When Extracurricular Becomes Extra Stressful
Have you ever woken up, hopeful for what the day might hold, and then after a few hours (or sometimes even less than one), you realize: It's one of THOSE days.
You know the kind. The kind of day where everything has fallen ironically into place. Your time is scheduled to the minute from when you wake up until when your head hits the pillow at night. The kind where you spend over half your time in the car going from school, to work, to PTO meetings, to practice, music lessons, play dates, and more. There may not even be room in your day for a family dinner or that overdue phone call to your mother.
In recent years, we have seen a trend in overscheduling children. Maybe it’s due to the increase in availability of programming and activities. Maybe it’s a result of the ever-increasing competition to ensure our children excel at something, or a result of the looming pressure of college tuition. Whatever the reason may be, overscheduling is harming our children more than helping them.
Cradle therapist Mandy Jones, LCSW, JD, explains why taking a much needed break can be extremely beneficial for our children--and for us.
The benefits of a day off
In the mix of all these activities, kids don’t just get to come home and play. Even a play date does not provide the same opportunities that simple free time does.
What may surprise you is that unstructured playtime can actually help your child learn more. Strict programming allows little time for free thinking. While there may be some brain activity required in your child’s soccer practice and music lesson, there are some things he is missing out on.
Here are five skills your child can build by having simple playtime:
- Self-stimulation. In free, unstructured playtime, your child learns how to keep himself from being bored, how to be okay with being bored, and how to manage his time to create something productive from free time.
- Coping skills. Life is much more black and white in structured activities. In free play, your child learns to understand that situations can have many different outcomes. When your child is running around the neighborhood with friends, he is in charge of his time and learns how to deal with things that don’t go his way. He learns to make decisions that result in the best outcome.
- Problem solve. When your child plays on his own, there is no coach or teacher to problem solve for him. When he runs into a problem, he can develop creative ways to solve it, whether it be a fight over who gets the red car, or disagreement about who gets to be 'It' in tag.
- Compromise. Following that, when your child is left to his own devices, he develops the social skills necessary to make compromises, as well as the social skills that allow him to see from others’ point of view.
- Sense of self. When your child is being told where to go and what to do, he has no room to naturally develop his own interests. He may even assume that what has been scheduled for him is what he likes to do. With free playtime, he is given time to explore his own identity and interests.
The right amount of scheduling
Most children can struggle when they don't have down time. For many children, however, the struggle might become more complicated if they have sensory issues. Both over-stimulated and under-stimulated children can run into problems with or without free time.
If you aren’t sure what activity level is right for your child, err on the side of less is more, at least to start. Schedule two activities and see how it goes. Make sure to leave room for adjustment. If your child seems out of sorts with a schedule, give him time to adapt before you make the choice to add or drop an activity. Always keep in mind that while structure is important, your kid is just a kid.
With two to three days of the week specifically allotted to playtime and family time, your child can develop her own interests. Once she is able to make many of her own decisions, such as packing her own lunch and knowing what time she needs to start getting ready, she may choose to have a high activity level, but one that she has chosen for herself. Through this method, she has not only found her interests, but also learned to manage her time.
You can be over-scheduled, too
As adults, we are impacted by stress as much or more than our children. When you are crunched for time and worrying about getting to the next activity, your child picks up on that. As parents, we forget that play is important to us, too. Removing a couple of your children’s activities during the week will make them less over-stimulated and make you less pressed for time. The playtime you have with your children as a result can serve as a stress reliever for you as well as a means of creating important memories with your children.