The Problem with Our Scheduled World

7am wake up
8am leave for school
9am school
3:30pm piano lesson/swimming/soccer/art/you name it
5:30pm homework
6:30pm dinner
7pm more homework
9pm bed

What’s missing?

Starting at a young age, children’s days are being more and more filled with various activities as parents rush to ensure their child does enough extra-curriculars, takes part in enough sports, gets good enough grades moving forward... In short, parents are trying to make sure their children are prepared for the future.

But are they?

More and more, children are missing out on the most important element of childhood: Play.  Between school, work, and driving from activity to activity, few kids have the chance to just sit back and do whatever they want for a chunk of the day, every day.  As adults, many of us may wonder what the big deal is.  After all, we spend most of our days doing things that we have to do, without the luxury of free play or exploration, so isn’t this just preparing kids even more for the “real world”?

It turns out the answer is no.

Free play and unstructured time is incredibly important to young and old children alike.  Researchers in Europe have found that free and unstructured play is linked to cognitive and emotional outcomes, with children who are not given the opportunity to engage in enough self-directed play demonstrated lower emotion well-being and lower cognitive scores.  Indeed, the introduction of play times (and only play times) for at-risk children (such as those in orphanages) results in increases on motor, cognitive, and social functioning.  It should go without saying that cognitive and social skills are essential to our children’s well-being and later outcomes, far more so than the number of sports they took part in.

More recently a study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that 6-year-old children who spend less time in structured environments and more time in unstructured environments (from playing outside to reading a book to visiting the zoo) were more likely to set their own goals and reach them without the assistance or nagging from adults.  It turns out that the structure we are heaping on kids seems to limit the development of their executive function, and executive function is linked to the ability to regulate oneself, delay gratification, and in turn, succeed.

What are parents to do?

First, parents need to make sure their child isn’t overstructured, and this starts at a young age.  Children in daycare and preschools are increasingly losing their free play time in favour of structured activities with adults looking over them.  Exploration play – especially physical, rough-and-tumble play which is one of the essential play types for kids – is even more limited.  This means as parents we need to ensure that our kids are given the opportunity each day to direct their own play.  Instead of picking up your child from daycare or preschool and having the rest of the day be filled until bedtime, don’t assume your child had enough self-directed play that day and make sure your child is given some time to explore and play alone, even if it’s just half an hour to start.

Second, take note of the five types of play that are important to a child’s development:

  1. Physical play – includes exercise (climbing, jumping, etc.), rough-and-tumble, and fine motor skills (sewing, colouring, cutting, etc.)

  2. Play with objects

  3. Symbolic play – includes using language and numbers in play, drawing, musical play, etc.

  4. Pretence/socio-dramatic play

  5. Games with rules – includes card games, board games, etc.

In our society children often get time for some of these types of play, but not all.  Physical play is especially lacking and yet is just as important for children’s development as the other types of play.  Games with rules also seem to be on the decline in favour of more structured teaching of skills (like flashcards) yet they are as effective while being fun for the child (for some examples of learning games, see here and here).

Finally, set limits on the number of activities you sign your child up for.  Realize that less structure is going to help your child, not more.  If you think your kid needs to be doing everything, realize they can try it all over time.  If you are insistent that your child take part in myriad activities, a good rule of thumb might be to have your child engage in a sport, a musical instrument, an artistic endeavor, and an intellectual one over the span of one year, not one term.  This opens up time for your child to also explore on his or her own, develop their own interests which will likely guide what activities they choose later, ensuring they enjoy the activities and see them as not just another thing to do.

In short, it’s time to let the kids run free.


By Tracy Cassels

November 24, 2014