Our Children’s Busyness Is Not A Badge of Honour (And Why We Need To Change It)

Life

He was nowhere to be found. I’d only been inside for a minute.

In the few panic stricken seconds it took me to find him, I had wild visions of a cougar having leaped over the fence and snatching my four-year-old son from our backyard.

Of course, my mama bear imagination had gotten the better of me and he was simply being little and curious. Moments earlier, he’d been playing happily with his water toys on our deck but then he heard our neighbour’s little girls playing nextdoor.

Through a small hole in our excessively tall suburban wooden fence he was trying to ask his friends if they wanted to play – only they couldn’t hear him.

When I saw our neighbour the next day I mentioned the sweet invitation and asked “Were they free this week?”.

They were eager to play but neither girl was available for another six weeks. Between school and organised activities, every time slot was accounted for. Their schedule was full.

Disbelief and sadness washed over me as I recollected the excitement of jumping our neighbour’s fence decades ago; to play, have fun and claim a sense of freedom.

It suddenly dawned on me that even if my son could scale eight foot tall fences, the walls we have erected around our children’s free time are impenetrable.

I don’t blame my neighbour; she is in the norm and I’m acutely aware that by simplifying my son’s childhood I am the odd parent out. And that makes it hard.

When we go to our local park on weekdays it’s either empty, as kids as young as three years old are in “school”. Or if it’s after school it’s chock-full of organized sports with adults, not children, making the rules. It seems no space remains for free play.

Developmental Psychologist David Elkind reports that kids have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week in the last two decades. A report titled, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School, published by the Alliance for Childhood, reported that kindergartners in New York and Los Angeles spend nearly three hours per day on reading and math instruction, and less than thirty minutes each day on “choice” or play time.

Children are spending more time in organized activities than ever before and it’s having an impact, both mentally and physically. Overuse injuries in kids and teenagers from specialisation in single sports are escalating. Dr James Andrews, orthopedic surgeon, reports that he now treats four times as many overuse injuries in youth sports than five years ago.

Doing too much, too soon, too often is to blame.

In trading away our young children’s down time we’re also seeing significantly lower levels of creativity in young adults. It’s not the organized activities themselves that destroy creativity but the lack of down time. Even two hours per week of unstructured play can boost children’s creativity to above-average levels.

With kids being carted from one activity to the next, the days of kids being kids and playing all day long has been erased from our society’s collective memory. We’ve devalued what children need most and replaced it with excessive adult control.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, evaluated results from a questionnaire called the Children’s Nowicki-Stricklund Internal-External Control Scale from the 1960’s through to 2002. She discovered an alarming move away from an internal towards an external locus of control in children of all ages with the trend being even more pronounced in younger children.

Why is this a concern? Because children with a bias towards externality are more likely to focus on goals such as materialism and status, rather than pursuing intrinsic aims which bring true and lasting happiness. They experience a sense of helplessness, decreased self-control, and a predisposition to narcissism, anxiety and depression.

Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, believes, as do I that the decline of free play is largely responsible; after all, play is the only part of a child’s world in which they’re freely able to express their control.

So, why have we taken something so beneficial away? I believe, like most things in life, we don’t appreciate something of value until it’s gone. I also believe that we’ve bought into the fear that we, as parents, are responsible for ensuring our kids’ future success.

We rationalise that if starting soccer at five years of age is a good idea, then starting at two must be even better. That enrolling our children in art class is more productive than drawing with chalk on the driveway. That playing in a baseball team hones skills more effectively than casually hitting a ball at the park on sunday afternoon with a group of friends and made up rules.

We worry that if we don’t give our children every opportunity that we’re failing them.

I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Shefali Tsabury speak at an event in Vancouver recently. After her talk the audience was free to ask questions. A father asked, “How do we know how much to push our kids in sports and activities when they want to give up?”

I will never forget Dr. Shefali’s answer. She said, “Mozart was always going to be Mozart. No matter what his parents did, he would have found anything that was black and white and played it.” Her message was clear; we don’t need to push our kids.

