Goldilocks Day: How should children be spending their time? - Education Matters Magazine
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Goldilocks Day: How should children be spending their time?

Dot Dumuid

Dot Dumuid, senior researcher fellow at the University of South Australia, discusses the Goldilocks Principle and how to give children equal priority to physical, mental, and cognitive health domains.

As parents and caregivers, many of us spend a lot of time shaping our children’s time. From when we wake them in the morning, to when we put them to bed at night, we’re prompting them to do their homework, take out the rubbish, turn off their screens, practice their instrument, eat their lunch, and play their sports. The list is endless! Yet, with all these activities on the go, how do we – and they – achieve the best balance?

As competing demands have become more complex and varied with increased digitalisation and ever-present social media, not to mention being turbo charged by the pandemic, finding a way to bring healthy balance to our daily activities seems more important than ever.

Government guidelines recommend that school-aged children achieve at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in their day, but that they also get between nine and 11 hours of sleep, all the while restricting recreational screen time to less than two hours. Although this recommended daily balance of activities has been approved by panels of experts and adopted by many countries and health bodies (including the World Health Organisation), it’s very difficult for children to achieve.

In Australia, it’s estimated that only about 15 per cent of children meet all three guidelines – sleep, screen time, and physical activity – which, while being relatively low, still trumps those in other countries where compliance is as low as 6 per cent. Such a low compliance for all three guidelines is striking, especially considering compliance for individual guidelines can be quite high (up to 70%) essentially, it’s easier to achieve one guideline, but reaching all is much harder.

Of course, as we only have 24 hours in any given day, increasing one activity means decreasing another, we must make trade-offs.

From our research, it seems that children who are increasing their physical activity to one hour a day are taking this time from sleep, so while they may achieve guidelines for physical activity, they now fall short of sleep. Or, if they increase their sleep to meet the sleep guidelines, they no longer have enough time to meet required hours for physical activity!

Exactly what the best balance of daily activities looks like, may depend on what families value, and in terms of how these activities are expected to impact their child’s health and wellbeing. For example, if physical fitness is prioritised over mental health, we might sacrifice sleep for an early morning gym session. Or, if reducing adiposity is preferred over academic performance, we might skip studying to take a run. But can we have the best of all worlds – a ‘Goldilocks Day’ – where the balance of daily activities is, as in the children’s fairy tale, “not too little, not too much, but just right”?

We all know that families are busy places, where parents, carers and children alike try to fit in all number of activities into the 24-hour window. But in doing so, we’re making decisions about which activities we value over others.

How we balance our time can impact our health and wellbeing. As our research shows, the optimal durations of sleep, sedentary behaviour, and physical activity will vary depending on our motivations. For example, if we want to boost children’s physical health, their optimal sleep should be about 10 hours a night, but with moderate-to-vigorous physical activity about two and a half hours a day – more than doubling the recommended Australian guidelines.

If focusing on improving mental health, children need to sleep even longer – for at least 11 hours – with the extra sleep being subtracted from all other remaining activities.

In contrast, the optimal time-distribution for cognitive or academic health needed very little moderate-to-vigorous physical activity – only about 40 minutes – which is nearly half of what is recommended by Australian guidelines. Instead, optimised cognitive health required additional sedentary time (about 11.7 hours), while maintaining sleep within recommended levels. So, physical, mental, and cognitive domains of health are optimised by different allocations of time across daily activities.

As parents and caregivers, we care about all aspects of our children’s health and want to find the best middle ground. That’s where the Goldilocks Principle comes in: what is the best balance of all activities to achieve the best health outcomes overall? Well, if we give equal priority to physical, mental, and cognitive health domains, a Goldilocks Day comprises 10.4 hours of sleep, 9.7 hours of sedentary behaviours (which could be reading or screen time), 2.4 hours of light physical activity, and 1.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

But it’s more than just numbers. More and more, a one-size-fits-all approach can’t really apply when it comes down to your personal situation, your children, and your family. Instead, applying an individual and tailored approach to what works best will, well, work best.

Making the most out of your day, and helping your children make the most out of theirs, is a juggling act. But appreciating the facts and the ever-growing research in this space is a very good start.

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