It’s come to this: Doctors are now being told to prescribe play. The American Academy of Pediatrics details the urgency of the matter in a policy statement.
There is a play deficit going about, and we know it, don’t we? In articles about parenting, it seems that there’s no breed dissected more than that of the bubble-wrapped child who’s shuttled from Mandarin to fencing to organic cheese making classes until bedtime.
We love reminiscing about the days when we could hop on bikes and meander for hours with the neighbourhood kids (few of whose names our parents ever took the time to learn), and yearn for our kids to have that experience. We’ve learned that play enhances brain structure, helps kids practice empathy, and makes them more creative and innovative.
And yet it’s strangely difficult to crack some of the structure of children’s lives.
I know that I feel some pressure to add more adult instruction to my daughter’s days when I’m handed an 3cm-thick packet of extracurricular activities by her school teacher (“Ooh, robotics fight club”), or when other parents ask me what her schedule looks like for spring (“Um, we’ve got Halloween?”), or when I read interviews by musicians and dancers and athletes who mention they started their paths to mastery at age three (“Argh, we’re already too late!”).
To back off, it takes some real willpower and planning. Here are some tips for unscheduling your child in today’s overscheduled world.
You don’t need to move to the woods so your kids can frolic in streams all day to give your family more healthy play time.
There are benefits of having scheduled activities — higher self-esteem, lower rates of drug and alcohol use over time, and social bonds. Some parents of junior high school students told me that having their kids deeply involved in extracurriculars they love is what has kept them mostly safe during a time of peer pressure and emotional disarray.
The goal here is simply to protect your kids’ downtime. Denise Pope, one of the authors of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids, tells The New York Times that young children need an hour of play time (which does not include dinner or homework or baths) for every after-school scheduled hour.
You might set a rule for your kids such as one sport or activity per season. (I’ve decided to put my daughter in another voice class, which she absolutely loves.) You have to find the right balance for your family.
Start With a Good Playtime Setting
Dr Robert Murray, the lead author of the AAP report "The Crucial Role of Recess", tells me, “Parents can absolutely help their child find safe, interesting environments for them to explore — but it’s important to let him or her self-direct.”
He suggests playgrounds, beaches and streams, the bush and parks, fields, the zoo, local farms, or indoor spaces where kids can pretend play with peers. Wherever you choose to go, step back and give them some “BE Time”, which he describes as the antidote to parent-directed activities.
At home, give kids access to open-ended materials to tinker with, even stuff you might see as junk. Blocks are always awesome, but so are random pieces of string, aluminium foil, masking tape, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls and emptied shampoo bottles.
Prepare for the Suck
Realise that it’s sometimes hard to give kids downtime. On weekends, the first thing my daughter asks when she wakes up is “Where are we going today?” When I tell her nowhere, she whines and declares that is so boring. And then parent-friends will start texting me: “What are you up to today? Wanna bring the kids to library story time? Or princess ballet class? Or go watch a movie?”
And I often want to say “Yes!” It would be easy to strap my kid into the car and do any one of those things. But it’s good to sometimes say no. I know that my daughter’s groans will eventually turn to silence, and as I do my own thing around the house, I’ll often find her cheerfully playing with her dollhouse or making something out of a cardboard box or drawing with chalk in the backyard.
Put white space on your calendar and prepare for some protests. Then find something to do and let your kids do the same.
Connect With Other Back-Off Parents
Some parents are finding that as much as they want to unschedule their kids, there’s a problem: Their children have no one to play with. Playgrounds are barren as every other kid is off at chess or tae kwon do at 3:30PM. Talk to your friends who are caregivers, or connect with other parents at your kid's schools. You can also visit parenting forums online, where you're bound to find others who think their kids could use more unstructured time.
Once you find other likeminded mums and dads, you might consider setting up a play street, in which community members transform a residential block into a car-free space for children and families to play together, say, either weekly or monthly, or lobby schools to start their own play clubs, in which they keep their gyms or playgrounds open till dinnertime for self-directed free play.
It’s true that unscheduling kids takes a lot more work than it did years ago. But after doing it, you may very well find that your family will be less stressed and happier. And plus, it’s the doctor’s orders.