For too many young people, childhood is a time of crammed schedules and heightened pressures. Their afternoons, evenings, and weekends are slotted into tight segments for soccer, drama, homework, music lessons, tutoring, ballet, homework, hockey, gymnastics, and more homework. Some children are so busy that they give up critical sleep time to complete their schoolwork. Even during the summer, their hours are filled with scheduled activities through camp and childcare programs to keep them occupied and safe while parents work.
While most kids thrive, some react with anxiety and other signs of increased stress. Highly scheduled children have less time for child-driven creative play that is central to healthy development. When adults over-schedule children’s free time, it isn’t really free at all. Two important elements are forgotten amid these hectic schedules. Unstructured free play (or downtime in the case of adolescents) not only offers benefits that protect against the harmful effects of stress, but play also gives children unlimited opportunities to discover their own interests and competencies. Play allows them to use their creativity while developing imagination, dexterity, and physical and emotional strength. When adults aren’t directing or organizing them into activities, kids create and explore worlds they can master. They can conquer their fears while practicing adult roles (“I’ll be the astronaut. You can be the engineer.”). Play helps them develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and resilience needed to face future challenges. Undirected play allows them to learn how to work in groups—to share, negotiate, and learn to advocate for themselves.
When play is allowed to be child-driven, kids move at their own pace, discover their own talents and interests, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. In contrast to passive entertainment like watching television, play builds active, healthy bodies. Above all, play is a simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood.
Play also offers parents a wonderful opportunity to engage fully with children. Here’s an opportunity not to get out of the way entirely! The key is to let them choose and direct the playtime activity. We can be on the sidelines and ask how they would like us to be involved, but we have to remember it is their play, not ours.
When we observe children at play or join with them, we have a unique opportunity to see the world from their vantage point as they navigate a world perfectly created to fit their needs. The interactions that occur through play tell children that we are fully paying attention to them. Parents who take the opportunity to glimpse their children’s world through play also learn to communicate more effectively with their children and gain another setting to offer gentle, nurturing guidance.
If we want children to enjoy the many benefits derived from play, we need to make a determined effort to limit the over-scheduled, overstretched atmosphere in many families. We have to make more time for free, exploratory play. Unfortunately, we may feel like we’re swimming upstream because we receive carefully marketed messages that “good” parents expose children to every opportunity to excel, buy a plethora of enrichment tools, and ensure that children participate in a wide variety of activities. As a result, much of parent-child time is spent arranging special activities or transporting children between those activities.
It is not clear whether this rushed, jam-packed routine is offering a developmental benefit or producing children who are better prepared for the future, but it is clear that this lifestyle has repercussions. Many parents experience frustration and feel that they're running on a treadmill to keep up, yet they dare not slow their pace for fear that their children will fall behind.
We need to take a deep breath and find an appropriate balance between preparing for the future and living fully in the present through play and rich parent-child interaction. That balance will be different for every child, based on individual academic needs, temperament, environment, and family situation. With so much pressure to prepare kids for the future, it is important to have a professional to turn to who can reinforce the importance of some of the basic, tried-and-true aspects of child rearing. Talk with your child’s pediatrician and teachers about turning down the pressure, trimming some activities from your child’s schedule, and allowing him more time to play in an unstructured, relaxed way.
Children aren’t the only victims of over-scheduling and lack of free play. The whole family may suffer. Parents who are burdened by work responsibilities and maintaining a household find themselves sacrificing their own downtime because they need to arrange activities and drive children between appointments. The pressures they feel to meet every single need they perceive (or are told) their children require to excel make them feel inadequate and ultimately have less personal satisfaction as parents.
Most importantly, parents miss opportunities for high quality time with children. Some of the best interactions occur during downtime—just talking, preparing meals together, working on a hobby or an art project, playing sports together, or being immersed in child-centered play. To the extent that over-scheduling interferes with essential parent-child time, it is a problem that may lead to less competent, less resilient children.
