms,
  • Plug in a lava lamp and turn the rest of the lights off,
  • Plug in a fan and feel the breeze on your face,
  • Float in the pool,
  • Sit up in a tree or high on the monkey bars,
  • Listen to music,
  • Lick a cut up orange,
  • Rock in a rocking chair,
  • Heat up that heat bag and put it on their tummy,
  • Suck on a lolly or ice cube,
  • Stand in the shower or lie in the bath,
  • Watch a balloon rise and fall,
  • Notice leaves move in the breeze,
  • Watch the waves or the rain,
  • Lie under a heavy doona,
  • Trace a feather over their faces,
  • Rub scented hand cream into elbows and knees,
  • Smell the roses (this old adage was really onto something!)

Thinking, linking, reflecting, sorting things out, remembering, and squaring things off. The beautiful by-products of sensory downtime.

Remember, we are the biggest influencers for our children. What would happen if they saw you watching the rain whilst sipping a cup of tea – not being in a rush or doing anything else? They would probably giggle at first or think you were a bit weird as they watched you sitting in front of a fan staring at the blades.

After a while, would they start to value this downtime too, and maybe start trying out quiet time, free from electronic devices and other ways to ‘fill’ the space? It may take time, but isn’t it worth it?

By Kathleen Langford – Director/Senior Occupational Therapist and Family Therapist at Inside Out Occupational Therapy Group Pty Ltd.

 

References

  1. Website (Internet). Sensory Enrichment Therapy Principles (cited Dec 2017). Available: http://www.mendability.com
  2. Immordino-Yang MH. Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company; 2015.
  3. Website [Internet]. [cited 24 Oct 2016]. Available: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/
  4. Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. In: Psychology Today [Internet]. [cited 26 Oct 2016]. Available: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity
  5. Woolley CS, Gould E, McEwen BS. Exposure to excess glucocorticoids alters dendritic morphology of adult hippocampal pyramidal neurons. Brain Res. 1990;531: 225–231.
  6. Leekam SR, Nieto C, Libby SJ, Wing L, Gould J. Describing the sensory abnormalities of children and adults with autism. J Autism Dev Disord. 2007;37: 894–910.
  7. Natarajan R, Northrop NA, Yamamoto BK. Protracted effects of chronic stress on serotonin-dependent thermoregulation. Stress. 2015;18: 668–676.
  8. Sensory Enrichment Therapy Clinical Studies. In: Mendability [Internet]. [cited 16 May 2016]. Available: https://www.mendability.com/testimonials/