In my last column I explored the concept of “good stress,” the idea that healthy cognitive and emotional growth requires the opportunity to meet challenges and discover that one can deal with minor frustrations and failures. The essential concept is that good stress is experienced as welcome challenge and does not become overwhelming. In a perfect world, we would design our environment to provide just the optimal level of challenge meted out in optimal doses.

Our world, however, is far from perfect. Stress does not always come in manageable doses. We need to prepare ourselves with responses to employ when life’s stresses overwhelm us. One category of responses, inner responses are frequently called “mindfulness skills” or “emotional intelligence.” These are skills we can learn. We will explore these in a future column. Today I want to explore one way we can alter our environment to prevent the stressors of everyday life from overwhelming us and to recover when they do: DOWNTIME.

We need to build downtime into every day. In addition, in our society we have created an entire season of downtime for our children. We think of summer vacation as a time to take a break from the challenges and commitments of the school year, to unwind, de-stress, and regroup in order to be ready to face new challenges in the fall. As we make our plans for the summer as a whole and as we think about how we structure each day, let’s explore a few questions:

What exactly IS downtime?

What does it accomplish?

What makes good downtime?

Our brains are constantly being assaulted with new information. In our fast paced, multitasking society the brain is frequently overwhelmed with more than it can process. It literally needs time to assimilate the backlog and accommodate its existing models of how the world works to include all this new information. It needs time to regain equilibrium. Downtime occurs when the brain is not being assaulted with any unwanted stimulation. It is time when the brain can control its own rate of input and can seek just the content it needs to make sense of the backlog it is trying to process.

What constitutes good downtime? Ask yourself whether the child himself has control of both the rate and the content of the activity. Most parents think of time spent watching TV or videos or playing video games as downtime. But in all of these activities, who is controlling the rate of incoming stimuli? And who is controlling the content? All media, despite the fact that they may be educational and pleasurable, are prepackaged with a certain rate and content. They don’t constitute downtime. Usually, they are actually adding information to the backlog waiting to be processed. This means they are stressors! Compare an image of your child in front of a screen with an image of your child playing at the beach with water and sand and a shovel, or playing out a scenario with toy animals or people, or building freely with a bucket of legos or choosing a book and looking at it on his own. In all of these activities, the child is controlling both the rate and the content of stimulation. He can create his own challenges, problem solve his own failures, and feel success at his own accomplishments. He can set his own agenda and feel free to change it if he so chooses. This is downtime.

Does downtime always have to be unstructured? No, young children, especially, may need some structure so that the freedom itself is not overwhelming. Limiting the number of choices and the quantity of materials available will enable a young child to take control of his options. Modeling of how to use materials may also be necessary, but be careful not to be so eager to show him how to use things that he assumes there is only one right way. Control of his agenda must be his.

Does downtime have to be alone time? Absolutely not. There is no question that non-conditional human connection (unconditional love) is a primary need of all people, from infants to centenarians. Often the greatest stressor from which a child needs relief is the anxiety over whether he is good enough, successful enough at the challenges the world has foisted upon him to please his parents and maintain their love. Time with a parent that involves nothing more than sharing the joy of human connection is essential to assure him that he is loved, not just for how well he does in school or on the soccer field, but simply for who he is. Silly time is golden. Sharing a story, taking a walk in the woods, sharing your own excitement over some activity you love… just don’t turn it into an opportunity to teach him something that involves success or failure. There’s a time for Dad to teach his son or daughter how to throw a ball, but that’s not downtime.

What about time with friends? Unstructured time with friends is essential for learning all sorts of social skills, but most of the time the learning of how to get along involves considerable stress. Kids need a break from this too.

We all need time when we can control the rate and the content of stimulation our brains are subjected to. We need times when we set our own agenda and do not feel pressure to meet anyone else’s standards, times when we can love ourselves and feel loved by others free from the conditionality of “Am I good enough?”

May you find many ways to create and to share such downtimes with your children this summer.

Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.