Too Busy to Play? Six Ways to Push Back for Healthy Balance
Give kids ample time for free play, nature, reflection, boredom, and imagination
Posted Nov 10, 2014
Balance is one of the most important secrets for raising happily productive kids. It’s important to provide lots of stimulation, challenge, and learning for your kids, but it’s just as important to ensure ample time for free play, nature, reflection, imagination, and even boredom. Here are six ideas you can implement starting today that will help you push back against overscheduling, and create a healthy balance.
1. Make time for play. It’s through playing with other children in games of their own devising that kids learn to make decisions wisely, manage their emotions, see things from others’ perspectives, sort out conflicts, and make friends. Other benefits of unstructured playful exploration include better self-regulation, self-awareness, and collaboration skills; greater ownership of one’s own learning; and a freer imagination.
Free up your kids’ time in whatever ways you can. Reduce the emphasis on organized sports, homework, lessons, and practice. Encourage their curiosity, playfulness, sociability and deep desire to learn by assigning a top priority to playtime.
2. Go outside! Time spent outdoors increases well-being in every area: psychological, physical, cognitive, and creative. Time in nature expands the imagination; stimulates all the senses; frees the spirit; and makes a person calmer, more optimistic, healthier, and more creative. It enhances academic success by improving attention and focus. Kids are calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more successful at school when they spend time outdoors.
From the time he’s born, make sure your child gets some outdoor time every day, no matter the weather or your schedule. An hour outside every day is great, but even if it’s only twenty minutes, he’ll experience many benefits, including stress reduction and increased sense of well-being.
3. Turn it off! For too many kids, too much of the time in their lives that could otherwise be spent playing, thinking, or being creative, is being gobbled up by electronic gadgets and screens. Although there’s a place for technology in children’s lives, too much time on computer games, television, smart phones, and the rest can encourage lazy habits of mind, where a child comes to rely on entertainment and activities created by others instead of creating his own fun and discovering his own interests.
Wise parents turn off their screens, too. As cognitive psychologist Tracy Dennis has written, ‘Multi-tasking on our devices all the time is a sure-fire way to interfere with our ability to look our children in the eye, hear what they have to say, sensitively pick up on their feelings, and transmit that sparkle in the eye. The multitasking mode is the opposite of mirroring and of being present.’
4. Let there be downtime. Ample time for doing nothing—the ‘restful neural processing’ that occurs when we’re daydreaming and dawdling—is essential to self-discovery, and to optimal learning and happiness over the long run.
In The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents, William Martin wrote, “Lost in the shuffle of uniforms, practices, games, recitals, and performances can be the creative and joyful soul of your child. Watch and listen carefully. Do they have time to daydream? From your children’s dreams will emerge the practices and activities that will make self-discipline as natural as breathing.”
One of the best ways parents can support their kids in acquiring the important habit of reflection is to model it themselves, allowing themselves to slow down and think. Through modeling and active encouragement, help your children welcome downtime as an opportunity for self-discovery, consolidation of learning, creativity, and regeneration.
5. Breathe and be mindful. Kids who learn about breathing and other mindfulness techniques can do a better job of balancing their inner and outer experiences, and feel more solidly in control of their responses to the environment. Mindfulness reduces stress, improves sleep quality, and heightens the ability to focus. It helps kids concentrate on tests and exams, soothes their anxieties, and helps them cope better with challenging situations. This is particularly important for those with attentional and anxiety issues, and it’s also been proven effective with kids with autism.
‘Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.’ That was written by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, but these practices are also being supported by scientists like Jim Swanson, an expert in ADHD at U of California, Irvine, who said, ‘Mindfulness seems to be training the same areas of the brain that have reduced activity in ADHD… That’s why mindfulness might be so important. It seems to get at the causes.”
One of the best ways to help your kids slow down is to practice mindfulness techniques yourself. Breathe deeply when you notice yourself stressed, or see signs of stress in the people around you. Practice yoga. Meditate. Listen to your children, your environment, and yourself. Think—and take at least one good thoughtful breath—before you speak.
6. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Children who feel grateful for the people, activities, and opportunities in their lives are happier than others. They score higher on measures of well-being, energy, optimism, empathy, and popularity.
When parents model appreciation for the small gifts of everyday life—sunshine, food, time together with loved ones—they help their children achieve an attitude of gratitude. Kids (and adults) don’t need to fill their time with busy activities when they take time to feel happy with what they have.
In a culture that prizes overscheduling, pushing back against being ‘crazy busy’ takes courage, but it is very much worth doing. By thoughtfully slowing down the pace of your children’s lives so they have time to play, go outside, decompress, and breathe deeply, you enhance their chances of creating happily productive lives for themselves.
To read more about these ideas:
‘Protect Your Child’s Playtime: It’s More Important than Homework, Lessons, and Organized Sports,’ by Dona Matthews
‘Free Play Vital to Children’s Healthy Development,’ by Peter Gray
‘How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier, Smarter,’ by Laura Markham http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/family-life/nature
‘Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability,’ by Dona Matthews
‘Overwhelmed Moms Choose NOT to Be Busy,’ by Jacoba Urist
‘Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,’ by Jerome Singer, Rebecca McMillan, and Scott Barry Kaufman
‘The Wonder of the Ordinary: A Crucible for Creativity, Talent, and Genius,’ by Dona Matthews
‘Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits,’ by Daniel Goleman
For more resources on supporting children’s optimal development:
Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons