UNTIL last year, Shirley and Daniel Walsh's schedules resembled those of many working parents. While he put in long hours at the distributorship he owns, she worked full-time as an operations consultant for a large computer company. The couple's two young daughters, ages 5 and 7, attended an after-school day-care program.
Then Mrs. Walsh injured her back and stayed home for several weeks. Spending afternoons with her children became so enjoyable that when she was ready to return to work, she arranged a flextime schedule that enabled her to pick up her daughters at school.
''My kids had reached the point where they needed a parent's time in the afternoon, even if it was just coming home and chilling out,'' Walsh says. ''Sometimes it takes something major to happen to you to put things in their proper perspective.''
''I think people are awakening to find a balance in their lives,'' she says. ''Five years ago, we didn't realize that was necessary. Now we see that it's essential.''
Talk to working parents these days and Walsh's words -- balance and perspective -- echo through conversations. The popular '80s phrase, ''quality time,'' describing fragments of togetherness achieved through careful scheduling, has been discredited. In its place is a growing recognition that the quantity of family time matters as well, and that flexibility can be more satisfying than rigidity.
''What kids and parents seem to be wanting is spontaneity,'' says Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family in Berkeley, Calif. ''People are tired of always having everything scheduled and planned.''
For the Walshes, family time often centers around what Walsh describes as ''hanging out together'' on weekends. ''Hanging out'' is, in fact, another '90s phrase that parents use again and again.
''Sometimes the kids will help us with house projects -- painting the house or what have you,'' Walsh says. ''Sometimes we visit other friends who have children, or we go to the playground -- very simple things. It doesn't have to be a trip to the Children's Museum every weekend or going to the circus or watching a movie. It can be just as much fun to wash the car together....''
That kind of easygoing approach also gets the approval of Bill McCoy, author of ''Father's Day: Notes From a New Dad in the Real World'' (Times Books), to be published next month.
''Research tells us pretty clearly that what children really want is quantity time,'' says Mr. McCoy, an editor at Parents magazine. ''They just want to be with their parents.
''In fact, when parents do nothing with children, just kind of hang out with them to see what happens, it takes a lot of pressure off. The relationship itself can have a chance to develop.
''When the time between parents and children is all wrapped up in activities, the activities tend to take center stage, and the real give and take of a relationship between parent and child becomes secondary,'' he says.
For now, McCoy's wife, Sharon, is at home with the couple's 2-1/2-year-old daughter, Amanda, putting in 10 hours a week as a publicist while Amanda naps. Every other weekend, the couple plans what he describes as ''a low-key family excursion'' to places within an hour's drive where they can walk around.
One of their favorite destinations is nearby Princeton, N.J., where, on a Saturday or Sunday, he says, ''the streets are just choked with strollers. You do feel part of this huge community of people with young children.''
Families with older children often find that athletic activities offer low-cost, impromptu outings.
''We try to have at least one good family day on a weekend,'' says Donna Schweon of Boston, a physical therapist and the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. Their favorite activities include biking, hiking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing.
Like other working families interviewed, the Schweons clear time for such outings by sharing household tasks. Despite persistent stereotypes about men's failure to help at home, evidence suggests that domestic roles are becoming more egalitarian.
''My husband shares in the housecleaning,'' says Mrs. Schweon. ''He'll do vacuuming. I do all the laundry. Whoever is better and faster at a task does it. We team really well.''
Teamwork also figures in the conversation of Cheryl Gamble of Murfreesboro, Tenn., an administrative assistant at a bank. While she cooks dinner, her husband makes their 12-year-old son's lunch for the next day, and their son sets the table. ''We've always been a team,'' she says.
Their schedules, too, remain unstructured. ''It just kind of falls together in the evenings,'' Mrs. Gamble says. ''We don't have time specifically set aside that says at 7 o'clock we're going to have this activity, but we do work together as a family to get our jobs done so we can have family time.'' That time includes working puzzles, playing games, and having family devotions.
Other families prefer more planning. Leah Fisher, co-director with Mrs. Essex at the Center for Work and the Family, sets aside Friday as family night, with each member taking turns choosing an activity. On Mrs. Fisher's night, the family might go out to eat. Her son might want to play Scrabble. Her husband might choose to read poetry together.
For single parents, routines can be similar. Michael Biznik, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who has custody of his 11-year-old son, says the two have worked out a ''give and take'' on activities. While Mr. Biznik cooks dinner, his son starts his homework.
''By the time he's half done, the food is ready and we'll eat,'' Biznik says. ''After dinner, we work on homework.'' On weekends, they enjoy cycling, feeding ducks at a park, and going to movies, aquariums, and museums.
Whatever a family's schedule, the key to spending free hours, according to McCoy, is to relax. Too often, he says, parents ''feel tremendous guilt over the fact that their kids are time-deprived. The best thing a parent can do is don't worry about the time you're not spending. Just enjoy the time you are spending.''