Helping Your Child Learn to Use Their Free Time (Leisure Skills)

Medically reviewed by Ashley Murphy, MS, MA, Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics and Behavioral Sleep Clinic and Ashley Murphy, MS, MA (she/her), Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics and Neuropsychology

For many kids (and adults!), learning how to spend free time without electronic devices can be hard. Teaching your child how to entertain themselves is a skill they will use throughout their life. Here are some strategies and ideas on how to help your child build leisure skills.

Social Stories

A social story is a visual story that teaches your child how to complete a task by showing your child what to do and what not to do to complete a task. Use social stories to teach about free time.

Here are some sources online where you can find or make your own social stories

Visual Menus

A visual menu is a group of pictures that shows kids their options for free/leisure time. For example, you could offer a visual menu with reading a book or playing with Legos. Make a free time menu with a lot of or just a few options. Find premade resources online by searching for “free time visual menu” or “leisure time visual menu.”

To make a visual menu on Microsoft Word or Google Documents:

  1. Search online for clip art pictures of leisure activities.
  2. Paste the pictures in the document (If you want, add a text box with a label).
  3. Print and hang up in your child’s play area.

Visual Schedules

All children thrive with a routine, but with life getting so busy, they can be hard to maintain. Create a daily routine and build in free time. Visual schedules (pictures that outline a schedule) can help enforce this schedule and help provide clear boundaries on tasks a child needs to do. Building in free time can help support kids in learning how to entertain themselves during the day.

You can find free resources to make a visual schedule for your child below. Also, you can reach out to your child’s special education team to help make home resources.

If you are having trouble thinking of activities your child can do, there are great resources online with ideas. Some examples include:

Filling “Free Time” During Sleeping Hours

Some kids take a while to fall asleep, or they wake up in the middle of the night. However, kids may not know what to do when they should be sleeping and have a hard time putting themselves to sleep. As a result, many of these kids will leave their room and go to their parent’s or caregiver’s room when they wake up. Think of these times as free times where kids need to be taught what they can do instead of going to their caregiver’s room. We can help these kids learn what to do in their own rooms when they are awake after bedtime or when they wake up in the middle of the night.

Create a visual menu of quiet, calming activities they can do in their rooms if they are not yet tired or cannot fall asleep. Print it out and put it in their room. You can also create a box of calming activities to put near your menu for them to play with. An example could be:

Use social stories to teach kids about what they can do in their room instead of going to their parent’s room when they wake up early. Find video and printed social stories:

Use a red-green clock to help them see when they can leave their room. You can start by setting this clock to turn green (meaning they can leave their room) early and slowly move it later in the night/morning. These clocks range in price but can be found for around $20 on Amazon.

Use a sticker chart to create a positive association for kids to stay in their room. If they stay in their room until morning (or a pre-determined hour in the morning), they get a sticker and praise. When they earn a certain number of stickers, they can earn a reward, such as special playtime with a parent or the chance to pick a meal. Once they have mastered 1 night in their room = 1 sticker, increase the number of nights they need to stay in their room to earn a sticker. You can find different types of sticker charts here.

When kids come to your room in the middle of the night, make interactions boring. Limit your conversation and engagement. If they can tolerate it, walk them back to their room and remind them that we stay in our rooms until morning. Conversely, make sure they get a lot of attention and praise for staying in their room overnight. This will help kids learn that staying in their room until wake-up time gets them attention, not going to visit their parents in the middle of the night.

Learn more about Lurie Children's Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics

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