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Aiming for an Under-Scheduled School Year

Smart tips for your under-scheduled school year

There is never enough time.

This is the biggest concern we at Doing Good Together™ hear from families striving to volunteer together. From the diaper stage to the college send-off, family life is a complicated endeavor, even if we simply account for the basics of work and school. When we add in the fun, the hobbies, the sports and the clubs, it becomes difficult to keep the calendar straight.

In short, we are all so busy.

But busy has come under fire lately. It’s unhealthy. It’s exhausting. In fact, in media outlets and blogs across the web, this was the summer of tributes to Free Time.

With the new school year upon us, it’s time to broaden our look at free play and stop the pursuit of busy.

Free play is a crucial part of childhood learning, not just a joyful moment for kids and – let’s be honest –much-needed hands-off time for parents.

Smart tips for your under-scheduled school year.

The research-based educational value of free play is well defined in Jessica Lahey’s article in The Atlantic, Why Free Play is the Best Summer School.”

I love Lahey’s description of free play as “fertile ground,” a space where kids cultivate social skills, risk assessment, and a host of cognitive abilities. I would add that free play neutralizes the stress kids can feel in a hurried world of high expectations. My own children are definitely more stressed, more cranky, and less cooperative during those busy weeks when free play is relegated to a few action figures in the back seat on the way to and from structured, adult-led events.

During our under-scheduled summer, I’ve seen my children tap into creativity and engage thoughtfully with the world around them in a way they wouldn’t have had time for otherwise.  I’m looking for tools to help them keep this momentum through the school year.

Did you try for an under-scheduled summer too? Are you interested in an under-scheduled school year?

Here are a few tips to make time for free play and discovery this fall.

  1. Find your tribe.
    It’s hard to learn social skills during free play if every other kid is in two thousand activities and unavailable to start an impromptu game of kickball. What to do? Organize an informal club. I’ll admit, it feels odd to schedule free play, but it makes the experience less isolating for my kids. Set aside a bit of time to gather each week, a standing meet-up at the park, your backyard, or your living room. Whoever shows up, shows up.

    Plus, if you invite friends to bring a food shelf donation each week, you’ll be sharing an act of kindness at the same time.

  2. Set limits (and stick to them).
    Commit to extra activities with care. We enforce a “one activity at a time” limit, no excuses.  This works well so far, but of course, our four-year-old isn’t asking for anything just yet. Also, in my house, we require a piano lesson each week, so that’s exempted from the kids’ choices. (I’m conflicted, does this count as sticking to my limits?) Don’t eye up other kids with their overlapping sports schedules, scouts meetings, and drama club and feel guilty. Know you are giving your children time to direct themselves.

  3. Take the long view.
    This will help you stick to your limits. Your child doesn’t need to master basketball, Spanish, soccer, and violin all in third grade. When one activity ends, encourage your child to try something new. By limiting simultaneous activities, you will allow your children ample time to learn through creative play at every stage, perhaps giving them a more balanced sense of life as they reach adulthood. As we all know, adults also thrive when they make time for play.

  4. Limit the gadgets.
    I know. We all know this one. But it’s critical in my family’s effort to recognize and fully enjoy the free time we have.  We must resist the urge (theirs, as well as mine) to fill our down time with gadgets and movies. Without the technological clutter, we find ourselves with much more time to play, explore, be bored, and discover something new.

  5. Learn to say no.
    Resist the instinct to fill every weekend, say "yes" to every social invitation, or take on every extracurricular option. Remind yourself it’s okay to guard specific portions of your time so your family may spend it together, unscheduled and free. And whenever possible, honor your child's decision to say no, even if they are dropping an activity they used to love.
  6. Defer to kid experts.
    In our effort to help them learn problem-solving skills, self-reliance, and the courage to tap into their own creativity, we need give them the responsibility for their own lives. Watch for opportunities to let them be the experts.

    When we encourage independence in the rituals of everyday life, kids take a remarkable amount of pride in themselves. Kids thrive when we give them room - depending on their age and readiness - to manage their own clothing selections, their own lunches, their own school projects, and their own (gadget-free) entertainment. As I type this, it sounds like a given. Of course they should lead these simple aspects of their lives. But I’ve been the parent tempted to tweak, improve, and step in on something that my kids have been doing. I need a reminder from time to time that having responsibility for their success and failures now will make them stronger adults in the future.

Summer is coming to a close. Life is about to get busy again. Busier. But the truth is, we can absolutely keep the cult of “busy” at bay with a few well-timed “no”s, a healthy dose of intentionality, and a few like-minded friends.