Over-scheduling is the new normal in the world of parenting, and many kids are overloaded with organized sports and enrichment programs. While well-meaning parents want to give their kids the best start in life, a new study in Frontiers in Psychology shows that less structured activities is a better course of action.
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If summer represents a time for slowing down and getting back to the business of play, fall often signifies a return to impossible scheduling, enrichment overload and nonstop action. It's no big secret that kids tend to be over-scheduled during the school year. Many kids play multiple sports per season and enroll in other structured enrichment programs. From music lessons to sewing classes to highly structured art programs, kids spend a good portion of their time in structured activities, leaving little time for playing (with or without friends), relaxing and finding their passion.

While enrichment programs offer specific skills and can result in increased self-confidence for children, and youth sports boast many benefits, including physical activity, social interaction and teamwork, striking a balance between structured activities and free time is critical. Overload on structured activities can lead to stress and burnout, but it can also impede a child's ability to think independently and set and reach individual goals. Long story short: When kids don't have time to explore their worlds in a less structured environment, they don't learn how to set and reach their own personal goals.

According to a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder, children who spend more time in less structured activities learn how to set their own personal goals and take steps to meet those goals. Without constant input from parents and educators, as it turns out, kids discover areas of interest, set personal goals and take action. The study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and published in Frontiers in Psychology, defines structured activities as chores, physical activities, non-physical activities and religious classes while less structured activities include free play, reading, sightseeing, social outings and media time. Parents of 70 6-year-olds recorded their children's daily activities for one week using these definitions of structured and less structured activities. What the study found was that the children who participated in less structured activities showed better self-directed executive function than the children who participated in more structured activities.

Exploration is crucial

Kids need downtime, not just to relax and regroup following a busy school day but to access their creativity and explore their interests. When engaged in less structured activities, kids have time to think for themselves, practice problem solving skills and consider their own personal goals. Ariadne Brill, Certified Positive Discipline Coach, agrees. "Free time lets children face and make decisions, weigh options and tap into their creativity. It's the perfect time for experimentation, which results in real learning," says Brill.

Perusing the local library without a book list or restrictions encourages young readers to choose books that interest them.

A trip to the local zoo might seem like a huge effort that requires some amount of structure, but it's actually a less structured activity that provides an opportunity to think about various animals and their habitats and might spark a new interest in zoology. Perusing the local library without a book list or restrictions encourages young readers to choose books that interest them, and this can result in increased reading and exploration of personal interests.

When we overload kids with highly structured activities, we leave them treading water. They don't have the time or energy to explore their interests and set goals. When we slow down and prioritize unstructured time, we give them the gift of individuality.

Motivation matters

From the moment they enter elementary school, kids spend the majority of their time working toward goals that are set for them. From meeting reading and math benchmarks to completing step-by-step art projects to near-perfect performances in school performances, kids are required to take the necessary steps to reach goals that adults deem important. While educational and enrichment goals are important, kids have little time to set their own personal goals. Setting and taking steps to reach goals (both big and small) are important life skills that require practice, and that practice should begin during early childhood. Kids need adequate time to work on these skills independently.

They strengthen their self-directed executive function skills.

Jessica Lahey, Atlantic correspondent, The New York Times columnist and author, explains the correlation between less structured activities and self-directed executive function skills. "When children have time to formulate their own goals and work out their own version of the steps that will allow them to reach their goals," says Lahey, "they strengthen their self-directed executive function skills." Lahey continues, "These skills are invaluable to building and maintaining the intrinsic motivation and autonomy that fuels long-term, deep learning and investment in education."

Consider your child

Most parents have the child's best interest in mind when they seek out enrichment programs and organized sports for their kids. They want them to experience new things, find their strengths and meet new kids. They also want to raise "well-rounded" kids who have more to offer than a single interest. But is that really in the best interest of the child?

No two kids are exactly the same and personality is important. Team sports aren't for everyone, and some kids really can't carry a tune (I would know. I learned that the hard way.). While some structured activities can be beneficial, too many can cause children to lose sight of their own interests and goals. Before you fill out that paperwork for the soccer league you are positive your child wants to join, ask yourself one important question:  Am I doing this for my child, or am I doing this for me? As it turns out, taking a break from the highly structured activities that boast so many benefits for your children just might be the best decision you'll make this year. Go ahead, give your child the gift of time and watch your child thrive.

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