Today, structured activities and classes begin at younger and younger ages. Modern society sends the message that these activities help children’s physical and mental development. But an overscheduled child could actually be at a disadvantage compared to their peers who engage in more child-driven, free play during the early years. Read on to learn about the downsides of overscheduling, the benefits of free play, and how to foster a childhood full of free play.
A busy schedule for your child can get in the way of their ability to learn about the world—and themselves. Check out this article from Katie Melville to learn more about the downsides of overscheduling and the benefits of free play for your kids. #healthylifestyle #wellness
The Overscheduled Child
Parents sign up toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary-aged kids for multiple activities in the hopes of enriching their childhood and maybe even giving them a “head start” in life. These activities in and of themselves are not bad, but too many too soon can do more harm than good. Lots of lessons, practices, and games take away a child’s time to unwind, recharge, and just be a kid. The overscheduled child can suffer undesirable consequences.
Loss of Creativity
When children are shuffled from one activity to another, they lose some of the ability to create imaginative and engaging fun on their own. (1)
Less Time Outdoors
With more lessons and practices each week, gone are the days where neighborhood kids played outside and largely unsupervised. Less than one-third of mothers today report that their children play outside as much as they did themselves as children. (2) Half of all preschool children don’t spend any time outdoors on a daily basis! (3) Green spaces provide many benefits, and kids thrive outdoors where they can run free and explore in a less structured environment. (4)
More Screen Time
After school, lessons, and meals, what little time remains in a child’s day is often occupied by screen media. Despite guidelines urging parents to limit a child’s screen time, most children 8 and under are spending over two hours per day in front of a screen. (5) Excessive screen time is associated with behavioral issues, mental health issues, and less exercise, among other harms. (6, 7, 8)
Less Nutritious Food Choices
When you’re always on-the-go, home-cooked meals become the exception rather than the rule. Nourishing, family-centered dinners turn into granola bars and chicken nuggets wolfed down in the car on the way to practice. Even seemingly “healthier” fast food options, like salads from McDonald’s, don’t have much to brag about, with dressings full of industrial seed oils, added sugars, and a host of additives.
Modern parents tend to worry about their kids being “ready” for the next step, whether for kindergarten or college. Instead of just letting kids enjoy being kids, parents spend their time “preparing” and pushing kids to their limits. Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, the author of The Over-Scheduled Child and former head of psychiatry at Stanford, says that young kids are pressured and pushed so much that “by the time they reach high school, they are bored and burned out.” (9)
Less Time for Free Play
This is obvious, but it’s probably the most important. When their time is overly occupied by structured activities, kids have less time to engage in free, child-driven play, which is absolutely critical to their cognitive, emotional, and social development. (10)
Increased Risk of Poor Health
Less play, less time outdoors, more screen time, unhealthy food choices, burnout—these side effects of overscheduling kids can contribute to negative health consequences, all of which are on the rise in youth and can lead to chronic disease in adulthood:
- Obesity (11, 12, 13, 14)
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral problems (15, 16)
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues (17, 18)
- Sleep deprivation (19)
Free Play: The Antidote to Overscheduling
Busyness is not a badge of honor—especially not for our kids. If your five-year-old’s weekly calendar looks more like a CEO’s schedule than a kindergartener’s, it’s likely doing more harm than good. The antidote is simple: more free play, less packed schedules.
Play, at its surface, can appear frivolous and unproductive. But, on the contrary, free play is absolutely critical for a child’s proper cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development. (20, 21) When children engage in regular, creative, self-driven play, they become like scientists who learn about the world, themselves, and human relationships. (22) Play allows children to work through problems, try out new ideas, and explore their own physical and mental limits. Play is so important that the United Nations Commission for Human Rights has declared play to be the right of every child. (23)
- Healthy body, including flexibility, balance, strength, and endurance
- Cognitive development, including verbal skills, language comprehension, and concentration
- Problem-solving skills
- Emotional intelligence
- Social skills and strong relationships
Clearing out a packed schedule is a difficult task for most of us, but it is possible to adopt a freer, less busy lifestyle for yourself and your family. Behavior change is challenging, though, and many people find that they need support to successfully set screens aside or get outdoors more often—and that’s where health coaches come in.