We need to give them the space and freedom that a simple childhood provides and then support them by making opportunities available when they show an interest. We need to release the pressure, guilt and obligation we put on ourselves to give our children more than they need; organised activities can be wonderful and our son participates in a select few, but it’s healthiest as an a-la-carte experience not an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Because childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood; it is its own unique and magical period of life that needs to be respected and preserved. I refuse to over-schedule my son’s time because in doing so it would leave no space for him to live his childhood. Even though he may be little, he deserves to feel a sense of control and at his age free play is the answer.

Yet, perhaps of all the elements of simplifying childhood that I’ve written about, simplifying schedules seems to be the one that causes the most controversy. Yet, it’s a relatively easy thing to do; there are no secrets or special tips you need to do it. It’s as simple as paring back, being mindful, choosing our YES’s and NO’s wisely. I think what stops us from simplifying is fear.

Fear of missing out. Fear that we may be impeding our children’s future success. Fear of what other’s may think.

It takes a leap of faith and a brave parent to trust that simplifying our children’s lives and giving them down time to play, connect with their families and create simple joy is what our kids really need. It is more than ok to prioritise family time, to want to spend our kids childhood with them and not always on the sidelines. To truly BE with them, not just DOING things for them.

Our kids don’t need to be enrolled, entertained, scheduled, supervised, coached, or assessed in an adult directed activity to be happy. They are perfectly capable of leading the way and directing their own lives. While busyness may have been glorified in our modern day society; it is not a badge of honour and we need to prevent it from compromising our kids’ childhoods.

Let’s give them the freedom to be unbusy. Let’s protect our kids from society’s time thieves. Let’s find the courage to “miss out”. Let’s create white space in our children’s lives and give them the freedom to paint it with the vibrant colors they choose. I have no doubt they’ll create works of art beyond our wildest imaginations.

COMMENTS
  • June 23, 2018
    Gab

    I have a hard time having my husband understand this. He thinks every minute of our six-year-old that is not filled with a class is time wasted he could have spent on learning a skill, and when I try to advocate for the unstructured play he argues, but isn’t it great that he now knows how to ice-skate, ski, bicycle, rock-climb, dance, play piano, baseball, tennis, soccer, basketball, skateboard and ride horses? And he does enjoy all classes so I am left with no argument…

    • July 04, 2018
      Korie

      Maybe you could ask your husband what he enjoyed from his childhood. And maybe talk with him about special moments from yours. This may help draw the focus to open-ended free time and the benefits it brings!

    • July 05, 2018
      Karla

      I’m sorry about this frustration. Maybe point him to child development books? As an occupational therapist, I can say there is absolutely nothing more important, no other priority in roles and responsibilities for a child than PLAY. That’s it. It truly is essential and enriching, develops their imagination, their ability to adjust, problem-solve, think outside the box, not to mention other abilities that are naturally developed through play such as gross motor, fine motor, coordination, etc.

      • August 01, 2018
        kirralin23

        My son is in occupational therapy for sensory issues. All of his therapy at the therapists office is structured play, mostly heavy activities. He needs heavy activities every couple of hours, with messy play mixed in throughout the day. He has some other requirements too; but almost everything boils down to working and playing. When we do a heavy activity like yard work, it’s always followed by a now you do whatever you want and I follow your lead time. Even a lot of the heavy activities we do in the house, like activities on the yoga ball, just naturally evolve from okay you did what you need to and now I’m doing what you want without him really noticing the transition. He loves to be in control of what’s happening.

  • June 25, 2018
    Karen

    I’m curious if, through your reading, you found an age that seems to be ok to be more structured with more activities. Or if we simply follow our kids desires to join the activity, maybe that’s the signal to take part? My kids are older 8,10,11,13. The 8yo still has a pretty open schedule but the other three want to try new things. Here is what I’ve found interesting — it’s been easier to sign up for activities at older ages. The younger classes seem to fill up quickly but the older classes have more spaces. The downside to trying activities as an older kid is that I have had to get special permission from the coaches or instructors- this was a shock to me. I had no idea that in some activities 13 is considered too old to start. I had to defend our multi sport/free play lifestyle and prove that my daughter (13) wants to learn and will be capable to learn. It feels ridiculous to me that it was even an issue but getting into new activities and sports (some, not all are like this) as an older child (12+) is more challenging than I thought. But at the same time kids are starting to drop out at 14 so there is space in the programs. It’s been interesting to navigate especially knowing that free play and free time is so essential to childhood. Thanks for your write up.

