Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen Creative Commons via Flickr
Source: Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen Creative Commons via Flickr

The wise parent ensures a good balance between a child’s active learning opportunities and her unstructured times. Here are three ways suggested by Dona Matthews, Ph.D., and Joanne Foster, Ed.D., that you can help your child create a healthy life balance. 

1. Ensure ample time for rest, relaxation, and reflection. A child needs unscheduled time in his life if he’s going to connect new information to what he already knows, consolidate what he’s learning, and work out what he wants to do next. Recent research shows that too heavy a focus on the instructional component of learning—without ample rest between learning sessions—actually reduces the amount a person learns. Depriving a child of time to get bored also robs him of essential opportunities for developing important skills such as managing his feelings, moods, time, behavior, and sharpening their intellectual focus. Interestingly, do-nothing time can be the most productive periods of all, and boredom can be an important catalyst for self-discovery, self-regulation, and creativity.

2. Schedule in lots of unstructured playtime, preferably outside. Over the past few decades, children’s play has become more about toys, educational puzzles, and electronic games, than about activities that children invent for themselves. Kids’ time is too often over-scheduled by adults, and what’s left over is increasingly being gobbled up by electronic devices. There’s little time left for spontaneity, curiosity, improvisation, discovery, or opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and appreciate nature. A child who spends good chunks of her time building forts, playing house, constructing narratives of pirates, paupers, cowboys, and circus clowns, and thinking about what to do next, is more likely to feel good about herself, take ownership of her own learning, and create a happy and productive life for herself.

3. Breathe and be mindful. Mindfulness is the process of paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment, being as aware as possible of all that’s happening, both within oneself, and within the environment. It’s a simple concept with powerful consequences. It can reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and heighten the ability to focus. Mindfulness soothes kids’ anxieties, and helps them cope with challenging situations. It’s been proven effective for a wide range of people, including those with attentional issues, anxiety, and autism. When parents model mindfulness, their children learn how to practice it themselves, and everyone in the family reaps its benefits. Breathe deeply when you notice yourself stressed, or see signs of stress in the people around you. Listen to your children, your environment, and yourself. Think—and take at least one thoughtful breath—before you speak or act.

Reaching a balance of priorities is wonderfully satisfying, but it’s only ever a momentary achievement. Children’s needs, desires, concerns, and interests are always changing, as are family situations. The balance point is a rapidly shifting and multi-dimensional target, so parents can expect to become disoriented along the way. The challenge is to continue to aim for balance, together with their child.

Children do need planned stimulation and enrichment opportunities like participating in classes, clubs, books, puzzles, and outings to museums and performances. However, their lives shouldn’t be so jammed up with these good things that there’s no time for unstructured play, practicing intentional mindfulness, or reflecting on what they’re experiencing. 

For more on these topics:

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (House of Anansi, 2014) 

Are your kids getting enough free play time?’ by Katie Hurley

Overscheduled? Too busy to play? Six ways to push back and create a healthy balance for your kids,’ by Dona Matthews

Children and Nature: Helping Kids Connect to Life Mysteries,’ by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene,’ by Peter Gray

Ode to Positive, Constructive Daydreaming,’ by Rebecca McMillan, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Jerome Singer

Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits,’ by Daniel Goleman

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