Health coaching is all about behavior change; coaches support their clients, helping them to feel empowered enough to make big changes in their daily routines. Coaching is a vibrant, fulfilling career focused on making an impact on other people’s health and lives. If you’re interested in making a living while making a difference, a career as a coach could be the right fit for you. Click here to find out how to become a professional health coach.
How to Encourage More Free Play in Children
Despite what society says, young children do not need multiple structured activities and classes. In fact, David Elkind, PhD, author of The Hurried Child and child development expert, says that organized activities before age 6 or 7 are not even developmentally appropriate. Children are naturally curious and will discover their own interests as they climb, build, create, and pretend with others on their own terms.
The concept of increasing free play sounds simple, but the practice isn’t always easy.
Schools Can Add Fuel to the Fire
Schools can exacerbate the problem of overscheduled kids. Especially since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, schools have increased academics at the expense of arts, music, and free play. Across the United States, some 40 percent of elementary schools have limited or dropped recess. (27) This is detrimental to young children and can exacerbate behavioral issues like ADHD. The data suggest that kids who have more recess in school actually end up doing better academically in the long run. (28)
If you’re financially able to, there are some more “radical” options for schooling, including Montessori schools and nature-based education. However, those aren’t possible for many—most people send their kids to the local public schools. But the best you can do for your preschoolers and elementary-aged kids is to keep their non-school times less “busy” and more low-key with developmentally appropriate toys and supplies.
Fight the Pressure
Parents feel the weight of modern pressures to get their kids involved in sports at a young age and start academics earlier and earlier. Not giving in to this pressure can be the most difficult part of trying to “free” your kids from overscheduling. If you keep hearing from other parents how their first graders are in soccer and Girl Scouts and take piano lessons and dance lessons, it’s easy to wonder if your kid is missing out or falling behind.
Instead of trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” trust the childhood developmental experts. Surround yourself with like-minded families who place value on children’s free play.
Get Your Kids Outside
Unfortunately, not all children have the luxury of a safe, outdoor space to play. But access to nature is ideal for kids—get your kids outside whenever you can.
Kids thrive outside! Compared to indoors, when children are outside they are more likely to engage in free play and naturally increase their physical activity and gross motor activity levels. (29, 30) Green spaces are beneficial for everyone, kids included. Access to the outdoors correlates with better mental and physical health in children and is associated with improved symptoms of ADHD. (31)
Try to adopt the philosophy that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” If it’s raining, let children jump in puddles in rain boots (or barefooted!). Buy wool socks and long underwear so that they can enjoy snowy, cold winters outside.
Less Is More
To encourage creative play, choose fewer passive toys and more simple, open-ended toys. Think blocks, books, pretend play items, and playdough versus toy phones and other devices that light up and play songs.
Electronic gadgets with bright colors look attractive, but when kids play with more traditional toys, they tend to engage in more varied and advanced language. (32, 33) Compared to watching Baby Einstein videos, preschoolers who play with blocks develop better language and cognitive skills. (34, 35)
Despite what our consumer-driven society says, young children really do not need many toys. And don’t be afraid to let your kids be “bored” sometimes. Boredom is where creativity is born.
Discussing screen time limits for kids can cause a lot of tension in parenting circles, but the evidence is clear that screen media in young children is more harmful than helpful. (36) Because they compete with active playtime, screens may contribute to childhood obesity. Screen time is also associated with an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping in children. (37, 38)
Free play provides numerous benefits to your children’s well-being. Limit structured activities and classes, especially in young children, to avoid overscheduling stress. Make sure your children have opportunities to explore the world and play on their own terms.