We often have good reasons for enrolling our children in extracurricular activities. We want them to have fun, to learn something new, or just stay out of trouble. But by scheduling most of their free time, we deprive our kids of unstructured play, a crucial factor that, according to childhood experts, develops independent, imaginative thinking.
"Play is a child's way of learning," says Michael Stern, a child psychologist at Tod Children's Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. "The late elementary child is beginning to compare himself with his peers and test his leadership skills."
Through free play, a child learns to function within his peer group, make rules, test the limits of acceptable behavior, and role-play future occupations.
Making time each day for unstructured play probably won't excite your child at first. After all, he's used to someone else planning his day. Don't be discouraged—it's a blessing in disguise. Downtime challenges a child to focus on the present and find something constructive to do. Resist turning this into TV or computer time. These activities don't require any imaginative thinking and do little to help your child's development. When programmed stimulation shuts down, a child's mind opens up.
Activities such as hide and seek, puppet shows, and whiffleball games that seem meaningless actually teach teamwork, compromise, and negotiation. "Letting a child do and learn for himself is crucial for children this age," says Mary Margaret Gottesman, assistant professor at the Ohio State University College of Nursing. "Having fun, not 'do or die' tests of skill and dominance, encourages problem solving skills and creativity. It also relieves stress and clears the mind."
Is Your Child Overbooked?
It's not easy to cut back your child's busy schedule. Dr. Stern suggests parents do an inventory and consider the following:
- How many hours a day is your child in school?
- How many hours a day does your child participate in sports, music, dance, art, or other after-school activities?
- How much homework does he average each night?
- Your child should be sleeping 10 hours a night.
Once you have an idea of how much time your child is spending in these areas, prioritize his time. Start with the activities the child must do, such as homework, chores, and time at night to read the Bible or do a family devotion. Then prioritize the extra activities your child is involved in according to which ones he enjoys most. Help your child determine what should stay and what should go.
Stern advises parents to use their judgment in eliminating activities, and strive for a least one hour of unstructured time each day.
—Mary Ellen Pellegrini
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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March/April 2002, Vol. 14, No. 4, Page 21