Inside: Starting a daily quiet time habit for your toddler or child can be difficult at first, but the benefits are long-reaching and so worth it. Read on for why and how to start quiet time for children.
My son was a toddler when he dropped his nap. I had been dreading it — but the sleep resistance was real and our bedtime routine was getting all messed up. I knew it was time — naptime had to go.
For myself, nap time had become my time — to recoup, to prep dinner, to work, to do something uninterrupted. I really didn’t want to give up this time.
I did some research, on “what to do when your toddler drops their nap” and came across the idea of a daily quiet time for kids.
What started as a way for me to preserve those uninterrupted hours has turned out to be one of the best long-term parenting decisions I ever made! As it turns out, quiet time is not just for toddlers — it’s for older kids, siblings, and families. It’s a way of life.
What is Quiet Time for Kids?
Quiet time is a short period of the day that your child (and you!) spend doing independent and quiet activities.
Your child can spend this in their room or play area, wherever they have books and quiet toys.
With very young toddlers, this may be something you do together in the same area — but still relatively independent. Perhaps you read while your toddler quietly plays or looks at books.
The Long Term Benefits of Quiet Time
1. Provides Space for Your Child’s Developing Creativity
It is only when kids are faced with constructing their own entertainment that true creativity comes out. I was amazed at the things my son would create during quiet time, even at the young age of 3.
Research shows that boredom leads to creativity. And, perhaps it’s not really boredom per se, but being faced with filling a period of completely unstructured time. Unstructured time is something we have almost lost in our busy lives and it is certainly something we are not used to filling without screens.
In one study, children were either asked to perform a structured activity with instructions or to play with salt dough with no instructions. Afterward, each group was asked to create a collage with colored tissue paper.
Children in the unstructured group showed more creativity and used more colors in their collage than did the group who did the structured activity.
In this modern age of instant gratification and entertainment, we fill all of our time with structure and stimulation — without even meaning to do it.
Having daily quiet time is a way to mindfully create a space or period of unstructured time.
You may be met with resistance from both younger and older children alike when first introducing this unstructuredness — because it is hard to learn to fill your own time. See tips below for how to start the habit of quiet time in your home.
2. Increases Your Child’s Autonomy
When a child is faced with unstructured time they must use their brain in a different way — in an innovative way.
They must make decisions, plan, and create — hallmarks of critical thinking and executive functioning. Research supports the idea that unstructured play leads to more self-directed executive functioning.
Kids need this unstructured time to be able to practice these skills. They also need time outside and lots of time playing pretend with other kids, but there is a different kind of play that emerges in quiet time.
Do you ever feel fully immersed in a project or a task, so much so that you lose the sense of time? In positive psychology, this is called a state of flow and it is associated with creativity and a sense of enjoyment.
Children only really achieve this immersive state of flow when they are playing uninterrupted. Perhaps it can also happen during physical activity, but the most natural space for flow to occur is during unstructured play.
Quiet time provides the space and opportunity for your kids to get into that magical state of flow, allowing room for the development of executive functioning skills.
Over time, the ability to play independently will become one of your child’s skills. They will be able to entertain themselves, handle boredom, make decisions on how to structure their time, and play on their own. It won’t be something only done in quiet time — it will spill over into other aspects of your child’s life.
3. Provides a Chance to Recenter and Recharge
When my son was five years old and in school every day, I dropped our quiet time habit for a while. I figured he was scheduled enough, why schedule a quiet time too?
Instead, he came home ate a snack, and watched a small bit of TV. And then the meltdowns started. The crankiness. The grumpiness.
So, I started our quiet time habit again — a shorter time right after school and the grumpiness magically went away.
In Sweden, there is a concept called Lagom which roughly translates to good enough or just enough — enough to be content.
For Swedes, who are more socially reserved than we are (on average) this applies to socializing with others as well. It’s not because Swedes are colder or even more introverted, but rather because they value balancing energizing social time with recharging quiet time.
Quiet time provides the chance to disengage, to recoup — a mental break. This is a healthy habit no matter your age. It is a lifestyle choice.
Tips for Starting a Daily Quiet Time Habit With Your Kids
1. Start Slow and Have A Visual Aid for Time
Your toddler is not going to play quietly for an hour all at once. Start with 15 to 20 minutes a day and work up from there.
Young children have no real concept of time. I find toddler clocks can be really helpful for starting a quiet time practice. I love the My Tot Clock, (you can see my full review here) because it has 5 different colors that you can program for different things.
We had yellow to wake up, dark blue to sleep, and green for quiet time. I programmed the green to come on for how long I wanted quiet time to be that day and would say something like, “Okay — play or read quietly until your clock turns yellow — when it’s yellow you can come out and quiet time is over.”