  • June 25, 2018
    Tianna

    Hi,
    I agree…to a certain extent. My boys are 13 and 16 and are passionate about the arts. They attend a performing arts school and CHOOSE to be extremely busy. If they have free time, they take another dance, vocal, or instrumental class. I think if kids are busy in a healthy way and are happy, let them be busy. 😊

    • July 09, 2018
      Amy

      You know your kids best, but with ours, we really encourage them to leave some time for themselves, to just “be.” Maybe 4-5 hours a week (it doesn’t have to be all in one big chunk). Sometimes we, even as adults, get so enthusiastic about something that we jump in with both feet, wholeheartedly… but we should leave a little room to absorb the knowledge and experience, to be available for family and friends, and to listen to our own inner voice. Get to know ourselves, not just the things that interest us. To “be still.”
      Especially in the arts, it’s great to learn the techniques and methods and share ideas with others, but imho, creative self-expression is done best when the artist really knows himself.
      And that takes time. 🙂
      Just my $0.02.

  • June 25, 2018
    Amy

    Thank you for this! I am trying to find a balance. I find that our life is too busy for my liking, but society expects us to have our kids doing, doing, doing. I am not a driven personality, and find it absolutely draining and exhausting, and I don’t like the Mom I become when I’m too busy. I want my kids to have good memories of their childhood. Not memories of me yelling at them to get in the vehicle, and hurry up.

  • June 26, 2018
    Daphne

    Hi,

    That’s a beautiful article and makes me want to consider your perspective. Could you please let me know how old your son is and how many activities does he attend outside of home. Since you said you have enrolled him in some activities. Just to have a ballpark understanding of how much is too much ?

  • June 26, 2018
    Becca

    Thank you for this reminder, it’s true. My son is ten and does a couple of after school clubs but I make sure he has free time on the other days and weekends to do what kids need to do. Explore life in a creative way. My sons tablet or TVs time is limited and if he says he is bored I say….. go and find something to do, he does and usually ends up creating something whether it’s art or craft or a game or reads or writes a poem. They need space to explore who they are and how they fit in the world around them.

  • June 26, 2018
    Bethany

    Yes, yes, yes, and more yes! I have been feeling this so much lately. I don’t want my kids to be signed up for much — they are seven and five and they should be allowed to be kids and explore and play outside. They have so much structure at school — they don’t need it every second of their lives. Thanks so much for validating my feelings!

  • June 27, 2018
    Jungle Momma

    Thank you for this. We are a homeschooling family who spends a little time doing formal learning (about an hour a day) and the rest of the time playing, exploring and learning through experience. My sons are 5 & 7 so up until recently I have been very keen on unstructured play. My older son did take music lessons this year, but neither had any interest in doing anything organized. I sometimes worry that they are ‘missing out’ but they tell me they love their life so I think they’re fine! They are incredibly creative and imaginative and I believe it is because they have had so much opportunity and freedom to play.

    • September 27, 2018
      Dawn

      So long as your children still enjoy learning. I home edded mine now 27 and 30. It was probably harder then but neither child has ant complaints. My Grandaughter is 2 and I hope to do the same with her. All of it is valuable, all of it is learning. Never worry.

  • June 27, 2018
    Didi

    Great article, thanks! I’m an expat living in Italy, and have always found it unbelievable how busy and scheduled kids lives “have to” be over here from a very young age, even birthday parties. I first came over as an au pair, so have a lot of “insider experience”. Now the mom of an almost 6 year old, and have always sought out and created opportunities for her to just run around wild and be a child, I’m also thrilled that we have found an elementary school with very much the same mindset. Most of the day is spent outdoors and each individual child’s abilities and talents are catered to and nurtured. Thanks again for this wonderful article!

  • June 28, 2018
    Tina

    One of the best articles I’ve read in a very long time. Thank you. Very happy to share because I think its such an important message for parents to read.

