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The Power of Free Play

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Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 | CWK Producer

“It’s really important for parents and schools and kids to work together r- to think about the optimal balance between homework and extra-curricular activities and time with friends, and then just time to hang out and ‘veg’.”

– Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D, psychologist

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Everybody needs a little playtime – even turtles – according to new research from the University of Tennessee. They say that playtime, may, in fact, make for a life worth living. So what about kids, who with academics and sports and dance and theater are too-often often-scheduled and over-stressed? Some experts have a solution…to schedule in free time.

Tessa, for example, spends five days a week, four hours a day after school at gymnastics class.

“By the time I get home, it’s like eight [o’clock] or so,” she says, “and I eat and do my homework and take a shower and talk to my parents about how the day’s gone – and then I go to bed.”

Experts have come up with a solution for kids like Tessa: Schedule in free time.

“Almost by definition a ‘schedule of free time’ sounds kind of paradoxical to all of us,” says psychologist Nadine Kaslow, “but I do think planning for free time or for down time is very, very important for children.”

She says along with creative play and spending time with family and friends, free time provides moments away from competition.

“With all these activities and schoolwork, there’s tremendous pressure to perform – often to compete, to excel,” says Kaslow, “and that leisure time and free time doesn’t have those demands.”

On the other hand, she says, some kids don’t handle free time very well.

That’s something Tessa discovered last year, when she decided to take a break.

“I didn’t like it as much as being in gymnastics, even though I had time,” she remembers.

Experts say let your children choose their after school activities, choose how busy they want to be, but watch for signs of burnout.

“They will tell you, whether it’s through words or tears – or they’ll say, ‘when are we going again,’ or they’ll start screaming when you say it’s time to go,” says Kaslow.

What We Need To Know

Organized activities outside of a child’s school day certainly have their benefits: social skills, self-discipline, physical exercise and sportsmanship, exploration and enjoyment, to name a few. For some families, however, an over-scheduled existence may be fueled by a desire not to be left out or to build the resume of extracurricular activities that students and parents view as necessary for college admissions.

According to experts at Kids Health, even those parents who try to help their children cut back on some activities can run up against coaches who won’t tolerate absences and kids who want to keep up with their friends. The key is to schedule things in moderation and choose activities with a child’s age, temperament, interests, and abilities in mind. Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Agree on ground rules ahead of time: For instance, plan on kids playing one sport per season or limit activities to two afternoons or evenings during the school week.
  • Know how much time is required: For example, will there be time to practice between lessons? Does your child realize that soccer practice is twice a week, right after school until dinnertime? Then there’s the weekly game, too. Will homework suffer?
  • Keep a calendar to stay organized: Display it on the refrigerator or other prominent spot so that everybody can stay up-to-date. And if you find an empty space on the calendar, leave it alone!
  • Even if kids sign up for the season, let them miss one or two sessions: Sometimes taking the opportunity to hang out on a beautiful day is more important than going to one more activity, even if you’ve already paid for it.
  • Try to carpool with other parents to make life easier.
  • Try to balance activities for all of your kids — and yourself: It hardly seems fair to expend time and energy carting one kid to activities, leaving little time for another. And take time for yourself, to do the things you enjoy, and to spend time together as a family.
  • Create family time: If you’re eating pizza on the run every night, plan a few dinners when everyone can be home at the same time — even if it means eating a little later. Schedule family fun time, too, whether it’s playing a board game or going on bike ride or hike.
  • Set priorities: School should come first. If kids have a hard time keeping up academically, they may need to drop an activity.
  • Know when to say no: If your child is already doing a lot but really wants to take on another activity, discuss what other activity or activities need to be dropped to make room for the new one.
  • Remember the importance of downtime: Everyone needs a chance to relax, reflect on the day, or just do nothing.

Signs that your family and your child are overscheduled include always eating meals on the go, the kids are always tired, there’s a drop in grades, and constant complaints about going to practice or games. Signs that your child does not do well with a lot of spare time, on the other hand, include depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Many times kids are bogged down with too much homework. Determine what is a decent amount – and talk to your child’s teacher about minimizing the workload if necessary. If your children are simply too busy, look at all of their activities – and talk about where they can scale back.

Make sure, despite their busy schedule, to keep lines of communication open with your children. Use time in the car to listen – and to talk about their lives.

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