Play offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Some play should be entirely child-driven, with parents either not present or observing passively from the sidelines, because play builds many assets that children need to develop and remain resilient. Spontaneous, creative, unstructured play is a terrific opportunity for children to become more competent on their own and thus more confident. Studies have shown that when adults drive or direct play, children acquiesce to adult rules and lose much of the benefit of play (creativity, learning, negotiation, and a sense of control). If we regulate children’s time and activities to the exclusion of free, leisurely play, we deny them the opportunity to figure out what they’re good at and what they enjoy doing.
When children play alone or with friends by engaging their imaginations and talents in a wide-open arena without hovering adults, they explore a variety of interests and discover what they like to do. The more they enjoy it, the more they do it, and the better they become at it. But all too frequently, an adult steps in and says, “I see you and your friends like putting on puppet shows. Maybe you’d like to take a drama class. I’ll find one and sign you up.”
Before you know it, child’s play is no longer play because parents have turned it into “practice” or “lessons.” Some children may genuinely enjoy pursuing these interests in a structured way. Others will be turned off quickly. If they’d been allowed to pursue their interests in an unstructured way, they might have enjoyed mastering new skills. Perhaps most important in terms of enhancing resilience, they learn what kinds of activities or hobbies, can take them away on an instant vacation as a means to relax.
Going With the Flow
The phenomenon of losing oneself in a pleasurable, rewarding experience is often called flow. It's becoming absorbed in a deep, genuine interest or passion that has bubbled up from inside. A cellist loses herself in the music she’s playing, or an athlete practices over and over while time stands still. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Finding Flow, explain this complete absorption in activity. Flow can produce experiences that are simultaneously demanding, enjoyable, and valuable.
Parents sometimes tell me that their children are self-driven in avidly pursuing a sport or other activity, but this may not always be flow. When the drive truly comes from within a child, it is wonderful and should be supported. On the other hand, if a child’s drive is motivated more by a desire to please parents than self-satisfaction or joy, this drive can become one more stressor in the child’s life. It is far better to let children explore their interests freely, discover their own flow, and follow it without imposing too much structure on their activities. We can put a little wind behind children’s sails to support them, but the direction should come from them.
At the moment I am writing this, a gaggle of little boys is playing in an alley behind 20 Philadelphia row houses. No parents are in sight. The boys are 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds of different heights and sizes. The smallest run to keep up with the bigger boys. From their enthusiastic shouts, it’s easy to tell that they have devised a new twist on hide-and-seek. They break into teams and split up. Some dash up steps and through a neighbor’s yard before hiding behind a garage. The other team grabs their bikes and races down the alley.
This could be a Dick and Jane scene from the 1950s or Wally and the Beaver in the 1960s when children played outdoors by themselves all day long. Unfortunately, concerns for kids’ physical safety and the need for working parents to enroll children in after-school programs have nearly placed free play on the endangered species list.
Play relates to competence. Give your child as many opportunities as possible to play freely if you want him to discover his likes and skills. Your child will reap an internal satisfaction from being good at something, whether it’s building towers of blocks when he’s 4 or staging plays when he’s 14. Don’t you wish you had more time to play now? Wouldn’t your work life be more productive if you had that right balance of work and pleasure? Your child learns this balance by choosing how to spend his unscheduled time while still getting his chores and work done. He will be a happier, healthier and more successful adult if he learns to mix achievement and pleasure now.
Please don’t misread my advocacy for play as anti-enrichment activities. It would be wonderful if enrichment activities were available to all children. I wish every child had an opportunity to build athletic and artistic prowess and reach academic heights. I also want every child to have the balance that includes enrichment and play, schoolwork and sleep. My concern is that unscheduled, free playtime is considered expendable when different forces compete for a child’s time. It is not; it is the work of childhood.
This article was first published in the Spring-Summer 2012 issue of Young Children. It was edited and excerpted from Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011). by its author, Kenneth R. Ginsburg , M.D.