By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
- Monday soccer practice
- Tuesday swimming lessons
- Wednesday karate lessons
- Thursday soccer practice and scouts
- Friday violin lessons
- soccer games
- scouting activities
- religious activities
- birthday parties
Achieving the right balance of work and play is important to a child’s healthy development. Too much time spent on scheduled activities and lessons reduces the amount of time left for creativity, imagination and independent play.
What’s the big deal? You might be asking yourself. It’s just play.
But there’s no such thing as “just play.” Play accomplishes a great deal. Play is the way children practice problem solving, develop social skills and make discoveries about their world and themselves. Play is an expression of a child’s interests, feelings and perceptions. Play allows for the recharging of a child’s batteries. Play is crucial, but it’s disappearing from our children’s lives.
Reasons for Overscheduling
Some parents fill their children’s time with structured activities because they believe it’s no longer safe for children to play outside alone — or even with friends. As a result, playgrounds and backyards and neighborhood stomping grounds have been replaced by the protected environments of tumbling classes and art lessons.
Other parents find themselves using activities as child care. Parents are busy people. They’re working, taking classes, taking care of the grandparents, shuttling kids around and participating in community organizations. After-school activities are often scheduled to accommodate parents’ needs rather than the other way around. A sports activity that occurs at school — eliminating the need for the parent to provide transportation — stretches out the school day. A child’s karate class at the gym affords Mom or Dad the chance to squeeze in a much-needed workout. An evening scout meeting fits the parent’s schedule for running to the grocery store.
As a result, the children who are at home in the after-school hours find themselves with no one to play with. They’re lonely and bored, and they complain to their parents, who often decide they might as well sign up their children for sports or scouts, too.
One way to curb this trend is to be sure to make yourself visible to potential playmates when you are at home. Play catch in your yard. Wash the car. Draw with chalk on the sidewalk. Take a walk around the block. Have a yard sale. Find ways for neighbors to get to know you and your children. You’ll be spending quality time with your kids and, along the way, making connections with other parents who can help facilitate play in your neighborhood.
Breaking Down Boredom
A common rationale for scheduling so much of a child’s out-of-school time is a parent’s fear of “nothing to do.” Boredom can lead to whining, irritability and other destructive behaviors. But a little supervision and guidance from you can keep playtime productive and satisfying. Tolerance for creative play, which can be noisy and messy, also helps. As does an abundant supply of basic art supplies, dress-up clothes and constructions sets and building blocks.
Set house rules for protecting property (couch cushions must be returned to the couch after being used as boats, paint and play dough are only used at the kitchen table) and for respecting others (ask permission before barging in on a sibling’s LEGO construction, clean up when you are finished). The younger the children, the more supervision they need to keep the play going in a positive direction and to help draw it to a close. There is great satisfaction in creative play. Once discovered, children need never be bored.
If a home-based business, housework or younger children compete for your attention, consider hiring a babysitter or “mother’s helper.” Playtime is spared and you’ll be able to concentrate on your own tasks for an hour or two. Not quite a babysitter, a mother’s helper is usually a child from the neighborhood. A few years older than your child, and with a slight edge of authority, he or she is up on the rules of checkers, can pour apple juice without spilling and knows to interrupt the parent in an emergency.
Resist Résumé Building
Competition is a sorry reason to sign a child up for every sport, course and club in town. Some parents are competing with their peer group: “My child came in second in the ice skating competition.” “My child has the starring role in the play.” Others are trying to compensate for what their own parents didn’t provide. The trouble is, the fun goes out of a pastime when the intent is to rack up points.
Sometimes a child can cause her own overbooking. Sure, she wants to progress to toe shoes and become a professional ballet dancer. Sure, she’d like to advance to star player and make a career as an athlete. Sure, she’d love to master the latest computer technology. But having a weekly commitment to all these activities on top of homework and chores leaves no time to be a child. Interests should always be encouraged, but parents, with their firmer grip on reality, may have to impose a manageable limit. Schedules are for trains. Childhood is for play.
Deborah Wood is the founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum, an institution that promotes creative play.