There was a time when concerns about overscheduling kids would have been laughable. That was before scheduled play dates and after-school classes came into the picture. Now, kids race from soccer games to Mandarin class to music practice, while frazzled parents follow along wondering what happened to free time.
“If you have to schedule a child’s play dates more than a week or two ahead, that child is probably overscheduled,” says Jacqueline Golding, Ph.D, Adjunct Professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “If kids have to stay up at night past a reasonable bedtime more than once in a great while in order to do their homework after their after-school activities…they’re definitely doing too much.”
“Too much over-scheduling limits two very important developmental elements,” says Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D, a child psychologist and Founder of the Better Parenting Institute. “One is unstructured play time…kids have very little time to interact with peers without it being orchestrated. They don’t have to make any decisions or navigate friendships on their own. The other crucial element is quiet time. Kids do not know how to spend down time and entertain themselves…they need time to create their own stimulation, and not have others be the suppliers.” Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately, we live in a competitive society, and many parents worry that their kids will fall behind if they don’t use every spare moment enhancing their resumes.
While it’s true that college admissions have become increasingly competitive, it’s also true both that there are enough spots to go around and that more and more freshmen are showing up burned-out and overwhelmed. Free play helps children develop their imaginations and their independence, build friendships, and shake off stress. These gifts don’t show up on college applications but they benefit kids their whole lives.
“As a rule of thumb, children should only be involved in one sport and one other kind of activity at a time,” says Panaccione. Every child is different, though, so one kid’s invigorating schedule is another’s overscheduled nightmare. A lot depends on age and temperament. If your child becomes irritable, complains of frequent stomachaches or headaches, starts having nightmares, or regresses or withdraws emotionally, he or she might be feeling overscheduled. So take it down a notch! It will give both of you a break.