We all want what is best for our children. We want what will serve them well presently and in the future. This way of thinking and the countless other pressures within the child rearing community lead us to think about the importance of getting children involved in after school activities, get tutoring on the weekends to get ahead, and have every moment of the day scheduled.
Now, more than ever, “home life” is dwindling. As adults, there is an urgency to spend nights and weekends “getting ready” for something: after a party is finished, there is another one to start thinking about; when a project has finally passed and all the preparations have paid off, there is the next project for another client; once the lasagna has been prepped for the week, it is time to start thinking about next week’s meal prep. All this has created a culture that spends a lot of time thinking ahead, but not enough time living in the moment. It has created a schedule that puts an individual more on the go, and less inside the home.
Unfortunately, this ideology is popping up sooner in life. How many times are three-year-olds signed up for soccer, ballet, or early coding “to help find their passion?” HINT: A child should be signed up for these activities because they can’t stop kicking any movable object at home, is twirling and moving to every kind of music, or are at least five years of age to truly start any valuable computer interactions. Children should dictate any extracurricular activity because passions are found through self-discovery.
Every year during parent conferences, parents convey the pressure they feel to sign their kids up for extra classes after school and on the weekends because they hear other parents doing it. Unfortunately, an afterthought when planning extracurricular activities is the transition from one to another. Students come to school exhausted and unprepared to face the rigors of academia because they have spent 2.5 hours in traffic to get to their after-school activities the day before. Downtime is only actually relaxing when it occurs in a comfortable space. Parents of sleep-training children might remember that a nap in the car seat in between errands is not the same as a nap in the crib. Resting in the car in between activities is not and should not count as “down time” for school-aged children.
Our advice is always the same: if your child does not actually need extra support, let them spend their extra time on something that makes them happy. Or better yet: let them figure out what to do with their own time. Some parents feel the pressure to be ahead in certain academic subjects, but what’s the rush? Kids are growing up way too fast and need more balance.
It might seem logical to think that your child will get an upper hand by being enrolled in any of the many tutoring programs that promise precious 1:1 time with your little one. However, in a culture that values the ability to effectively collaborate as a strong suit, your child will probably benefit more from spending his free time reading or playing by himself and bringing his discoveries to playdates with his peers. When children are genuinely interested in something, they have elaborate discussions about the topic with their peers, even more so compared to structured discussions in class. They recall events from books they have read or listened to or movies they watched, and dissect them with their friends. They might identify and enumerate all the spells from Harry Potter, discover patterns in the Percy Jackson series, or debate over which superhero has the best super powers. How many times have we seen children play house, where the parent takes care of the babies and the babies act extremely needy, wanting the constant attention of their mommy?
A child’s unstructured time entertains the possibilities of organically thinking through depth and complexity. Children who are given ample opportunities to “kick the can” make these valuable discoveries on their own. They might label and identify their thinking with icons in class, but we need to remember that these are prompts that naturally occur in the way children spend their free time–whether they are working on their own or interacting with their friends and family. It is important for children to receive information, whether it is from school, a walk around the museum, or a family trip to Yosemite. However, it is equally important for them to have time to digest all the information and interpret it internally or with their peers. This is when their curiosity peers through and new discoveries are made.
Home is a safe space for children where they can rest, eat, play, and rejuvenate. Enjoy this time at home where you’re not rushing off to the next activity. Our children need this time to remain balanced. Find days when you don’t ever leave the house, stay in your pajamas all day, or have a movie marathon. Time when everyone is just reading for fun, or engaged in a board game with the whole family. This time is important for family units to connect in a fun, relaxed way.
It is equally important to have unstructured time at home and is a necessity for developing healthy kids. It fosters independence and responsibility. They need this time to be creative, to play, to go outside and explore. This is when they discover their passions. We have to give our kids the opportunity to just be children. We have to teach them balance by modeling balance. You can model hobbies by also spending time doing things you are passionate about. Now is the time to bake, woodwork, sew, or pursue something that will allow you to model for your child happiness and balance at home. Don’t be afraid to let your children be bored. They are smart, and they will realize the value of unstructured time.
Keeping a balance at school is just as important. School needs to be a place where kids develop a love for learning. It should be a joyous place where they can feel connected and part of a community. Yes, it is important to get through the curriculum so students are learning the academics and social emotional learning necessary for development. It is also extremely important for students to have unstructured time at school, time for choice, time for play, time for brain breaks, and time for passion projects. These things keep kids motivated and will create space for discovery, inspire creativity, and connection among peers.
We have to be aware that kids are at school 7 or 8 hours a day. Some even longer if they have working parents who drop them off early or need to send them to after school care. We need to be aware of how our students are feeling day to day and we need to create the balance they need to be successful and productive.
Students are doing school work all day long. It is important to keep homework to a minimum. If you do assign homework, make sure it is relevant and not just busy work. According to the National PTA “homework has the potential to negatively impact family and child interactions, and high quantities of homework not only add to stress, but do not necessarily lead to higher achievement outcomes.” They recommend only 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade and add 10 minutes of homework in each grade after.
Today more than ever, kids are growing up way too fast. We are raising kids who are stressed and depressed. It is our job as parents and teachers to help them create more balance and give them the space to be kids. We might only see our children or students for part of the day, but we need to make sure we are accounting for the entire day. Let’s all slow down, live in the moment, and stop rushing our kids through their childhood.