Children’s soccer games, ballet, Cub Scouts and music lessons often fill in the weekday hours from school to bed time, with little time in between. Many kids don’t have much time for unstructured play anymore, experts say.
The amount of free time that American children enjoy to play and relax decreased from 40 percent in 1981 to 30 percent in the late 1990s. Children spend more time in school than in generations past, and more time in structured activities.
“Parents have less time to plan activities for their children, so it may be more convenient to enroll children in many of the structured activities available,” says Lisa Woessner, University of Illinois Extension youth development educator. “Parents also want their children to excel — sometimes in the areas where parents didn’t have the opportunity to get involved when they were children.”
The neighborhood baseball game where kids of all ages gathered to play a game on their own terms has been replaced with Little League and other extracurricular activities where parents provide the rules, the practice schedules and game times. When parents do all the planning, some of the spontaneity and fun are lost, Woessner says.
“Structured activities can be meaningful and enjoyable for children, but there should be a balance between structured and unstructured time,” she says. “Too many activities are stressful for children. They need downtime too.”
Children who are showing signs of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, or don’t have time to complete their homework, may not realize that their many activities are the source of the stress they feel. When the family is overloaded with too many activities, parents can carefully consider each activity to determine its value. Examine what a child might learn from the experience and choose only the most valuable activities.
Parents may select activities for young children, but give older children a choice of only two, rather than a whole list of choices, Woessner says. Try shorter activities
Another option is to try a few short courses instead of making a year-long commitment to an activity. Boys and girls’ clubs, 4-H, and other youth organizations provide one or two-day workshops or other short-term activities.
Just be sure to leave plenty of time in the schedule for unstructured play time, Woessner says.
“Unstructured time is valuable because it allows children time to figure out who they are and to explore various hobbies. Children need time just to have fun.”