The Benefits of Unstructured Time

Managing remote learning while embracing downtime

Posted Sep 24, 2020

 Marcus Wallis/Unsplash
Source: Marcus Wallis/Unsplash

Parents, particularly those of young children, are concerned that their kids aren’t getting as much out of online learning as they do in the classroom. Online learning also means an increase in screen time, of which many parents were already wary. These concerns are certainly legitimate: Over-exposure to screens can overstimulate and agitate the brain, which in turn can hinder the learning process.

Socialization is also an important element of in-person schooling that contributes to many components of child development. But right now, the various school setups that educators are rolling out in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are beyond parents’ control. So, how can parents support their kids through these unusual circumstances?

Where possible, parents should do their best to simulate a typical school day, relying on familiar routines and habits, so that these new circumstances are as minimally disruptive as possible. Here are a few tips to help children get the most out of online learning:

  • Create a structure around the school day. No matter what age, your child should get out of bed, brush their teeth, get dressed, and, if possible, go into another room to start online learning. These seemingly small steps are crucial for children to adjust their mindset to prepare to engage with their schoolwork.
  • Eliminate other electronics during school hours. Particularly for children who are middle-school-age and younger, parents should make sure that they don’t have access to gaming consoles or other devices when they should be focusing on learning.
  • Incorporate short breaks away from the screen. Anyone can be worn out by extended screen time, so it’s important to take regular breaks, even just to stand up, stretch, or get a bit of fresh air. A change of environment is particularly beneficial, so time outside is ideal.
  • Establish a routine for homework after school. When the school day ends, encourage kids to take some time off for other activities before they return to the screen for homework as needed.

If parents can help their children maintain structure and focus, they can increase the effectiveness of online learning while it’s in place.

In the before- and after-school hours, parents should push their children toward off-screen activities. The developing brain is not built to interact solely with screens, so it’s crucial for children to have the ability to downregulate. Downregulation occurs when the brain can go on "automatic" and doesn’t have to actively process new information. The more complex cognitive functions can disengage, and the brain shifts into a state in which it can relax and regain energy.

This is particularly important on school days when children are trying to absorb new information for hours at a time. As mentioned above, time outside in fresh air is especially beneficial. Parents should also try to incorporate live social interaction wherever possible.

Many families have linked with neighbors or friends to form quarantine "pods" so that they can safely spend time together, whether it’s for a pick-up sports game, a group walk, or a trip to an uncrowded beach. Even at a distance, children will benefit more from any in-person social interaction than they will through a screen. Connecting face-to-face is the best way for children to develop social skills and self-awareness.

There are also benefits to these new circumstances that parents should embrace and emphasize, like the rare opportunity for unstructured time. While structure during the school day is important, this is likely one of the first times that many kids have not had their entire day scheduled to the minute, from morning to night. Encourage them to use this time to explore new activities and uncover new interests.

One of the best things for children is open time in which they can play. Self-directed play is essential for building a strong and independent foundation in a child. Three-dimensional learning uses all of the senses to explore and is highly beneficial for the developing brain, and under "normal" circumstances, most children don’t get enough of it. Actually, the ability to organize and occupy one’s own time is best learned outside of the structured environments in which children spend most of their time.

So, if your kid tells you they’re bored, leave it up to them to entertain themselves, and let them embrace boredom. Chances are that they’ll gravitate toward something they enjoy, whether it’s playing guitar, throwing a baseball, or doodling in a sketchbook. These interests can become hobbies and even passions which can alter the course of a life.

Even letting the mind wander is worthwhile, not only for recharging but also for developing imagination. Studies have shown that daydreaming leads to creativity, which in turn leads to agency, innovation, and the creation of an internal world. Children and adolescents are naturally creative because of the high level of neurological activity required for brain development, so they are capable of entertaining themselves. Instead of panicking over the lack of structure, I encourage parents to embrace and protect this unstructured time for their kids and let them figure out how to spend it. You might be surprised by what they come up with.