Over­sched­uled kids: is busy re­ally so bad?

Ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents make case for busy life­style, in era of dig­i­tal temp­ta­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - AN­DREA ORR

Ten­nis, soc­cer and track. Pi­ano and band. Throw in the ad­di­tional com­mit­ment of weekly Sun­day school, and it sounds like a lot, es­pe­cially to any­one who was raised to just go out­side and play.

But here’s what I’ve found: even with week­day af­ter­care un­til at least 6 p.m., the de­mands of home­work, reg­u­lar read­ing, a pretty busy so­cial cal­en­dar and a pet, there re­mains enough down­time in my 9-year-old daugh­ter’s life that I still have to re­strict screen time.

If there’s one par­ent­ing cliché more com­mon than that of the over­booked child whose spare time is filled with sports prac­tice, tu­tor­ing ses­sions and mu­sic lessons, it’s the one about the pasty kid who lan­guishes in front of video games starved for ex­er­cise, fresh air and hu­man con­tact.

Con­sid­er­ing that al­ter­na­tive, is be­ing busy so bad?

Many ed­u­ca­tors, re­searchers as well as ex­as­per­ated par­ents are em­brac­ing the ben­e­fits of the sched­uled life­style, es­pe­cially in this day of so much dig­i­tal temp­ta­tion.

“Down­time has be­come screen time,” ar­gues De­laney Rus­ton, an in­ter­nal medicine doc­tor and film­maker who cre­ated “Screenagers,” a 2016 doc­u­men­tary that ex­plores the chal­lenges of par­ent­ing in a dig­i­tal world. One of the main myths Rus­ton says her film ex­poses is the no­tion that chil­dren are over­sched­uled.

Of course, there is value in sit­ting in a cor­ner read­ing, play­ing board games, climb­ing a tree or just day­dream­ing. But the re­al­ity is that in most homes, screens of one sort or an­other com­pete fiercely with all those un­struc­tured ac­tiv­i­ties.

On the other hand, en­gag­ing kids in soc­cer, band, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts or gym­nas­tics is a pretty sure way to sever the screen con­nec­tion, at least for a few hours. And that in it­self is a big ben­e­fit, even with­out the added ad­van­tage of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, learn­ing an in­stru­ment or im­prov­ing ta­ble man­ners.

Re­searchers have been push­ing back against this no­tion that chil­dren spend too much time in sched­uled ac­tiv­i­ties. A 2008 re­port on “The Over­schedul­ing Myth,” from the non­profit re­search group Child Trends, found that “con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, re­search re­jects the no­tion that most or even many chil­dren and youth are over­sched­uled and suf­fer­ing as a re­sult.” That re­port ref­er­enced a long list of ben­e­fits of sched­uled ac­tiv­i­ties, from higher self-es­teem to lower rates of drug and al­co­hol use over time. It also found that chil­dren in­volved in mul­ti­ple ac­tiv­i­ties are usu­ally able to main­tain a bal­ance in their lives. Typ­i­cally, they still spend more time on school work and other un­sched­uled ac­tiv­i­ties such as in­for­mal games, house­hold chores and watch­ing tele­vi­sion.

There’s a ten­dency among par­ents to beat our­selves up over our over­booked days. Even as we com­mit our kids to an­other les­son, club or sport, we are drawn to ar­ti­cles that ask “Are kids de­pressed be­cause they don’t just play any­more?” The re­al­ity, how­ever, is that while the “just play” model of child rear­ing may seem more or­ganic and idyl­lic, that ship has pretty much sailed.

Rus­ton says the real dig­i­tal di­vide isn’t ac­cess to the In­ter­net. It is be­tween fam­i­lies who have tech­nol­ogy in rel­a­tive bal­ance, of­ten with the help of other or­ga­nized ac­tiv­i­ties, and those who spend too much time on screens be­cause of a lack of al­ter­na­tives.

At Alice Deal Mid­dle School in Wash­ing­ton, kids in grade 6 through 8 can choose from about 70 af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties, from choir to po­etry café, de­bate and med­i­ta­tion. It’s a roster that Prin­ci­pal James Al­bright says is largely de­signed to “fill the hour be­tween 3:30 and 4:30.”

“I feel there is a le­git­i­mate need,” he says, ar­gu­ing that even a full school day leaves a lot of empty hours to be filled. “A lot of kids don’t go home to par­ents. I want fam­i­lies to feel like their kids can stay af­ter school to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Al­bright says that he is not ad­vo­cat­ing for a highly sched­uled life­style so much as work­ing to en­sure that chil­dren are safe, and in­volved in some­thing they en­joy rather than go­ing home to an empty house.

“Idle time can be a great thing,” he con­cedes. “But I don’t know that we man­age it well with tech­nol­ogy.”

Most ed­u­ca­tors and re­searchers agree there’s no op­ti­mal num­ber of ac­tiv­i­ties; it de­pends on the kid. And even those who ad­vo­cate for mul­ti­ple ac­tiv­i­ties still en­cour­age par­ents to make some time for their chil­dren to just be bored.

“The ul­ti­mate goal should be to have a mix of ac­tiv­ity and un­sched­uled down­time,” says Josh Golin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cam­paign for a Com­mer­cial Free Child­hood. “It’s im­por­tant to let kids be a lit­tle bored and see what comes out of that bore­dom.”


Many ed­u­ca­tors, re­searchers as well as ex­as­per­ated par­ents are em­brac­ing the ben­e­fits of the sched­uled life­style, es­pe­cially in this day of so much dig­i­tal temp­ta­tion.

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