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Before signing children up for enrichment activities every afternoon of the week, consider these questions.

  • Do children have time to be children?
  • Do kids have enough free time?
  • Do children's organized activities consume all their time?
  • When do they get to play?

Six year olds can suffer from stress and "burn-out". Unstructured play is one of the most important parts of a child's development. During play, children work through all the important growth phases of their lives. Physical, emotional, and intellectual growth occurs during free play.

Children do what they need to do when offered unstructured time in a creative environment.

Each child has an innate drive to develop, physically as well as mentally. Play is children's work until they have mastered a new level of development. After mastery comes "PLAY". Play is the work of childhood.

For example, a child will work at climbing stairs until the skill is mastered. A child who can climb well will want to play on the stairs. To a casual observer, both behaviors are "play". The child who needs to learn will be working by playing. Free time for play allows a child individualized learning experiences. Children know what they need and when it is needed.

Opportunities for free play and unstructured time respect a child's right to grow.

Without time for play, children experience stress. Every good pre-school allows ample time for unstructured activities. Some parents worry that a school is not teaching their toddler enough. "All they do is play!" If they are playing in a creative environment with adults who know just when and how to intervene, that is a healthy situation. Children play at what they need to learn, and there is more to learn than the A,B,C's.

From kindergarten on, after-school activites are available for any interests at any time. Less and less free time is available for play. Music lessons, dance lessons, gymnastics, church programs, community education programs, soccer, baseball, scouting,...the list goes on and on. With each year, more opportunities for structured activities appear and the amount of time available for unstructured play decreases.


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For a child who wants to do everything, choices are difficult to make.

Choices must be made however, or a child will suffer from the stress of no free time. These choices require adult supervision.

How can a parent tell when a child is "doing TOO much?"

There are some very clear signs:

  • Frustration The child is easily frustrated and spends most of the time falling apart (tears, tantrums, whining) over minor difficulties.
  • Exhaustion The child is always tired, prefers to sit and watch television rather than "play".
  • Neglected responsibilities Basic chores are never done or completed, the child does not have time to assume simple responsibilities for personal care.
  • Mood swings The child is excited and happy then becomes withdrawn and sullen in a short period of time.
  • Physical complaints Increase in headaches or stomachaches, with no medical reason.
  • Problems in family communications There are no reasonable conversations, everything is a crisis situation.

Parents who are experiencing exactly the same symptoms, 500 miles of in-town driving per week, and a revolving front door are other good indications that a child is attempting too many structured activities.

What is the solution?

Eliminate some of the activities.

If activities or programs are important to the parents, the value of the activity to the child should be carefully examined. Children need to be given a choice as to which optional activities can be eliminated. Children then need to make the choice, not the parents.

If a child has unstructured play time, sleeps and eats well, is happy and healthy, and can complete responsibilities, the child is not doing too much. Childhood is the time to be a child and should not require a social calendar.

next: The Opportunity to Decide