“I don’t know how I’m gonna get it all done!” said Malisha, a twelve-year-old girl about her long-term research project introduced this week at the start of the term. “I have volleyball two nights a week, games on weekends, and I just signed up to work on the school e-newsletter. When will I see my friends?” Her panicked tone along with the speed of her words increased as she spoke.
We want to encourage our children to get involved in extracurriculars outside of school. Certainly, they can offer a range of opportunities including building social and emotional skills, developing friendships, and learning new skills and abilities in arts, sports, or sciences exposing children to experiences they would never have otherwise. But overscheduling is a concern too. Children require unstructured play time in which their minds have the chance to process all that we’ve been involved in at school and through out-of-school time programming. In addition, research claims that we generally have a greater sense of well-being when we have free, unscheduled time.
Recent research takes that well-being claim one step further showing in studies of six-year-olds that those who engaged regularly in unstructured play time actually grew their executive function skills more rapidly than those who did not.1 Those essential skills include self-control, goal setting, planning and problem-solving. That’s because children are fully in control of their own goal-setting during play and get the chance to work out how to reach their goal on their own or with friends who are also experimenting with these essential life skills.
The Blank Space in the Calendar
Yes, happiness studies have found that the blank space in the calendar does add to our sense of pleasure and gratitude. In fact, one study found that if a coffee outing with a friend was scheduled (a planned meeting time) then that friend date would feel more like a chore and less like pleasure or leisure.2 But if there were a rough block of time allotted (like sometime in the morning) or it was optional when to show up for coffee, then the friends experienced more pleasure and spontaneity. Though we, as parents, have the added concern of our children spending their free time on screens (see Smart Home Media Use; Limiting Screen Time article for more on why this is important), those blocks of blank space in which they are not engaging with screens are clearly important to their sense of well-being.
As is true with a good cup of coffee, too little is not enough and too much is, well, too much. So too planned activities enrich our children’s lives as well as unscheduled blank spaces. How can we choose, discuss, prioritize and plan for moderation with our children? Part of their learning about time management, commitments and prioritizing can come from your discussion and reflection on what your time looks like currently and how you might want to change commitments in order to meet your hopes, values, and priorities for the upcoming year.
Here are some areas with key questions for consideration between a parent and child:
Key Question: What are your hopes for your time outside of school this year?
Goals and Priorities:
In talking with your children, if they’ve shared multiple hopes, you can write down or simply articulate what their hopes look like in the form of a goal for the year like, “I’d like to make one good friend.” or “I want to learn to play the piano.” As you look at your child’s schedule, you can discuss how you are going to work toward that goal through their planned activities.
For adults, you may want to consider these by the areas of your child’s development including academic/cognitive, physical, social, emotional and spiritual or ethical development. How do the below essential commitments meet their developmental needs? What is lacking and could be supplemented with out-of-school time activities?
These are non-negotiable commitments that we know will be in our schedule including school, sleep, meals, hygiene (time for bath, brushing teeth), chores or household responsibilities, homework, religious services (this may be in your essential commitments section, in optional or not listed at all depending upon your beliefs). For some, after-school care is essential if parents are working.
Optional After School and Weekend Activities:
These might include sports practice, music lessons, clubs or organizations, and after-school care programs. Weekend scheduled activities might include games, volunteering, scheduled friend time or regular family visits.
Do the Math Together
Write out the hours it takes to do your essential commitments on a typical weekday. For example,
24 hours in a day
7 hours of school
9 hours of sleep per night (see sleep requirements by age range)
1 hour for family dinner (including setting table and cleaning dishes)
1 hour of basketball practice
1 hour of homework
1/2 bath, brush teeth
1.5 hour getting ready for school in the morning
3 hours remaining
*This exercise has the all-important, added bonus of showing children why limiting screen time is so important. Time is limited and hopes are high for our precious time!
Divide Up Long-Term Projects Into Manageable Parts
To students of all ages (and in fact, adults too!), the prospect of long-term projects can throw us into a panic attack as Malisha was experiencing. By the very nature of the project being long-term, when we look at all of the deliverables at once, they can seem overwhelming. How could we possibly ever find the time to get it all accomplished? When this occurs for your elementary, middle or high school students, it’s helpful to sit down with their calendar and make a plan. Talk through each of the deliverables. Write down how much time you both predict the research, writing, poster board creating or other activities might take. Create a reasonable plan together plotting out the times each week that your student can work on it. If he disagrees with the time you think needs to be allotted, then let him lead the charge. You can only advise but if your child does not want the guidance, then they’ll need to learn by experiencing how long activities take. It’s a process, not an event!
Different Children, Different Needs
Each child will bring different needs to their schedule so that no two are exactly alike. One key consideration will be a child’s age and developmental level. For example, six-year-olds will require more unstructured play time than a ten-year-old. Another consideration will be temperament. Does your child tend to feel drained or depleted at the end of a school day or after social interactions? If so, then your child may tend toward introversion which means she or he will require more time to internally process thoughts and ideas. Being certain she gets regular, perhaps daily quiet time to renew and refuel will become important. And finally, your child’s interests and passions will change as they grow and develop. They may begin to develop an interest in drawing or hockey or knitting that is a brand new area to explore. Following these interests can lead to expanded learning opportunities for your child.
The Value of Commitment
Children do need to learn when they sign up for a program or a camp or a lesson series, there is a commitment involved. There are time, money and effort put forth by your entire family to make it a priority for your child. That’s not to be taken for granted. So planning ahead, considering carefully your child’s interests and goals along with your own makes sense. Once they commit, then following through on attending practices and keeping up with the program becomes part of signing up and participating. Before signing up, be certain that your child understands (to the degree possible) what they are committing to along with all of the benefits of the program. If your child’s interest wanes early on in a program, then you might consider: is there a natural stopping point that makes sense for everyone instead of quitting the program mid-stream?
For those of us with a wealth of choices for our children’s enrichment, we can take full advantage of the learning opportunities by carefully considering our choices before we commit. Our children will then have the chance to learn from reflecting on, evaluating and making responsible decisions collaboratively about their time. They learn time management skills along with planning, goal setting and how to achieve a goal they care about. Instead of getting swept up into the calendar year or following the crowd and other social obligations without thought, we can use this natural period of transition to reflect together about what makes the best sense for our family and our children’s development.
- Barker, J.E., Semenov, A.D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L.S. Snyder, H.R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology.
- Gabriela N. Tonietto and Selin A. Malkoc (2016) The Calendar Mindset: Scheduling Takes the Fun Out and Puts the Work In. Journal of Marketing Research: December 2016, Vol. 53, No. 6, pp. 922-936.