You know that hectic feeling you get – tense shoulders, short temper, pure exhaustion – when there’s zero downtime in your day? Children are the same. A day booked with appointments and activities, even fun ones can be stressful. And hurrying from one activity to another, or constantly guiding your child’s play, can actually hinder development.
It’s easy to understand why we end up shuttling our kids from T-ball to tumbling to Chinese lessons. We want our children to be well-rounded, discover their passions, have a competitive edge, and fit in and make friends. And we definitely don’t want our kids to be left behind.
But recent research indicates that the most important activity during a child’s early years (up until kindergarten) is free play. Not only is it essential, but unstructured time helps kids become better at problem solving, making decisions, planning and self-regulation. Not to mention that having time to simply play, reduces stress and increases the most important thing, happiness.
“Children need downtime to think, discover, imagine, create inner worlds all their own, and hear their inner voice, the one that makes them draw this unique picture or to write this unusual story,” states Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, author of “The Over-scheduled Child.”
But don’t write off sports and gymnastics yet. These activities have value, as long as they are balanced with unstructured playtime.
Finding the balance between activities and free play
Ideally, your calendar should include as much white space as possible for your child to rest, relax and have plenty of time for creative play. When thinking about scheduling activities for your toddler, preschooler or kindergartener, follow these guidelines to ensure your child doesn’t get overwhelmed:
1.) Hone your time-management skills: Be sure that enrichment programs don’t dominate your child’s week. For example, if your child goes to soccer on Tuesdays, don’t schedule anything on Wednesdays.
2.) Choose developmentally appropriate enrichment activities: The AAP says the best activities for young kids are swimming, tumbling activities in beginner dance and gymnastics, basic soccer, basic martial arts and skating.
3.) Remember the importance of family downtime: Spending a pressure-free afternoon together is good for the whole gang. Says Rosenfeld, “Families can benefit by doing things whose only purpose is the joy of spending time together, like playing Monopoly, shooting hoops (with no coaching), drawing pictures or taking a walk. Being unproductive together tells the child that the parent likes the kid, as he or she is.”
4.) Take cues from your child: To figure out if your schedule has the right mix of activities and free play, look to your child for clues. If you start to notice your little one getting grumpy, becoming sullen, or always coming to you to find out what to do next, you probably need to reassess your schedule.