  • June 29, 2018
    Diego

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

  • June 29, 2018
    Tracy

    I had to protect my child’s free time while he was growing up. I felt that structured adult run activities all of the time would cripple his creativity and ability to problem solve. Socially they do not learn the art of negotiable and compromise. He is an adult now. He is happy and lives a peaceful life with creative outlets. Allowing him to choose what he wanted to do as a child has lead him into adulthood with the ability to make good decisions with confidence. How can this happen if children are being told what to do all of the time. In my opinion children are so stifled and stressed and it is leading to depression and suicide. Let kids be kids. Let them be free thinkers and problem solvers. Guide them but do not control them. It is imperative to their happiness as they take their place in adult society.

  • June 29, 2018
    Amber

    I have a three, five, seven, nine-year-old. Because I had them so close together I could barely take a breath between diaper changes and meals for many years. So during those years I couldn’t even imagine adding activities. I adopted the whole idea of free play out of complete necessity. Also, because that was the way I was raised on the farm in Missouri as a child. Chores and then play, that’s how I was raised and I felt free.
    Thank you for this article, sometimes I feel pressured or shamed for not having my kids busy all the time in this or that. We let our boys play in a very simple baseball league last summer at the YMCA. This year we could not afford it and my boys didn’t even seem to mind. They just want to play with the neighbors or sit and read a book when they get home from school. One of my children loves to create things out of cardboard and tape and other things he finds around the house. He couldn’t read these great books or create if we were going to another lesson. Perhaps we will do lessons someday when I see a child with a gift, but for now we will just develop our gifts at home where it is free$ 😜.

  • June 29, 2018

    You spoke my heart and my words. I’ve written on this topic for years. I’ve felt alone, viewed as an oddity, a squelcher of organized fun. Thank you for such an important article. Feel free to check out my blog at Debbiespence.com where I write about enjoying an unhurried life.

  • June 29, 2018
    mary

    Maybe to help our children, social interaction should be a scheduled “lesson”.(Playing with others is a very important skill)

    • July 02, 2018
      Tracy Gillett

      Absolutely Mary!

  • June 30, 2018
    Tracy P Barton Niles

    THIS. is PURE GOLD! Our daughter is in VERY few organized activities. I can count ONE. Riding lessons. Of her choosing. The rest of the time, when not homeschooling she is out of doors, playing! Unfortunately, many of her friends want to be indoors on electronic devices or playing video games. On days where it may be sprinkling, NO ONE will come out. Their parents won’t let them! 🙁 One little girl that lives about two blocks away said: I want to come play with you , but you live so far away!!!! I have no more words!

    • July 02, 2018
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much Tracy and thank you for sharing! Great to know I am not alone! And so happy to hear that homeschooling is going so well for you – we are headed down a similar path and for similar reasons. We want to avoid the screen addiction – our son is so much happier and calmer when he hasn’t been watching anything and just playing outside. Thank you again! Love your honesty.

    • July 03, 2018
      Tina Kaufman

      I grew up in the country in the 1960s with 8 siblings & lots of cousins for neighbors. Some of my best childhood memories are playing outdoor games with them in the evenings after chores. Games like; Kick the can, Red Rover..send some one right over, Red light..Green light, no bears out tonight, Hide & Seek & Annie- i-over, to name a few. We would play until dark sometimes in the summer. It was so fun, especially when we would change the rules or make up our own, depending on different scenarios. These games were great excercise for us! So i am wondering if anyone else commenting on this article had a similiar childhood? We should teach these games to our children & grandchildren when we spend time with them in the summer, instead of organized sports & activitys all the time..just a thought.

  • July 01, 2018

    Wow. So glad I gave my daughter so much free time as a child. We were involved in a home-schooling co-op 1 day a week and around that we engaged in local public library programs that appealed to her. We read together and played with math…and every afternoon she’d play with co-housing friends, both home-schooled and not.

    Now She’s a teen and likes to read all day, or spend time in the garden. I bought her more microscope plates and covers to make slides with when she’s inspired to and let her design her day according to what moves her. She tried middle school, but the social dynamics there were extremely disheartening, to when she fell and suffered a concussion, I let her return to home-schooling.

