After-school chess club, robotics class, gymnastics, tutoring, and violin: Sound like your child’s weekly calendar? For many parents, the answer is yes. But in the quest to enrich kids’ lives, parents may be unwittingly cheating children out of opportunities for growth.
Researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver recently studied dozens of six-year-olds and found that those who spent more time in unstructured play had better planning and organizing skills than those who had less free time.Per the researchers, unscheduled time may foster the kind of open-ended play that boosts self-directed executive function (i.e. independent planning), which begs the question: Does your child get enough downtime?
Here’s an age-by-age guide to cutting back on overscheduling in your child’s life - and making room for joy:
Early Years: 0 to 5
Though we tend to associate overscheduling with the school-age set, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers can feel schedule stress, too. Toddler gym, mommy-and-me sessions, language classes, music lessons, and family commitments can add up to a child who is rarely at home, at play, or at peace. “At this important stage of development, focus on creating a very loving, nurturing, and emotionally close relationship with your young child,” says Raelee Peirce, a parenting coach. This translates to prioritizing one-on-one time and downtime over classes and out-of-the-house activities. Keep in mind that babies and young children need lots of rest to be at their best, too. Your little one may need up to 12 hours of sleep each night, two daily naps until 15 months of age, and a daily siesta until age 3 or so. Until then, one to two ‘value added’ activities, like classes or playdates, per week, can help your child explore their world while still allowing freedom for daily rest and play.
Elementary Years: 6 to 12
In grade school, extracurricular and academic commitments can pile on, leaving kids feeling drained. There’s some value in scaling back activities and prioritizing personal time to help kids learn to manage a full calendar - but there’s only so much parents can do to clear a child’s calendar of commitments (some homework may be non-negotiable, for example, or a child may deem a time-consuming sports pastime too cherished to quit). Per parenting expert Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author of Becoming A Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul, says it’s a great time to teach kids how to recharge, so they can begin to self-manage a stressful schedule. How? “Introduce time alone,” she says. “I call it ‘hammock time.’ Children are profoundly nourished by introspective time. Too much focus on busy activities and games leaves very little time for them to dream, wonder, reflect, and discover.”
Teen Years: 13 to 18
Between rigorous academic schedules, after-school jobs and internships, extracurricular activities, and full social lives, teens may be particularly susceptible to overscheduling stress. In fact, to parents, it may seem that teens are rarely at home. But parental guidance and connection is still vitally important during the teen years, even when busy schedules make connecting a challenge. Fortunately, you don’t need much time to reestablish a vital connection and alleviate some of your teen’s stress, advises Kuczmarski. “Try to take 15 minutes each day to connect one-on-one with each of your children, including teens; let your child take the lead. If your teenager wants to teach you how to send a text message, go for it! You’d be surprised how much 15 minutes one-on-one means to your teen.”
Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist, and a mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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