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Melissa’s Playbook: Finding Free Time During the School Year

2016-10-28 by Melissa

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melissa's playbook the power of free play photo block

I’ve always felt that the transition from summer to fall and the resulting plunge back into the school year is a double-edged sword. In one sense, kids clearly need and appreciate routine and structure. It makes them feel secure and helps to develop self-control and a sense of mastery in their ability to effectively navigate their environment and control their lives. This, in turn, builds self-esteem and crucial time management skills. These skills are essential to becoming an independent adult with the ability to set goals and achieve objectives. So developmentally, it is indisputable that children need a healthy measure of routine and structure in their lives. As parents we should certainly embrace the return of structure and appreciate its bountiful gifts.

family calendar without much free time

The other side of the sword, as I’ve often lamented, is one of degree. Too much structure and guided activity can stifle imagination and creativity. And with the return of formal education each fall also comes the flood of extracurricular activities: the dancing, music, sports, art, and so on that fill the time period from the moment school ends until dinner and often even later. Many young kids I know have activities and games on weeknights until 8 or 9 p.m., the time when most of them should already be in bed! And then the little downtime that remains is quickly gobbled up by television, video games, and screen usage. My concern is that if we overload our children with result-oriented, structured, adult-led activities, we allow them no free time to imagine, create, explore and think—so crucial in helping them to develop their passions and purpose.

I’m passionate about ensuring children have enough time, space, and freedom to discover themselves, explore their world, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be curious. To be creative. To be goofy. To take risks. To let their minds wander. To just … be. I find it incredibly ironic that allowing our kids to do “nothing at all” is our greatest challenge these days. There’s so much pressure on parents to make certain our kids are “keeping up” and on the path to success, that having kids with nothing to do is synonymous with “I’m not doing my job as a parent.”

imaginative musical pretend play

I recently read a fascinating book entitled Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. In it, the authors discuss the childhoods of some of the world’s most prolific creators, and sum up nicely the importance giving our kids the gift of playtime (and downtime): “If there is one fundamental function of play, it is to contribute to the growth of a flexible brain that is primed for creative thinking and problem solving.”

I couldn’t agree more! But I am right there in the trenches with you in finding ways to inject more free time into my kids’ days. Here are six of my strategies for ensuring that EVERY season is full of the enriching free time that allows creativity and discovery to flourish.

1. Think honestly about your child.

This has been the most difficult challenge for me. Because when I truly look at my children for who they are and their individual skills, I often see that the activities they are engaging in are not building them up but beating them down. As my oldest son (now 23) lamented to me after a mom-imposed guitar lesson at 8 years old, “I am terrible at guitar. I am a baseball player, Mom, not a guitar player.” What do our kids truly love? How can we build on those interests?  What are they begging to explore but we haven’t allowed them to because it isn’t what we have envisioned for them?

2. Audit each kid activity.

Even once the most appropriate activities for your child have been selected, evaluate them with a critical eye toward their benefits and costs. And I’m not just talking about the financial cost, but the time cost, too. Will one season of soccer suffice instead of three? Does every sport need private lessons as well as team practices? If you’re being honest, does your child like the social aspect of the cooking class more than the actual cooking itself? If so, that time might be better spent on free-form play dates with groups of friends.

3. Adjust your thinking.

Free time is the biggest gift you can give your kids. Don’t be scared of it. Trust me – kids will find unique ways to fill the time. That’s the magic. We just have to give them the opportunity and a few boundaries (like no screens). Need some convincing that downtime is good for kids? Check out this article on a study about how too many structured activities may hinder kids’ executive functioning.

4. Enlist some help.

They say it takes a village. So why not ask a like-minded parent to adjust their schedules with you? What if instead of that hour-long lesson, you and Aiden’s mom make a pact to have your kids spend that hour at one another’s homes engaged in lightly supervised, anything-goes play (within reason and with safety in mind, of course)?

5. Dress the part.

Part of the reason finding free time in the summer seems so much easier, is that there is more daylight which makes outdoor play more accessible. However, don’t let the dark days of fall and winter keep your kids inside. Embrace them. Someone once said to me, “There’s no bad weather, just bad outerwear.” Layer on the clothes and head outside with a flashlight for some night-time exploring, star-gazing, or a walk around the neighborhood while you sing songs or share stories.

6. Pick a day.

When it comes to paring down your schedule, it’s fine to start small. You don’t have to clear every day. Can you pick one day to designate a “no-scheduled-activities” day? Free Time Fridays, Schedule-Free Saturdays, Time-Off Tuesdays? It doesn’t need a catchy name, but it may help as you try to keep that time sacred and blocked off for kids to paint their own canvas. The challenge, however, is to also push for those times to also be tech-free in order to truly experience the benefits of free time.

Good luck! I am right there with you fighting … and I hope this gives you some ideas for making room for free time for your kids. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. And don’t forget to share the ways your family is working to #TakeBackChildhood!

Signed Melissa



Melissa is the co-founder of Melissa & Doug. She credits her creativity to a childhood of boredom, relying on only her imagination to fill the blank canvas — with magic. Concerned this generation of children is missing out on the kind of unstructured downtime that enables them to find their passions and purpose through exploration, Melissa is leading a movement to Take Back Childhood. She dreams of a day when kids are free from over-scheduling, undue pressure, and digital distractions so they may discover themselves, develop into free thinkers, and realize their full potential.

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