    I’m glad I did this for her. She’s in better spirits than when she was in school. The summer hear leaves her with little energy to do more than read and draw, and I accept that as her wisdom for knowing what she needs and taking care of those needs.

    I am grateful that there are other parents who believe in bucking the trend of busyness to give their children time to be children.

    • July 02, 2018
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience Karen! It is heartening to me as my son is 5 years old now and we plan to go down a homeschooling route. We are trying to put together a homeschooling group in our area too – so good to have the social dynamic in place. Thank you again and I am so happy to hear that your daughter is so happy with the path you have taken! xx

  • July 01, 2018
    Amy

    I absolutely love what you are saying, but the Mozart quote is ironically off base. If you know the true history of Mozart, you know he was relentlessly pushed to excessively practice and travel exhaustively to audition from a very tender age, and his Father was pushy. As a performer myself I have seen that most pro performers seem to have similarily extreme upbringings, and sometimes as adults they are happy and well adjusted, but equally or more often they are emotionally challenged. I won’t be trying to raise a Mozart myself and if my kids show amazing skill in something it will be a challenge, I’m sure, to support them in the demands of that lifestyle while keeping them healthy and free. Probably too many parents fool themselves into thinking they are raising a Mozart. 😉

    • July 02, 2018
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Amy! And the Mozart quote was from Dr Shefali – she could have chosen anyone, its more a metaphor than meaning to be literal. Just saying if your child is destined to be an incredible sprinter or basketball player or cricket player or dancer they will show you and find a way. Agree on the irony but I don’t take it literally. Thanks again and I won’t be raising a Mozart either 🙂

  • July 04, 2018
    Eric

    I love this article, and agree wholeheartedly, but the Justified format makes it difficult to read smoothly. Could you adjust it so it is left formatted? That would take the spaces out from between the letters in the words causing the eyes to read over it more fluently and increase readership.

    • July 04, 2018
      Tracy Gillett

      Its in the works Eric! I am planning a redesign and that’s on the list to be left justified 🙂 Thanks for the feedback!

  • July 06, 2018
    Delphine Arnault

    What an amazing article, my seven year old told me last week that there is no way she s doing a camp!she said she wants to be free and make the most of the summer!
    I said “no problem”, I m so glad she s knows what she wants, and doesn’t t feel powerless, it s wonderful and I hope she always follows her guidance system as it is the only thing one should listen!

  • July 07, 2018
    Don

    Amazing article and I agree full heartily. I am working with local educators and designers to redesign daycare outdoor spaces to follow the tenants of outdoor play, so this article ticks a lot of my boxes. What I think we should also discuss is that free play is a learned skill for both parents and children, and that simply stopping structured activities for a family may be as equally frustrating. If a child has had years of structured activities it may take some time to develop the creativity and confidence to figure out one full hour of self play at the beginning and parents may need to deal with a child who’s playing close to the hip at first.
    My 3 year old has gone from 20mins to 2 hours of self guided free play time but that has taking almost a year and sometimes we still only get 20 mins.
    So as this movement hopefully takes hold we should also encourage little victories at first and that any free play, inside or out, has value.

    Cheers

  • July 07, 2018
    Annie

    Great article! The biggest piece I struggle with is the lack of social opportunity. I grew up roaming from yard to yard with neighbors. Unfortunately no one comes out to play so even if my son has unstructured time he ends up all alone. This breaks my heart.

    • July 09, 2018
      Alexis Lantz

      This.

    • September 02, 2018
      Meriam

      Same here for my 3 year old. We go out to the park or play ground daily, but there is no one else to play with. All the other kids are in kindy or other programs. Any tips anyone?

  • July 08, 2018
    Darlene Wiederin

    Thanks Kay for putting this article out there for all to read. It is absolutely the best I have ever read. I believe in kids playing and having friends over. I have always said I am so glad I lived in the days when kids were kids. I hope everyone reads this and thinks seriously about it. Lets go back to the good ole days and enjoy our kids and play with them.

