Benefits of under scheduling your child

Young girl sitting in a tree reading and relaxing.

At a glance

  • With the best of intentions, parents sometimes make their kids' lives too busy with extracurricular activities.
  • Over-scheduled kids can become tired and stressed, particularly when there is added pressure to achieve.
  • Free time at home allows kids to learn emotional resilience.
  • Simple low-cost props help with free time.

When you're rushing to fit in soccer training, swimming and music lessons, it can be hard to keep hold of the magic stare-into-space, muck-about moments in children's lives.

Whether it involves hiding in a cardboard box or sitting in a tree, those free afternoons can provide the space for ideas and the imagination to run wild, building life skills that some believe are overlooked in a search for sports trophies, concert performances and academic excellence.

"Parents have the very best of intentions but I think we can get a bit confused about what success and socialisation looks like – particularly in the early years of school," says Kathy Walker, education consultant and author of What's the Hurry?, which examines the busy lives of many Australian children today.

It's important for parents to learn that it's OK to sometimes say 'no' to activities. They shouldn't feel guilty. Kathy Walker Author and education consultant

"The over-scheduling is a problem not only in its own right – kids get tired and their parents get tired rushing them from one thing to another – it's also a downside that children aren't learning the skills that are important in the early childhood and primary years."

Simple pleasures of free play

Allowing free time for children to play on their own, making up games and activities, can help kids to be comfortable in their own company, teach them how to cope with boredom and importantly, foster their imagination. Kathy calls it emotional resilience.

"There's no safer, better place to learn how to play [on your own] and bounce back and get on with things, than in your own home. That's very important in life to learn how to bounce back and have a go and self-initiate."

To that end, Kathy says a couple of props around the house can help. Little kids love to get dressed up. Bigger kids like to have access to board games, Lego and other building materials.

Balance is the key to happy kids

Recent US research shows that extracurricular activities can add a lot to children's social and intellectual development, but too much emphasis on achievement can create stress. Balance can be beneficial for all involved.  

The desire for more balance has even seen some American parents forming groups to advocate for days that are free of organised sport – so kids can get out and play on their own.

Kathy says many parents simply get caught up – starting with a soccer class, then introducing a music class because it's good to begin young, and next thing the week is packed.

"It's important for parents to learn that it's OK to sometimes say ‘no' to activities. They shouldn't feel guilty. It's best to think that children are at school five days a week so one or two extracurricular activities a week is probably plenty, given that five days a week is pretty full-on anyway."

And of course, when parents are no longer ferrying kids from one activity to the next, there's the added bonus of more family time for everybody.


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