Starting slow is key — if you set the clock for 10 minutes and your toddler successfully plays quietly for that whole time, then they will feel like they accomplished something. If you set it too long at first and they come out over and over — they will feel like they can’t play for that long on their own.
When they do play successfully and have fun doing it — comment on it, “Wow, look at what you built during quiet time! Wasn’t that fun and relaxing?” Just commenting on the successful days or things they did will help build the habit.
2. Have Ready to Go Activities
Okay, I know I said quiet time should be unstructured and ideally, it would be completely open, but that’s unrealistic for younger kids and when just starting out.
Vygotsky, a child psychologist, talks about how when something is challenging for a child you help to scaffold that behavior until they can do it themselves. Just like scaffolding can hold up a building before it can stand on its own.
You don’t build the building for them– you scaffold it. In this case, you don’t provide the entertainment, but you provide possibilities for entertainment.
Quiet Time Bins
When we first started, I had five small bins with different toys in each — mostly toys my son already had but didn’t play with often. One had animals and puzzles, one had cars and paper and crayons, one was full of building hexagons and so on. (These are very similar to the bins we had). I would pull one box out each day. Eventually, the boxes were available in the closet and he pulled one out himself or did something else. Here are some more ideas for calming activities for kids.
This is a great way to rotate toys. It is also a great way to have some toys in your child’s room that belong just to them. For example, older siblings can play with their little Lego sets in their rooms out of the way of younger siblings who might destroy build or try to eat the pieces.
In a household of multiple siblings, having the time and space to do your own thing can become something all the kids enjoy.
Books and Music
Quiet time for kids is a great time to introduce the habit of reading, even with pre-readers. Get a stack of books your child would be interested in from the library and don’t pull them out until quiet time.
Another way to ease the transition, especially as you are working your way up to an hour, is to start with a short book on CD. We would get the ready to read books on CD at the library that come with the book and the CD. I would start my son’s clock and the CD and he would listen and then play.
Have you ever noticed that kids get into the flow of play better with music in the background? While I like the idea of quiet time with very little outside stimulation, for reluctant kids quiet music playing in their room can help.
3. Quiet Time Changes As Kids Grow
For younger kids, quiet time takes the place of naptime. But as kids get older and have long days at school and do more after-school activities, they need different types of quiet time.
The After School Sensory Quiet Time for older kids
Kids are so, so tired when they start Kindergarten. For my son, going up to his room after school and playing quietly would have sent him to sleep! I found that quiet time looked a little different during elementary school.
To unwind from a long school day, sensory hands-on activities could be best. Playing in the sandbox or with playdough, swinging, laying in the hammock outside — all of these can help overwhelmed and overtired elementary kids.
The Before Bed Quiet Time for older kids
This is the game-changer for older kids! Remember that feeling of dreading when your little drops their nap? How about when your older child doesn’t need that early bedtime anymore?
We have always been an advocate of early bedtimes, but about halfway through first grade my son wasn’t tired at that early bedtime anymore. He had a harder time falling asleep. The bedtime routine got longer and more drawn out. The sleep resistance was real. Sound familiar?
So, recently we started the before-bed quiet time. This is when kids can play quietly or read in their room before bed. For my son, I introduced it not as quiet time — but as his time to do what he wanted until he felt tired.
All sleep resistance went away!! And mom and dad’s time to unwind reappeared. It is a win-win. My son gets much-needed downtime at a time in his life when his schedule is much busier and we spend our evenings relaxing instead of battling bedtime.
The Lifestyle Family Quiet Time
All of this is grand when routines are normal and schedules are predictable. But what about vacations and holidays? Don’t those tend to be the most overscheduled times of all?
This is where quiet time as a family comes into play. During winter break institute a hot chocolate and reading time where the whole family cozies up on the sofa and reads to themselves.
On vacations schedule some downtime — rest between the pool and the beach, an afternoon of reading, or start the habit of family hammocking (yes it’s now a verb!). It’s so easy to go, go, go, but some of my best memories are the times it rained at the beach and we stayed inside and played games and read all day.
Make quiet time a part of your family’s schedule and life and enjoy the recharge and balance that comes with it.
I’m telling you — it’s the best parenting decision I ever made.
I started daily quiet time when my children were infants. Even before the napping had ceased, my littles had time in a playpen with some toys for a set amount of time. I started out with a short amount of time and then it grew as they grew to a full hour after lunchtime. We carried this routine all the way into their school years and moved it to after school. We all found that we loved it and craved it. I am a full believer in scaffolding, glad you mentioned it! My adult children still crave their quiet time and need that re-charge so they can go face the busy world!
Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
It’s all about balance and be able to recharge — that is a lifeskill.