Spring is here… the start of many new things. But, it also marks the beginning of the race to sign children up for summer activities.
I was reminded of this as I stood in my neighbor’s kitchen, waiting for her to finish a phone call. The oversized family calendar was prominently hanging on the refrigerator, so I leaned in to take a look. I noticed every box was filled with writing, even though the month had only begun yesterday. As I lifted the pages, I noticed the same thing on those, too. Apparently, three-year-old Ross, five-year-old Mia, and six-year-old Ben were about to embark on a whirlwind summer!
Swimming lessons, space camp, karate, tennis, nature camp, dance, soccer, princess camp, and T-Ball. Some of the camps lasted two weeks, from 9am. to 4pm. The lessons were all at least two days a week, while others were every day. What? Or, more importantly, why?
A few years ago, I laughed when I read an article about a mom who gave her three-year-old son a planner to keep track of his activities, but when I saw them for sale at the bookstore, it really wasn’t funny at all. There were calendar boxes for each day, with little symbol stickers to indicate the various activities… so not-yet-readers could keep things straight. When a preschooler needs a planner, it's time to step back and take a breath.
When I was a child, summer was a time to kick back and play… to gather with friends and use our imaginations to do things we didn’t have time for during the school year. We’d get up early to play outside, riding our bikes, catching bugs, going to the playground, creating extravagant make-believe schemes, and making our own plans. In the evenings, we could stay up a little later (because it wasn’t a school night), to catch lightning bugs.
My neighbor’s children will be up early and home in time for bed. They will spend a good deal of time riding in the car to their events or their siblings’ events. There won’t be any time or energy to stay up a little later for catching any lightning bugs for these children.
I’m sure there will be a load of enrichment derived from all the lessons and camps and such, but what will be lost in the shuffle?
Too many parents believe these summer activities are recreational and are the equivalent of play. But, they are not. Structured lessons, camps, and sports provide different cognitive stimulation than open-ended, unstructured, imaginative, and self-directed activities. Children need equal time with some “down time.” Somehow, a child’s free time has become defined as “lost” time… time we just have to fill with learning opportunities or else he may get behind somehow.
Interestingly, the kind of learning a child derives from free play is just as important to his progress and learning. As time goes by, children are being allowed less and less of it, and it may be taking its toll.
I don’t think parents realize they are over-programming their children. It just happens, one activity at a time, until the busyness just seems normal and OK. I admit I was guilty of this, too.
When my middle son was four, he was thrilled to finally be old enough for a pee-wee soccer team. It was one night a week for an hour and he loved it.
One day, one of my friends suggested I sign Cary up for T-Ball, so he and her son could go together. This sounded like a great idea! That night, during our regular “lights out bedtime chat,” I told my son about the great fun he would have, playing T-Ball with his friend, Adam. I’ll never forget what happened next. He jumped out of bed and stood in front of me, all three feet of him, hands on his hips. “WHO SIGNED ME UP FOR THAT?” Needless to say, we didn’t play T-Ball that summer and Mom learned an important lesson.
During my own childhood summers, a lot was learned, even though there was nary a structured lesson. As we played with our friends and even by ourselves, we gained skills, like problem-solving, goal-setting, sharing, negotiating, and cooperating. And, something equally as important- we were building a critical cognitive skill called executive function, an important part of which is self-regulation. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their behavior and emotions, resist impulses, exert self-control and discipline.
Research has shown that imaginative, free play is needed for optimal development of executive function. It is during such play that children learn to use private speech to self-regulate… they talk to themselves as they play, about what they are doing and what they will do next. The opportunity to do this declines as their time is taken up with structured lessons and sports. Unfortunately, so does their ability to self-regulate. As a result, we are seeing more and more children with difficulties sustaining attention, having patience, practicing self-control, redirecting emotions, and setting secondary goals when things don’t happen to turn out as expected.
In our drive to give children what we think they need- to give them every advantage and provide enrichment- are we actually depriving them of one of the activities that they need the most?