A Well-Developed Brain is Child's Play

Unstructured, unplugged downtime improves child development, according to psychologists from The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City

How much scheduling is detrimental for children? Two psychologists from The University of Kansas Health System weigh in.Well-meaning parents may sign their kids up for after-school tutoring, sports, camps and weekend volunteer service, thinking a variety of activities will help them grow into well-rounded, responsible adults. But psychologists at The University of Kansas Health System disagree. Research shows a highly structured childhood can be harmful because children don't get the necessary downtime their growing brains require.

"Kids need playtime to properly develop the frontal lobe of their brains," says Martha Barnard, PhD, behavioral psychologist at The University of Kansas Health System. "If it helps, think of playtime as vitamin P."

Playtime encourages creativity and imagination. It promotes prosocial behaviors and problem-solving.

Children with highly structured lives often have difficulty entertaining themselves, working through problems, settling differences and making good choices. They may act out, underperform at school, be anxious, cranky or obsessive-compulsive.

"You want children to be active but not too active that they don't have time to be children and play," says Catherine Smith, PhD, psychologist at The University of Kansas Health System. "Children learn through play. Play is their version of work."

Make playtime a priority

Dr. Smith defines playtime or downtime as time with no demands. Daily doses are ideal.

For some moms and dads, playtime means allowing children to watch high-quality TV programs while they get some work done, but Dr. Smith cautions parents not to confuse screen time with downtime.

"Screen time – the use of electronic devices, including TVs – leaves little to the imagination," she says.

Play that promotes cognitive development is laid-back, undirected time with simple toys – cars, trucks, dolls and blocks. Toys don't have to have all the bells and whistles to inspire creativity and imagination.

And, instead of using playtime as quiz time (What does a cat say? What color is this?), Dr. Smith encourages parents of toddlers to observe and comment (Hey, you're stacking the brown block on top of the red block. Oh, my goodness, you have 1, 2, 3 blocks! Timber! They fell over.).

Letting children hear you describe colors, sounds and shapes increases language and cognitive skills.

Give children choices

The best way to encourage a healthy, balanced childhood, according to Dr. Barnard, is to let kids choose their activities.

"Allow children to make the final decision when presented with a choice of parent-approved supervised activities," she says.

And, before automatically signing up for a second season of baseball or more guitar lessons, for example, have a conversation with your child: It's time to sign up again. How do you like it? What's fun about it? Is there anything you would change about it? Do you think we should sign up again or take a break?

Then listen, expect honest answers, and, once a joint decision is made, set boundaries. For example, if halfway through drama camp the child decides she doesn't like it, say, "We are going to finish what we started, and then you can choose not to sign up again."

Screening your child's screen time

Screentime guidelines for your children

Does your child have a healthy media diet? Follow these recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • Up to 18 months: Avoid use of interactive media other than video chatting.
  • Ages 2 to 5: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.
  • Ages 6 and up: Place consistent limits on the amount and types of media.
  • Designate media-free time together.
  • Talk about online citizenship and safety.


Both Dr. Barnard and Dr. Smith agree electronics should be off limits during weekdays so children can focus on homework, social interaction, rest and exercise. In fact, they recommend restricting electronic-driven entertainment to weekends and then only 30 minutes to two hours a day, depending on the subject matter. And, because there is a growing trend of sleep deprivation among children, there should be no TVs, video games or cell phones in bedrooms.

"One boy told me he goes to sleep regularly at 5 a.m. because he's playing video games all night," Dr. Barnard says. "If a child goes into his or her bedroom and plays video games continually at night, their brains learn not to sleep."

A better solution is to place computers in shared areas, such as kitchens or family game rooms, where parents can monitor use. Dr. Barnard also suggests a check-in/check-out policy, where parents lend cell phones to their children on an as-needed basis and require the phones be returned each night.

Be the behavior you want to see

Parents need to model the positive, prosocial behavior they want to see in their children.

"Always being on your phone or always being on your computer is not setting a good example for your children," Dr. Smith says. "Instead, be a media mentor. Teach children how to use screen time and let them see you offline, doing other activities like trying a new recipe, going for a walk or working on a project."

"Parenting is a 24/7 job," Dr. Barnard says. "You can't relinquish time to electronic devices, teachers or coaches. Parents always have to parent."