Let Kids Be Kids—7 Ways to Un-Schedule Them in Today’s Busy World

How to carve out free time for your kids—and boost their health and happiness.

As summer winds down, parents are gearing up for back-to-school, which usually means an even busier schedule for kids, including sports, clubs and private lessons. Today, most parents schedule as many activities as they can for their children, thinking that will help them build skills to be successful later in life. But packing your child’s day with extracurricular activities can actually have a harmful impact on her overall well-being—and limit opportunities for vital physical, emotional and social development. The good news: As a parent, simply giving your kids back some free time can help.

As a member of Action for Healthy Kids, a partnership of more than 75 organizations dedicated to promoting school health, I recently joined forces with the portable snack brand GoGo squeeZ on an initiative called BE Time. The idea? To help parents find fun, easy ways to carve out 30 more minutes a day of unstructured time for kids.

It’s a reality that children today have less unscheduled time than ever before. Most of us have the sense that our own childhood was simpler and slower-paced than it is for kids today. In fact, as a society, we’ve started to favor planned, structured play instead of just letting kids explore and create unsupervised. In the 1980s and earlier, children were mostly left to their own devices—whether that meant riding bikes, walking in the woods or making up their own games.

What’s more, earlier generations had more time for play that didn’t involve electronics. Now, not only is it the norm for kids’ schedules to jam-packed with activities—what little free time they do have is often spent in front of a screen, as personal computers, tablets and smartphones becomes ubiquitous. And kids are suffering the consequences.

Here are some tips to encourage your child enjoy free time every day:

1. Embrace your child’s boredom. It’s okay to let kids be bored sometimes. When kids are bored, they’re at their most creative and most open to exploring new things.

2. Turn routine tasks into play time. Something as simple as running an errand can be a chance for kids to explore. For example, if you’re at the grocery store with your child, turn it into a game by asking her to find interesting fruits or vegetables to feel and smell.

3. Invite your child to explore an interesting location. Offer different spots—such as a field, museum or farm—for possible outings, and let your child decide what to do. A local park, fountain, pond, stream or creek are also great places to check out. In the fall and winter, letting kids play in the leaves or snow gives them a chance to unplug and explore.

4. Let your child play with other kids—no adult hovering required. Set up play dates or trips to playgrounds for your child, then let the kids play freely with each other. Playing with other kids is a powerful way to build social skills that pay off for life. In fact, self-directed activities with peers have been shown to help kids improve communication, sharing and conflict resolution—which are actually a better predictor of future success in school and life than IQ.

5. Beat the summer doldrums. Paradoxically, many kids are actually more sedentary, spend more time on screens and gain more weight in the summer compared with other times of the year. When it heats up, encourage your child to have a non-digital, active adventure—even if that just means a walk around the block or bike ride.

6. Set your kids up for success during the school year. Free time is vital to helping kids learn, become resilient and manage stress. Taking brief breaks helps kids process new information and is a crucial part of learning in school. As adults, we decompress by taking a coffee break or talking to a friend; kids need an outlet, too.

7. Be a good example. Show your child how important unstructured time is by taking time for yourself every day. Step away from the screen to read a good book, catch up with a friend or take an evening walk to relax and recharge.

So, while soccer practice, ballet class or piano lessons can help your kids grow and learn important skills, structured activities are no substitute for simply letting them play on their own—no appointment needed.

Written by Dr. Robert Murray for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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