Ah, childhood! The one time in our lives when we are blissfully free of any responsibilities, right?
Not exactly. In fact, many kids today have more responsibilities than ever before. The advent of “helicopter parenting” combined with tougher laws prohibiting “free-range” child-rearing prior to certain ages has resulted in a generation of children who are more stressed out than their predecessors could have imagined. Once upon a time not too long ago, the street lights coming on were a near-universal sign that playtime was over, and children would head home for dinner. Now, it’s rare for kids under the age of 12 to get any time without direct adult supervision.
While this constant supervision may make our children safer, it doesn’t necessarily assist in their emotional, mental or social development. Indeed, having too much strictly structured time can turn children into adults who are uncomfortable or even incapable of acting independently without direction from others. In the majority of cases, mild social anxiety can result if children are allowed to interact with their peers without guidance — at worst, they may develop anxiety disorders or other mental issues.
Kids need adult guidance, and they do need to learn. That said, there is still wisdom in the saying to let kids be kids. Playtime is just as important as schooling in terms of emotional and social development. Developing a healthy balance between work and play will help your children grow up as healthy, well-adjusted adults.
Remember, School Is Work for Kids
While popular folk wisdom is that children have no responsibilities, this is far from true. Yes, children may not be responsible for paying bills or putting food on the table — however, this does not mean that children do not have any of the stressors of responsibility.
It’s important to remember that school is work for children. If you think sitting and learning for six or seven hours per day isn’t difficult, simply think back to the last three-hour lecture you suffered through in college. How long were you able to remain focused without your mind wandering or your body becoming fidgety? When you throw in a bit of pressure from parents and other relatives, school becomes a very serious business for children indeed.
Add into the equation pressure from family to achieve perfect grades, and it’s no wonder some students get stressed out by schooling, even to the point of suicide. While that recourse is extreme, the fact is that just like having an overly demanding manager at work can lead to loss of morale, parents demanding too much academic rigor of their children destroy the joy of learning for them.
Instead, teach your children to enjoy the learning process. Celebrate their triumphs, and coach them on how to learn from their mistakes if they get a bad grade instead of berating or scolding them. Learning how to overcome adversity teaches a far more valuable lesson than chastisement over a “C” on a report card — or even an “F” on a particular project.
Play Can Be Serious Work
Adequate unstructured play time is every bit as important as schooling and structured activities for healthy child development. Why? Not only does unstructured playtime assist in relieving stress and anxiety in children, but it also teaches them valuable social skills. Playing with their peers teaches children the importance of compromise and fosters a sense of compassion toward others. Anyone who has observed toddlers playing together, for example, can not help to be struck by the way even young children manifest a healthy sense of fairness and care for others.
Also, unstructured playtime allows children to develop a healthy appreciation for and sense of pride in their unique accomplishments. While it may seem to adults a minor thing when a child makes it across the monkey bars, for example, to a child, it gives them a great sense of pride in their strength.
Unstructured playtime also fosters creativity and cooperation. Children, when given the opportunity, often make up games with their own rules. This teaches them critical thinking skills and also helps them develop methods of cooperating and working with other children.
Make Sure to Create a Healthy Balance of Activities
Not all playtime needs to be unstructured, however. While unstructured time is valuable, it is also critical to expose children to new activities they may not try on their own. Guided activities allow children to explore vastly different interests. In fact, there are many kinds of play, from body movement play to social play to creative and narrative play.
Exposing children to a wide range of play enables them to develop a sense of where their interests lie. Some children take naturally to sports, for example, and are physically gifted. Others love nothing better than to curl up with a good book, paint a picture or even write their own stories. But even physically awkward children benefit from physical activities, just as athletic children benefit from artistic activities now and then. Engaging in different modalities of play also teaches children they do not need to be Serena Williams or Pablo Picasso to take joy in physical or artistic pursuits.
Raising healthy children requires a delicate balance, and it can sometimes seem as if rearing kids is a delicate tightrope walk — but it doesn’t have to be. By exposing your kids to a variety of activities, balancing structured work time with unstructured playtime and allowing children to develop their own interests, you’re helping them grow into healthy, happy and balanced adults.
Jennifer Landis is a mom, wife, freelance writer, and blogger at Mindfulness Mama. She enjoys yoga day, red wine, and drinking all of the tea she can find. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferELandis.
Image courtesy of Allen Taylor.