Just recently I was trying to arrange a play date for my own child – and we had to book it for 3 weeks in advance because that was the first gap in both their calendars. They are five! One of the most noticeable issues that children and families appear to be dealing with is the frantic pace at which life seems to be going at these days and there appears very little respite in the competing demands of our times. But at what cost? Are children over scheduled?
Between school demands, a plethora of extra murals, (often with multiple practices/lessons a week) homework and exams and general daily tasks there is often not a minute unaccounted for. The weekends are no different - with further lessons/matches/recitals, birthday parties and other social arrangements crammed in, with of course projects, studying and assignments too. However at the same time, there is an increase in pressure on parents that if they aren’t keeping up with ‘everyone else’ and providing all these opportunities their child will be left behind. Added to that, many parents work full time and these activities and arrangements keep their child occupied, supervised and safe and unfortunately, for so many children today, unstructured time is associated with spending it on a screen. All these factors combined, we can understand how structured time for children has dramatically increased, leaving little time for much else.
Is this such a bad thing? Well, it’s not a clear cut answer, and certainly there are benefits from exposing children to different opportunities. However, if we do not make space in their day for some unstructured time, they do not have opportunities to develop, practice and master vital skills such as:
Finding comfort in their own company: learning to be alone and satisfied is so valuable for their growth
Exploring and valuing their imagination and creativity
Prioritising self-care: it is equally important to learn trigonometry as it is to make sure you get enough rest
Being bored: this is not a bad thing, and an emotion that children NEED to experience in order to learn how to manage it for themselves. Being home with nothing to do is actually really beneficial for children from time to time
It’s not all about performance: at school, in sport, in activities, there is often a strong focus on their abilities. Getting a break from those expectations can really be important
How to unwind and have downtime (without technology!): often overlooked yet crucial for their long term well being
As with many parenting topics, I think the answer lies in providing balance. It’s not about cancelling all activities and naturally it will differ from child to child. But it is important to consider what the motivations for all the structured activities are, whose need it is fulfilling, where you can make some adjustments and how can you ensure some downtime despite these demands. Initially it can feel a little weird or scary for parents to resist some of the expectations but it is about considering your child, their needs and what is in their best interest.
With so many adults experiencing stress, anxiety and burnout, we need to start as young as possible to help children avoid becoming overwhelmed and rather learn tools to manage these constant competing demands.
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