What happened to Playtime?

A disturbing trend in our modern society is the way we, as parents, turn our children’s’ days into regimented routines of organized, adult-led extracurricular activities like volleyball practice, gymnastics class, tee-ball games, and dance recitals along with other time consuming functions and commitments. We do all of this at the expense of free play, discovery and exploration, relaxing downtime, and far too-often, family meals. Long gone, it would seem, are the days of homework followed by ample free time (to be silly kids!), all before a sit down family dinner. It doesn’t really have to be that way.

National Public Radio
recently broadcast an expose on this topic – interviewing several children who discuss their “workloads” and several experts on the subject of child rearing and playtime. The report is available online and is accompanied by an excerpt from “The Power of Play”, the forthcoming book by David Elkind, which examines how the absence of imaginative free play can impact our kids’ ability to grow up healthy and happy.

Another possible outcome of allowing, even encouraging, our children to participate in almost every activity available to them is our collective inability, as parents, to teach our kids to make choices. How can we ever discuss the need to make choices in life, some of which can be quite difficult, if we as adults push our children farther and faster into the same world of over-abundance, anxiety, and excess that our culture makes out to be the norm?

So what can you and your family do to curb this trend? The first step should be to schedule a sit down family meal, even if it begins as just a once a week occurrence (if you do not already make this a part of your daily lives). Recapture the tradition of sharing this important time together and learning more about each other, by actually speaking to one another (a simple concept now classified as “nostalgia” in many households). At dinner you can talk to your kids about their day. Slow down, unwind, and revel in what they can come up with on their own. I personally have had to learn to stop finishing my daughter’s sentences and let her speak her mind, however long that make take. As she was learning to speak in sentences, I would often try to guess what she was trying to say in an effort to “speed things up”. I soon realized that the more I did this, the more she would expect others to assist her in speaking and in other aspects of her life, feeling as though she needs someone else – a learned co-dependence if you will. Today, I no longer jump in to act as her mouthpiece. As a result, her ability to talk, create stories, and play by herself has grown exponentially.

Next, (and this may be more difficult for your family to do than it is for me to type) scale back on the activities next season. Allow your kids the opportunity to make tough choices when it comes to scheduling their time. This will be hard if your young ones have not had to pick one event, sport, or activity over another in the past, but it will be worth it as they slowly learn the value of their own time, and yours!

The OWTK 3 make it a point to not over schedule ourselves or our daughter. We leave weeknights open for free play and dinners. Weekends are generally free as well, aside from visiting the market (a trip we have turned into a chance for her to play as well – since there is a playground near-by). This gives us the freedom to be spontaneous and take a little road trip, go to a fair, or something else fun, unscheduled, and together. We have a sit down dinner every night. It is not always a full meal – it can be the always fun breakfast-for-dinner, or what we like to call “hodgepodge” where we will all grab something; leftovers, soup, tuna fish, or whatever is around. The key is – we are always doing so together. Studies show that this simple act will result in a child that is 50% less likely to smoke, drink, or try drugs.

Seems worth the little bit of effort required, no?

Plus, it is refreshing and rewarding to prepare dinners with and for them and to move at a bit slower pace, providing them the chance to absorb more of their surroundings and emotions.

Remember that being bored is not a horrible thing. Despite the temptation to do so, we should not attempt to cram so much in to their lives that they will have no time to be bored. Boredom should not be seen as an enemy which will produce nothing but mischief, but rather, as a time when a child will learn, on their own, what he or she can do to pass the time and entertain themselves. More often than not this time will open up doors to creativity and healthy independence, and you will see their true interests and passions flourish.

Our kids will most likely spend the majority of their adult lives working in some fashion, why don’t we let them have their childhoods back.


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