A look into the importance of a balance of activities in the lives of our children.
by Cinthia Jahnson
“Hurry up! We gotta go! We’re gonna be late!!!” These gentle but firm (perhaps loud) words tend to escape my mouth every time my children and I are in a hurry to make it to our next destination of the day. Be it dance class, piano lessons, running club, school, play dates, play practice, soccer… whatever it is, my children tend to move in sloth mode and I tend to become more and more anxious as I watch the seconds, (minutes, usually) tick by on my watch. I’m stressed because we are late, and they’re stressed because Mommy is stressed.
There have even been times when I have threatened to cancel every extra-circular activity because we just have too much going on. My thoughts: ‘Aren’t all these activities supposed to bring increased happiness and joy into the lives of my children?’ ‘Why am I pushing them to go to an activity when all they really want to do is stay home and play?’ ‘Staying home saves me stress and money.’ ‘Are all these scheduled activities good for my kids or myself for that matter?’
I mean really, I have three children and individually, they don’t have that many extra things going on, but when Mom is the chauffeur/activity coordinator for all three, things get pretty intense and schedules fill up fast.
In today’s fast paced world, I want to give my kids every opportunity they have at their fingertips. But I wonder, how much is enough and how much free play do my kids really need? Here are some things to think about.
Extra circular activities are good for kids.
Kids benefit from participating in two or more activities a week. It can help better their behavior.
Have you ever tried to arrange play dates for your kids with other parents? Everyone gets out their iPhones and checks their schedules. “Oh, Sally has soccer Tuesday and Thursday, piano and dance Wednesday and Friday. But we can squeeze you in Monday from 4-5:30 in between Sally’s gymnastics and swimming lessons.” It’s like a new patient trying to make an appointment with the most popular doctor in the area.
I love that we live in a world where our children have the best opportunities to be whoever they want to be. Kids are exposed to so many fun, meaningful, education-filled activities that it’s hard sometimes to not fill up their days with these awesome activities. In fact, research suggests that “children who participated in extra-curricular activities had more normal behavior scores than those who did not. The results suggest that children benefit from participating in two or more activities that take up 80-90 minutes of their time per week.” Extra curricular activities can be good. But perhaps we can think about the time spent in an activity opposed to the number of activities. As the study suggests, 80-90 minutes per week accounted for better child behavior.
Kids spend hours outside of school in organized sports, activities and educational activities. Kids are spending less and less time on free time activities.
While structured activities are important, so is free play. While it is tempting to sign our children up for every fun activity, they learn and grow by leaps and bounds through pretend play, free time and self-directed activities. Kids are more likely to learn self-regulation and self-control and learn how to solve problems away from their parents. They also learn how to apply the lessons they have learned from school and parenting on how to abide and follow rules and get along with others.
According to a study done in 2014, “The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.”
Play is important to healthy brain development, emotional strength and helping kids to explore and create within the world around them. Give your child time to play, whether you send them out to play in the yard, or you unplug electronics for a few hours a day, allow your child an opportunity to use their imagination, come up with their own activity and play. You might be surprised at the creativity (and maybe mess) your child comes up with. Its not only good for their creative side but it helps them to stay in great physical health as well. So it’s a win, win!
Balance is the key.
Everything in our lives needs balance. We balance our time spent with family and work, we balance the meals we plan, and we balance the time we spend on electronics. So naturally we should balance playtime with structured time.
Life is a great balancing act. Just like mommy needs some alone time to replenish her happier self, kids need the same replenishing time to go back to just being a kid. Letting go of life struggles (yes, kids have their stresses!) and using their imagination help reset their highly active minds. Having everything in its proper order leads to a balanced life and greater likely hood for well-being and contentedness both as a child and an adult. Find a balance of both structured fun and free imaginary play executed by the child. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Let’s shoot for simplifying a few things, and giving our kids back a little more of the childhood we remember.
You know your child best.
What works for one family, may not work for another family. Pay attention to your child and watch out for signs of over scheduling. Some kids love it, want it and can handle it. Some kids need to slow down and just play.
As parents, no one knows your child like you do. You can sense when they are about to have meltdowns, you know the best ways to heal a boo boo, and you know what works best for your family. Some children are drawn to certain activities and are naturally very good at them and have the motivation to practice, and learn a new talent or skill. Some kids thrive on running from one thing to another and love every minute. Others need more downtime to simply play. That’s it, just play. Not watch TV, or video games, or even read, but play. Regardless of the balance you set in your life between the structured and unstructured activities, let your parental gut (and sanity) be your guide as to how much time is spent away from the adult- guided activities. Let them get dirty. Let them play!