  • July 17, 2018
    Dana

    I love this article. This is so true. I allowed and continue to allow my younger kids to have lots of free time. We never did a lot of organized activities. I work at the YMCA and yesterday a 5 year old came in telling me how exhausted he was. It was 10 in the morning and he just came from hockey camp and was going to swim lessons. Then he complained to me that he had “regular” hockey practice that night. I thought how crazy considering this boy was only 5. I am sure the mother didn’t even recognize the exhaustion in her own child. It is so sad that kids’ lives these days are so structured there is no time to just be.

  • July 19, 2018
    Rachael

    I hear you! I crave balance and down time because I’m overstimulated easily. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a plethora of free time as a kid. Not sure. I remember being happy but I also remember being bored a lot but I do have a ton of creativity now as an exhausted mother of 3, trying to keep up with year-round athletic schedules for my twin girls (8). Soccer is the real killer; indoor/outdoor, weeknight practices, rain or shine, bright and early on a Saturday and sometimes Sundays, games up to an hour away, hours to kill between games, games on Mother’s Day, and unfortunately for me it’s their favorite sport. I begged my husband to switch them to a local, rec team but my he sincerely believes our girls are budding Olympians in everything they attempt. We continuously disagree about how to parent and manage their free time. My husband likes to plan out his entire schedule, so it makes sense he likes to do the same with our kids. I like to live day by day, so you can imagine the daily struggle there. There are pros and cons to both. Thank God our youngest is 19 months and won’t be participating in any regularly structured events for a while. I guess the silver lining is he gets to play with a variety of kids while his sisters are busy. Here’s the positive flip side to excessive sports though: Our kids always struggled in the past with confidence. You could see it in their demeanor. Unfortunately stronger personalities prey on that and free play in the neighborhood wasn’t really play with my sensitive Sallies. It just always resulted in them being bossed around and hurt both psychically and emotionally. Kids are mean! Even the ones that live in nice neighborhoods with great parents and are considered ‘good kids.’ Sports has given my girls something money can’t buy and that’s confidence. Learning to become aggressive in soccer physically propelled them socially as well. They not only stand up for themselves but what’s right in general. God knows the world needs more of that.

  • November 09, 2018
    Andreaa

    Very interesting when my children were younger they tried out a few of the standard clubs but nothing that they wanted to commit to full time, they soon got bored of having to go every week and it became a chore for them and took all the fun out of it. I’ve worried over the years that I didn’t push them more into clubs but they just weren’t interested. However they are now 12 and 15. The 12 year old has recently found activities he wants to pursue, that he has a passion for, and the other has a hobby that he loves, that he chooses when he does it. I guess they found the things they loved by growing up and developing their personalities and interests naturally rather than having my ideas foisted onto them. It’s good to hear that all the tree climbing and time with the family and the time to play alone could be very good for them too.

  • November 12, 2018
    Erin K.

    Mozart’s father was a middle class musician and saw talent when Mozart was 3 and taught him to play. He quit his job and took Mozart on tour for years at a time – all over Europe- away from his mother – today we’d call him “crazy” for pushing his son like that. In fact, it’s well documented the control and power his father had over him. But, no…..Mozart would not be Mozart without his father’s involvement. Just ask any Olympian- did they have to sacrifice time playing with other kids- of course they did! But, the general population doesn’t fall into this category. I just feel making a statement like Mozart would be Mozart regardless of parenting is ludicrous. It’s our responsibility to encourage and nurture talent if we see it and our children have a passion. But I promise you Mozart would not be composing full symphony’s by 13 if he had not already been playing concerts near daily since five – all arranged by his father. While I do believe children should not be over-scheduled, I also appreciate discipline, recognizing talent, and sacrificing for a passion.

    • November 12, 2018
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Erin but Mozart is a metaphor in this case – not meant to be taken literally. The point is kids will be happier if allowed to choose to follow their own passions and they will find that themselves if allowed to do so. I don’t think it is our responsibility to push our children. It is our responsibility to provide the environment in which they can flourish. I’d rather raise a happy, well-balanced child who loves their passion and their life and may take it to the next level professionally if it is their choice to do so than to push to the professional level but have an unhappy, disconnected child.

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