Kids naturally need unstructured time to play, to discover their own interests, to goof around, to try things out. Some kids in our society have almost no time left to themselves, often because their parents are overscheduled themselves. Or their parents are so concerned about their kids’ achievement that the kids are constantly doing some structured activity. Some parents want their kids to constantly be working on their personal portfolio so they can get into college/prep school/preschool. But if kids don’t have any down time, they’ll burn out quickly.
You’d be amazed at how much kids mature, learn and improve when they are given time to just be. Kids need to learn what it is like to be bored and how to entertain themselves when they are. They need time to play with all of those presents they just got from the holiday. They need to make mistakes on their own, discover new ways to do things, and nurture their interests and talents. This is called learning.
In our house, eating, sleeping (mostly), and a few chores and schoolwork are fairly structured. There are occasional errands and playdates, appointments and scout meetings. But most days, my kids have several hours in which they choose what to do. We guide them toward positive ways to spend time, but for the most part, they get to choose. I think this is a healthy thing.
I won’t go so far as to say that parents who overschedule their kids are stealing their kids’ childhoods. I’m sure those kids are getting to do some great things that not every other kid gets to do. But the kids are missing out on a vital piece of childhood: running amok. Not necessarily running all over town on their own, but having time that is theirs, that they get to organize and fill. Kids need to learn how to make choices and learn about the bad and good consequences that come along with those choices.
Being in so many classes, on so many teams or part of so many groups just puts added pressure on kids, at a time when it’s hard enough just growing up. As grown-ups, we may think that our kids have it easy. But it only appears that way from our perspective. Remember back when we were kids. It wasn’t as easy as it appears. We didn’t have our grown-up brains to help us deal with life as it came along. The added pressure of overscheduling can have physical effects on kids, too. Being on the go all the time, they can get sick more, have headaches, not get enough sleep or just not be themselves.
Schools these days often help to overschedule kids. Kids seem to have much more homework at earlier grades than when I was a kid. Hours of homework each night doesn’t give kids time to pursue their own interests. Perhaps there is nothing that most parents can do about this, but remember, ultimately, you are in charge of your child’s education.
Also, overscheduled kids usually mean stressed parents, since parents are the ones that have to take the kids everywhere. Quality time at home as a family is much more important than being on one more team, or taking one more class. By all means, get your kids involved in something that they are passionate about. But they don’t have to do five things at once.
Playing is the job of children. It’s how they learn. They learn by imitating. Trying things out. Pretending. Doing things on a smaller scale than we do. It’s how they learn to do things that they’ll have to do as grown-ups. There are plenty of parenting books out there, and some of the newer ones deal with this issue, that of having a healthy and rewarding childhood. Some of those that do include:
- Free-Range Kids (see previous GeekDad review)
- Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting
- Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)
- NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
So, parents of overscheduled kids… Resolve in 2010 to give your kids more free time, including play time with you. Give the kids time each day to have as free time, and ask if you can spend some of that time with them. Chances are they’ll agree wholeheartedly. With their free time, they’ll play games, draw pictures, pretend, have tea parties, play computer games, plan adventures and actually play with their toys.
More than anything, your kids need you. And kids need time to be kids. How do your kids choose to spend their free time?