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Fed up with the frantic pace of modern parenting? For many parents, raising a bright and motivated child used to mean creating a full schedule of learning activities with little free time. But a 2012 article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less scheduling, more unstructured play, simple toys and frequent family time for optimum child development.
The article is just a small part of a growing trend toward “slow parenting,” a catch-all term for an unhurried and easygoing approach to raising your kids. As an involved parent, you naturally wonder: Is this hands-off childrearing choice laid back, or just lazy?
“Unstructured playtime is not just an extra. It’s essential," says Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood. "Besides being a great stress-buster, free play knocks kids’ brains into shape, releases creative energy and encourages and fosters resilience, innovative thinking and emotional growth.” In other words, a little less structure is not just good for over-stressed moms and dads—it’s a brain booster for your child.
As always, balance is the key. Let go a little, start slow and keep it simple to find the right fit for your family.
- Stop, look and listen. Schedule learning activities with ample breaks in between. Children need time to process what they've learned and practice on their own. If something captures a child's interest, he will naturally follow through during downtime. Following new interests and exercising new skills on his own will empower your child and make him eager for the next new thing.
- Don't overdo the "debrief.” Don’t push or prompt for a full report after every class or activity. Let your little learner start talking about what he liked or didn’t like spontaneously. Pay attention to his tone of voice and note negative reactions. If your child never mentions an activity when it’s over, or if he complains after every session, it may not be the right thing for him.
- Be a present parent. Instead of scheduling highly structured family activities with every minute accounted for, leave some leftover hours at the end of the day or on a weekend to just hang out. Family time can be either totally freeform or minimally planned. Unwind at home or go to a park or the beach and just chill. Bring a book, kick back and let your child explore the world—you’ll be nearby when he needs you.
- Encourage open-ended play. Consciously create a zone in your kid’s life where there are no correct answers—and no wrong ones either. Games that have no point and no end can unleash creativity and refresh young minds for future challenges. Building blocks and construction kits are ideal for hours of magical or exploratory play. Group storytelling activities and nature walks are great group options for long, lazy afternoons.
- Serendipity. Serendipity is a pleasant surprise—a happy and spontaneous accident that leads to good things. You can create serendipitous learning opportunities by enriching your child’s environment and then taking a step back. Fill your house with interesting objects like books, puzzles and games, and allow your child to pick and choose what interests him. Let little ones leaf through the pages of a storybook without jumping in and practicing words or letters. Or let your child figure out the puzzle while you watch from a distance.
- Set the pace. The pressure to keep up can take a toll on learning. Pushed to the max, kids can shut down or develop an aversion to activities or subjects that might otherwise capture their interest. Be sensitive to your child’s learning rhythms. Discipline is often necessary and kids do need prodding to finish homework, but try to strike a balance. Know when to let your curious kid loose and when to rein him in. Jumping off the learning treadmill once in a while is good for everyone.
- Mellow yourself. When you stop to take a deep breath and put your feet up, you aren’t the only one who feels more relaxed—your child will most likely feel a little more chill too. Kids follow their parents’ examples. So stop and smell the roses and the whole family will feel more free and easy!
You don’t have to go overboard and discard all forms of discipline. Honoré says that parents can encourage passion in their children while listening, observing and letting children take the lead. “Kids often do need to be pushed to accomplish things,” he cautions, “but combine that pressure with sensitivity and learn to recognize when an activity is no longer worth the pushing or has stopped being productive.”
Trust yourself and trust your child. Less stress and structure could lead to both happiness and higher IQs in the long run.