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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Let the children play

Wilmette Library History

A few weeks ago, I read the following comment on a social media, published by a Guide leader :

"We took our Guides to the local playground with no plans except to just play outdoors. I was shocked at how long it took them to figure out what to do, and how many asked us for direction."

I echoed the stance taken by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slow, and my own experience with children: many of them don't know how to entertain themselves anymore... probably because they are being entertained too much!

One of my friends has admitted to this herself. She says that part of the reason her kids need her so much is that she doesn't "leave them alone". In fact, another friend, whose kids are among the most independent I know, does just the opposite: she gives them a lot of space and free time, and does not intervene too much. Not only are they able to figure out something to keep busy on their own, they are also very well-mannered by 21st century standards (they are pretty young, too).

In light of this, it shouldn't be surprising that one of the first pieces of advice Kevin Leman offers in his book Have a New Kid by Friday is to cut down on extracurricular activities. According to him, taking that simple step can do wonders. He's not the only one to observe this: dozens of parents are deciding to put their kids on the "slow track" - and discovering all the benefits that can have for a child... and for the family: less behavior problems, less stress, less time and money pressure (seems like we all work like crazy just to be able to afford the latest sports camp or equipment for our little monkeys!), more enjoyment and better performance at the activities that are maintained. A non-negligible bonus: more quality time as a family. Instead of driving each kid to their innumerable activities, some families are learning to stay home, turning off the TV and video games (more on that later), and play/chat together.

An excess of extracurricular activities and other forms of entertainment and parental overinvolvement will impede not only children's independence and behavior, but also, according to some studies, essential skills such as:

  • language skills
  • social skills
  • conflict resolution skills
  • motor skills
  • spatial skills
  • focus/concentration
  • ability to find their calm on their own
  • ability to entertain themselves on their own
  • creativity
  • imagination

Who would want to impede the development of such skills in their child? No one! In fact, the reason we entertain our kids so much is precisely because we think it will help them develop useful skills (and also because we feel guilty for working so much, but that's another topic)!

Unfortunately, we are mistaken. All those sources of entertainment do not do the job they are supposed to do, especially when we resort to them too much. We think we are doing this for our children, but we are in fact shortchanging them. More and more children are experiencing burnout. In early years that can translate into unwelcome behavior. As teenage years approach, the young athlete or prodigy might also drop out of his/her sport or musical practice altogether despite promising results, because s/he is so tired of it. Some of those "dropouts" were kids who did enjoy their activity in the beginning, but with time, it's become too much. (As a coach, I've seen talented young swimmers follow that path.) Adulthood, for those kids, is not an easy ride either.

Consider the following questions:

  • Is my child cranky?
  • Is my child whiny?
  • Is my child needy?
  • Is my child defiant?
  • Is my child showing signs of fatigue or stress? (e.g. frequent tummy aches, headaches)?
  • Do I have to bribe my child regularly?

Even if the possible causes are multiple, being overstimulated is one to consider. But what exactly qualifies as overstimulation? The following questions might help us figure it out:

  • How many hours a day does my child spend in front of a screen (TV, computer, video game, DS, etc.)? 
  • Does my child "need" a screen to remain entertained and well-behaved? (i.e. what happens if we do not use any screen for a full week (or even a full day) - including in the car and waiting rooms or while we're fixing supper... do we face a potential melt-down? What does that tell us about our child? I have one word: addiction).
  • How many hours a week does my child attend organized activities and classes? Or, put differently, how many days a week does my child have NO organized activity outside of school?
  • How often do I buy something new for my child (regardless of the amount it costs)?
  • How often do we have to rush a meal (including making unhealthy choices for the sake of speed) in order to get to an extracurricular activity in time?
  • How often does my child not sleep enough because of activities that end too late or start too early?
  • If we do have a couple of free hours ahead of us, and if all the screens are turned off, how often do I refrain from organizing an activity (such as making a craft or baking cupcakes together) in order to let my child have real free time?
  • Considering all the different sources of entertainment listed above (screens, activities, classes, new toys/objects, organized activities at home), if I was going to do an experiment and avoid them all, how long do I think my child and I would last, and what does it mean?)
  • How many hours a day does my child spend at home?
  • How many hours a day does my child have of true free time without "drugs" (screens)?
  • Does all that seriously make any sense?!?

Our children need (and deserve) to be left alone. They also need to experience "plain old boring life". They need to know what silence is. They need to be able to hear the sound of their own thoughts.

This is not a praise of doing nothing at all. It's an invitation to look for balance. Sometimes, the kids themselves are better than us at finding it. During the weekend, since nothing was planned, and since I had to work on a big translation project, D asked the girls what they felt like doing. "Let's just stay home and do nothing!" is what they replied enthusiastically. No screens were turned on, either. What did they end up doing? They played outside in the snow. They played inside with Legos and Playmobils. They read books. They drew. Left to their own devices, they were happy. And I promise they were still learning something!

I believe what makes it possible for them to spontaneously engage in those activities is the fact that we give them the opportunity, by "leaving them alone", on a daily basis. I know other kids who can do that, some of which are much younger. They have been allowed to develop it, and that is a true gift (for both the child and the parent).

As a parent, I did not always think that way. I used to fill my children's days to the fullest. I had good intentions. Luckily, however, I know better now.

Which reminds me of my own childhood. Despite a certain number of activities and the occasional use of a screen (very occasional back then), I cannot count the number of hours I sat in my room or in the grass or on a tree branch or on a snow bank, chatting with my brother or with a friend... I also spent a very healthy amount of time alone, simply "thinking about life". I have wonderful memories of those quiet moments.

