I try not to over-schedule my daughter (who just turned six). This is harder than I ever would have imagined. There are so many things she could do, should do, wants to do, and/or could learn from in some way. We are constantly seeking the balance that is right for her and for our family. Sometimes things get a little out of whack (for example, when seasonal activities don't line up quite right), but we keep trying.
One thing that helps is the fact that my daughter seems to understand herself, and to know that she doesn't like it when she is over-scheduled. She recently opted not to do our local Swim Team this summer, despite the compelling fact that many of her friends are on the team. Selfishly, I was happy about this choice, but I truly do think that it was better for my daughter. She needs downtime. She needs time for unstructured play. She needs time to just goof around and try things out. She needs time to read and be read to. She just needs time.
She had a recent afternoon mostly free (except for an hour for karate class). She used the time to rearrange my office (sigh), start reading a middle grade book (she did not get far, but I applauded the effort), build some things with Legos, brainstorm a poem that she wants to write for next week's Teacher Appreciation Day, and learn to ride a bike without training wheels. I would say that this is a pretty typical day, but the truth is that there is no typical day when you are six years old and provided with free time. [Of course the bicycle was an accomplishment, of which she is quite proud.]
It's not that Swim Team (or piano lessons or softball or tennis or whatever else we might have chosen) wouldn't have been valuable in a different way. But I can't let go of the feeling that having big chunks of free time to dabble about is more valuable. At least for now, when she is six years old. And the fact that at six she thinks so too is pretty much all I need to know.
I have read a number of books and articles over the past couple of years that make this point, from Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy to It's OK to Go Up the Slide by Heather Shumaker toOverwhelmed by Brigid Schulte to Free to Learn by Peter Gray. And of course Rae Pica's book: What If Everybody Understood Child Development? (reviewed here). But I think that the reason all of these books have resonated with me has been that they coincide with my own instincts on this topic.
When I was a kid I had a few structured activities over the years: summer day camp one summer, swim lessons for a season or two, skating for a season or two. But mostly, I played, either alone or with other kids. Some of that play involved group games in the street or outings with friends or playing Barbies in my room with my best friend. But a lot of it was time spent at home, reading, writing, climbing trees, making dioramas and paper dolls, and so on.
I understand that my daughter doesn't have the same options to just go play around the neighborhood that I did. I do work to ensure that, as an only child, she get time to play with other kids. She needs that. But she also needs time to just putter about, pursuing her own interests. And I feel that it's my job to make sure that she gets it. Even when it's hard to say no. Even when she is missing out on enriching activities.
She is six. She has the rest of her life to fill up her schedule. For now, I want to let her play.
How do other parents handle this, I wonder? Does it get harder as the kids get older (I can't imagine otherwise)?
A version of this article was originally published on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page.