The upside of family downtime

The importance of spending downtime together — on days out or even doing nothing — is often overlooked

I swam with a dolphin last weekend. I wasn’t on my own; my family was there too. We had only planned to go to the beach — the fact that the dolphin decided to hang out there too was a pure bonus.

As you know, the weather has been pretty miserable and so planning a day out, particularly to somewhere like the beach, is a bit of a lottery. According to the forecast, that Saturday looked like being the best day of the weekend.

It was due to be relatively cold for June but at least it was destined to be dry. So we just committed ourselves to going no matter what.

As it turned out, it wasn’t particularly warm but a picnic is always a picnic and tastes better for it, sand dunes are always fun to run up and roll down, rocks and rock pools always have to be explored and an ice cream van is rarely far away. However, the dolphin just topped it all.


It was my first time being in the water with a dolphin and it was unforgettable. On top of my own excitement, I was thrilled that my children had the same opportunity and will carry their own memories of it, probably forever.

Consequently, there was a lovely energy amongst us going home; a healthy emotional glow to match our wind and sun-etched faces. Despite being tired after a long day, I felt truly satisfied. I guessed the children felt likewise.

This is what great days out can do. They nurture us at an emotional level, because they build new connections in our relationships with each other, and restore and rejuvenate those relationships that are jaded and fractious.

Last Saturday turned out to be an extraordinary day out for my family. But even an ordinary day out is worth doing.

I was struck by a survey carried out last month by a UK children’s charity that showed that 62pc of the 2,000 adults surveyed felt that family day trips are less common than they were 20 years ago.

It seems that family days out are in danger of disappearing due to the busy-ness of our schedules.

Previous research in 2010, by the same charity and on a similar theme, showed that families are spending on average just five hours in a week all together. That is less than an hour a day when all the family can be together.

The more recent survey indicated that this had dropped further to an average of two-and-a-half hours per week of family time.

So if we are not with our family then where are we? We are out working, or looking for work, or organising our homes and families.

Our children are at school, or at drama, or music, or hurling, or scouts, or rugby, or soccer, or horse-riding, or dancing, or swimming, or sailing, or supervised study or …


That list of children’s extra-curricular activities could extend almost ad infinitum, because we have drifted into a world where we seem to feel that we must fill their lives in a structured and fulfilling way. Sometimes it feels like the only family time we have is when we are all in the car going from one activity to the next.

From when they are tiny we are planning play-dates, junior-gym classes, sing-and-learn classes or baby-yoga-for-suppleness-and-success classes (okay I am making some of these up, but you get the picture!).

We want our children to be exposed to many different activities and opportunities so that they can find their strengths, talents and, ultimately, get the edge to get ahead.

But in our urgency to give them every opportunity, and then some more, we forget about the central importance of allowing them to just be.

Children need downtime. They need unstructured time and they need time to just hang out with their family, with no particular agenda.

Even though you wouldn’t know it by the weather, the summer’s here, a time that fills some parents with relief that the usual routines can be relaxed. Others, however, dread the long days, weeks and months with no focus, no plan and no childcare.

If we are lucky we might be planning a family holiday that provides a central focus that everything else can hang from. Alternatively, you may have planned a summer camp, or two or three or four, for your child to keep them occupied (and minded) for some of the weeks.

But here again we are in danger of over-scheduling our children to the point that they don’t actually know how to amuse and occupy themselves.

When everything is planned for them they don’t get to make choices and when they do have downtime they frequently complain of being bored because they have never learned the skill of coping with, and enjoying, having nothing to do.

We try to justify this push to keep the children busy by telling ourselves that we are successfully raising a well-rounded child. We hold on to myths that the sooner we expose children to learning the more they will learn.

Summer camps

Despite apparently not having the time to spend with them, we abhor the idea that our children are doing nothing. Extra-curricular activities and summer camps neatly fill any gaps. Ironically, those activities and camps contribute significantly to the busy-ness that we feel.

There is research evidence that shows that these kinds of activities do help to foster confident children. Taking part in extra-curricular activities also leads children to do better academically than their peers who don’t.

So it is not a question of entirely getting rid of after-school activities or banning summer camps, it’s just a question of finding balance.

I suggest that you slow down, create downtime and create family time. Since the summer is here, family days out, or even family days home, might be just the antidote to the frenzy of the school year.

Time to think, time to consolidate what we have learned and experienced, and time to reflect are essential to help children grow and develop healthily.

We often consider that ‘doing nothing’ is wasting time, but actually it is extremely productive. Children need time to recharge their batteries and process what they have learned.

Do you remember how, in your own childhood, summers could seemingly stretch for an eternity? Children’s experience of time is different to our own. If you have taken a walk with a three-year-old you will know how a five-minute walk can take 15 because they are so engaged in everything around them.

In adulthood we tend to either look at the past or be planning for the future. We have to work harder to be mindful of the present. If you close your eyes for a second and try to think about the hour you spent before reading this article, you may find that there were whole chunks of it that you hadn’t really paid attention to or noticed.

It is this opportunity to live in the present, to enjoy the present and to fully experience the present that I think we need to rebalance. Let’s get back to the feeling of endless possibilities that the summer can bring.

We often don’t give ourselves permission to do nothing and so it can be hard to give such permission to our children. But if you switch off the TV, the computer and the phones, don’t plan to go anywhere or to do anything and you’ll be amazed at what possibilities can emerge.

Dress-up, digging in the garden, cooking together, building things, reading together, drawing and painting … talking!

Suddenly you are creating potential. You are creating the opportunity to be connected in a very real and very present way with your children.

Being outside is a real antidote to the pressures that can build up in the comparatively close confines of our homes.

We have many stresses in our lives and there are times when we will need to face and address them.

At other points, though, being able to take a real break from them can be rewarding in the short term.


Remember the old adage: ‘a change is as good as a rest’. The change of scenery inherent in taking a family day out often does provide us with the impetus to carry on through some of life’s struggles.

The sharing of experiences when we spend time together is a powerful source of emotional glue within a family. Whether the experiences are filled with delight, distress, enjoyment or even disgruntlement, the shared nature of the memories show us how connected we actually are.

My family and I may never swim with another dolphin, but you can be sure you’ll find us at Fanore nonetheless.

The sun, the sea, the sand, the rocks and the ice-creams are enough of a draw to enrich our souls and to enrich our family.

This piece was written by David Coleman, clinical psychologist, broadcaster & author. First published in the Irish Independent, to view original publication click here.