All too often parents carry their busyness around as a badge of honor, and much of that busyness is in theory for the sake of their children. But if they’re honest with themselves, many parents may feel as though they are running on a treadmill, trying to keep up with the pace of those around them and worried that they could be depriving their children of future success if they jump off that treadmill. They fear they may disadvantage their child for life if they don’t sign him or her up for a wide range of classes and activities in order to build every skill and aptitude their child could possibly need for success in life.

But what if such overburdened schedules lead to unintended negative consequences such as stress, anxiety or even depression? What if an over-booked schedule deprives children of the simple joy of free play? Allowing children adequate time for child-directed, screen-free play fosters the development of a child’s imagination as well as cognitive, physical, and emotional strength. Active, creative play is also an important factor in healthy brain development, research suggests. Left to play on their own, children develop skills in resolving conflicts and advocating for themselves. They have the chance to practice decision making, discover their own areas of interest and do things at their own pace. Unscheduled time allows children to think, create and wonder. Importantly, unstructured play tends to increase physical activity levels in children.

With so many benefits to child-directed play, you have permission to jump off that parental treadmill. Consider the benefits cited above as good reasons for keeping your schedule free several evenings a week plus one full day on the weekend. If you’re likely to fill in those blank spaces on your calendar as new opportunities arise, then go ahead and put child’s downtime on the calendar, like you do for other important appointments, and don’t let your goal be easily derailed.

Resist the pressure to cram your schedule full of activities and instead encourage your kids to use those blocks of time to create their own homemade fun, ideally without electronics or a pop-culture-directed script. Allow them to become the authors of their own lives rather than puppets following someone else’s script. And when you’re tempted to compare your choices to those of overscheduled neighbors and friends, remind yourself that you’re giving your child a valuable gift: the luxury of time for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression. In the process, you may be cultivating healthy habits that could last a lifetime.


By Anita Dualeh