Some of my favorite childhood memories are of making a fort with my younger brother. What made the activity so amazing was that the fort could be constructed from just about any household item; a broom handle or a couple of chairs with a blanket draped across the top was a perfect way to spend the afternoon. I have fond memories of the contests we had to see who constructed the grander dwelling.
Lately, there has been a growing school of thought that the simple things about being a child and tapping into childhood creativity are being overlooked in favor of overly planned, overly structured activities designed to keep children’s minds and bodies busy.
Many parents believed an activity-filled day not only kept kids out of trouble, but prepared them for the fast-paced world in which they would be expected to not just survive, but also thrive and succeed.
To make sure they keep up, many above-average students have turned to tutoring as they vie for coveted spots at prestigious universities that now consider the extracurricular activities and volunteer work of applicants.
Other students have already enrolled in online classes while still in high school. Online education has experienced a tremendous surge in popularity in recent years, with classes offered for every conceivable subject and student type. Students can brush up on SAT scores, take an intensive college-prep course, learn a foreign language with the right class or instructor or become a star athlete with the right coach or team. School- and community-sponsored sports teams are now available for boys and girls at every skill level.
“Parents feel pressure to keep their kids entertained and constantly learning,” said Diane LaSalle, director of enrollment for the Pasadena Waldorf School. “But they’re also working parents facing the responsibility of finding somewhere for their child to be during the day. There’s also the fear that if they don’t keep up the activity-filled schedule, their child may be left behind.”
With the instantaneous nature and popularity of video games and social networking sites, middle school and high school-aged children are encouraged to move from one activity to the next without much reset time for reflection or review of the preceding activity.
Overscheduling is not just a problem of the wealthy or university-bound. Parents of at-risk children who live in neighborhoods plagued by violence, gangs or drug traffic often feel compelled to keep them busy with a multitude of activities or long hours away from home in an effort to keep them safe from the negative elements in their environment while they’re at work.
According to Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, professor and founder of the National Institute for Play (nifplay.org), the loss of simple play in the lives of today’s technology- and activity-dependent children can have a devastating impact in the future.
“Play is more than just fun,” Dr. Brown states on the institute’s website. “It’s essential to the development of our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem-solve and more.”
Educators also point to childhood playtime as a necessary component for building the imagination.
“If you look at the biographies of successful, creative people, you’ll find that one of the common threads is their ability to daydream and visualize concepts, and that many of those concepts and ideas were generated out of boredom,” LaSalle said.
And some parents have already started resisting the urge to overschedule.
“I felt strongly about my desire to not overschedule my daughter, so I looked at what activities and classes her school didn’t offer, such as PE and music instruction, and made my primary goal just to fill in those gaps,” said San Marino parent Ann Gray, who added that the one constant in her daughter Abby’s life is Girl Scouts.
“I felt it was important to let her find what she was good at and what she loved to do, so my only rule was that she had to finish what she started. If it was a six-week course in something, she needed to stick it out, and after that, if she decided to move on to other things, it was alright with her father and me.”