Why don't we parents offer that to our kids? The younger the better, but it's never too late to start giving our kids some slack. Let's start right now!


  1. Great blog and reminder. Thanks ;-)

  2. You are so right about this.
    When my oldest son was little I thought I should play with him all the time since I had quit working to be a stay home mom. When he was about 2 1/2 and we had our second, he had no clue how to play (or even be) by himself because I had never let him. I had to teach him (and I started right in with the 2nd) that it was OK to play alone some, too.
    And, I agree on the extra curricular activities - I like to keep them limited - I hate the nights that we run from one to the next (rare but it happens on occasion) and that is when I tell them (my youngest!!!) that he has to make a choice - A or B!!!

    1. Yay! Glad there's another mom out there with the same philosophy! We have to stop feeling guilty for not constantly amusing or teaching our kids something. They learn so much more if they have time to themselves.

  3. I really enjoyed this Julie, thanks for sharing.

  4. Merci, très bon rappel en effet! La créativité ressort souvent lorsque les enfants "s'ennuient" un peu.

    1. Oui! Il suffit de la laisser se déployer. :-)

  5. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado. Saturday mornings (year round) my dad would push my brother and I out the door at 10am. I still remember the sound of the deadbolt as he locked it behind us. It was up to us to create our own fun. We were allowed back in at 2pm. Four solids hours where we had to think for ourselves.

    I did this similarly with my daughter, though she had no sibling so I played the role of her brother. We would walk along side the river behind the house and talk. We would rest every so often and if it was warm, would dangle our feet in the river. When she was 3 or so, she dubbed these, Resting Hunts; hunting for good resting spots. We continued Resting Hunts until we left Colorado when she was 9.

    You wrote: "Who would want to impede the development of such skills in their child? No one! In fact, the reason we entertain our kids so much is precisely because we think it will help them develop useful skills (and also because we feel guilty for working so much, but that's another topic)!"

    I partially agree. I also think we do this out of fear. Fear that our children won't get into college. Fear that they will become junkies. Fear that they won't be as accomplished as the kids down the street.

    I had one rule as a parent: Let her do whatever she wanted until she proved that this was the wrong rule. She's a honors graduate of an exclusive university, and about to begin her PhD,

    If this seems self serving, it isn't. It's a message to any new parent to leave your kid (primarily) the fuck alone, and give her she the opportunity to raise his or her self. Exploration works. End of rant.

    1. I bet your parents had a great "intimate life" on Saturdays! LOL

      Joking put aside, I love your Resting Hunts game! :-)

      I totally agree about the fact that we also fear our child won't develop into a happy, performing adult. Well, there are many paths to that, and being pushed by the parent can definitely be counterproductive.

      Thanks for your rant!

  6. This was an important read for me. As a child I spent hours entertaining myself - I read, listened to my records,played outside, and even pretended to be a reporter and made my own newspapers. My mom rarely played with me. And now I have kids that are so terrible at entertaining themselves without screens. I'm hoping that placing more limits on the screens will help (it has to, right?), but it is so hard to do in this 'plugged in' world we live in now.

    1. Love the "reporter game"! :-)

      I am convinced that all kids can live happily and independently with less screen time... it's just a matter of getting used to it!

  7. i ran into stg similar yesterday hope you don't mind sharing it, coz basically it's the same idea; http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204740904577196931457473816 (Why French parents are superior).

  8. This is really interesting and useful! I imagine that you, like me, were quite happy playing by yourself or with friends on your own as a kid.

    I don't have children, but I remember one time going to the park with a friend and her five or six year old child, and what struck me is she was either yelling or telling the child the whole time rather than just letting him interact with the other kids there at the playground.

    When I worked as a camp counselor, my kids had no trouble wanting to run off into the woods to play without my guidance, lol!

    1. That is a great observation: I have seen some of those over-involved parents who just can't let their child play; they have to direct everything like it's a movie set or something.

  9. Well I certainly enjoyed reading this Julie, it's so important that children are allowed to play, have some free time, have some quiet time.

    Although after school clubs, extra curricular activities can be good it comes down to balance. This word 'balance' means different things to everyone.....

    When my children were growing up, it was a case of fitting things into those 24 hours 7 days a week. Whether it be work, pleasure, school, clubs, family picnics, shopping, house-work etc etc. Yes, we all have to do it but it's how we choose to do it. No matter what age you are it's important to slow down and catch your breath you feel so much better for it and children are no different to adults. We all need to have a bit of space and time ... recollect the thoughts. I did make it priority that at least one evening after school there was nothing on and we could just relax ... I think we all looked forward to and enjoyed that.

    Thanks for providing an interesting article once again

    All the best Jan

    PS Your kids look just great you must be very proud.

    1. Hi Jan,
      Thank you for your interesting comment.
      I have nothing against "stimulation"' as long as the kids also learn all those other skills listed above. Unfortunately, too often, they don't.

  10. Brava! I quite agree that overstimulation is harming our kids. When I think of all the free time I had as a child, all the time for dreaming and thinking, I know it had a positive effect on me and my creativity. Sure, I blathered on about being "bored," at times, but that's how life is. You get bored. You find something to lift you out of that. Inspiration!

    1. Just like you, I got bored during childhood. Often. But... something great always came out of it! :-) (and I'm not talking artistic masterpieces, LOL)

  11. Ooh, it's all I can do to keep from launching into Old Fart "In my day..." stuff, since we were allowed to roam free of adult supervision most of our play time. Which meant we could be bored or stupid or reckless and have to learn from it! Or die, but fortunately we mostly survived. It's great that you have some concrete ideas rather than just bitching about the current state of affairs which is what I woulda done!