Ask the Experts: Balancing Free Time & Activities
We asked local experts to weigh in on their tips for balancing free time and structured activities.
Trudy Ruminer: The ideal balance will likely vary greatly between families and also between children. There are many variables to consider in determining what that balance should look like for your family/child. That being said, there are a few questions to ponder regardless of your family’s dynamic that may help you decide.
- What is the current stress level of the family as a whole and what is the stress level of each family member individually?
- Are the current activities bringing more enjoyable moments or more stress and discontent? What is the purpose of the activity?
- Is the activity fulfilling its purpose?
If the answers to those questions don’t add up it may be helpful to sit down together as a family to re-prioritize.
Freeing up space in your family's schedule to allow you and your child time to relax and play is important. Having fun reduces stress and anxiety, increases feelings of self-worth, increases creativity, gives children an outlet to work out fears and problems and promotes feelings of contentment. Protecting your child’s free time and providing an environment conducive to relaxation and play is as important as making sure they do their homework. Playing together as a family is just as essential. When free time is limited, it may be necessary to find creative ways to maximize that time by incorporating play into your evening routines such as picnicking in the back yard or allowing for a few extra minutes to play at bath time.
For more on this topic Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D. and Nicole Wise have written a thought provoking book titled: "The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap."
Trudy Ruminer is a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director and owner of True North Therapeutic Solutions, an outpatient mental health agency in Oklahoma City. Trudy is mother to four adult children and the proud grandmother to one. She draws her knowledge not only from her own personal parenting experiences, but also from her years of experience working closely with families.
Dr. Anne K. Jacobs: There are benefits to both unstructured time and scheduled activities. Structured extracurricular activities are a valuable way for young people to develop new skills, broaden and deepen their knowledge in different areas, learn about dedication and commitment and learn how to push themselves to succeed. However, all youth need some free time that is their own. They need time to play, be creative, tackle boredom and daydream, even into their teen years. Adolescence is a time of tremendous cognitive development so having some down time to sit around and "do nothing" is vital. As one of my clients aptly summed it up, "I just need some time to think my own thoughts."
I wish I could give a specific recommendation but the answer is not so simple. Achieving balance is a constant process of making adjustments to tweak your situation. I offer up a few questions to consider.
- Can we afford this activity?
- Is your child getting the sleep she needs?
- Is your child appearing to be overwhelmed regularly?
- Does your child complain about never having time to hang out with friends?
- Are you all running so much that you rarely have dinner together?
- Are activities interfering with other events important to you such as spiritual activities, holidays, or family traditions?
- Are each of the activities feeding an important value that your child or your family holds dear?
Every choice we make has a price whether it is a financial cost or time that we will never get back. Your family deserves to take time to think critically and discuss these decisions. Do not be afraid to say "no."
Anne K. Jacobs earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Kansas and enjoys serving children, adolescents and their families. In addition to her private practice in Edmond, she holds an adjunct faculty position at Southern Nazarene University. Her family includes: husband, Noel who is also a child psychologist; twin daughters, Keegan and Sarah; one dog, two cats, and five tarantulas.
Madison Clark: There is so much pressure to be involved in a million after school activities and sports, but that does not work well for many families. Every family and child is different, so shape your schedule based on your family’s priorities and how your family functions best. When trying to determine an ideal balance for your family, start with the end goal in mind.
- What do you hope for your child?
- What skills do you want them to develop or strengthen?
- What time commitment can you reasonably handle?
If your top priority is to help your child learn to work well with others, you may consider enrolling in an after-school sport and also make some intentional play dates with friends. If building academic abilities is most important, consider using a tutoring service, intentional time for homework or an academic club. Some families may thrive on a different activity every night, but many families do best with one or two commitments per week.
Unstructured time for play and family connection needs to be a part of your schedule, too. Play is how children explore, learn, connect and build new skills. If families are too busy with activities and structure, children are not given an opportunity to grow their imaginations and build essential life and social skills. Unstructured free time is where children are forced to get creative, leading to exciting developments in their ability to problem-solve. Joining your child in some of this unstructured time is wonderful for building strong attachment and strengthening relationships.
Madison Clark is a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist in private practice in Norman. She specializes in working with families with young children, ages 0-6. She has extensive training in play therapy and enjoys watching parents connect with their children through play.
Greg Gunn: There are a certain number of activities that are probably non-negotiable in the family. These are structures that are at the top of the parenting priorities including homework, a certain amount of sleep, family time, perhaps a family meal together and maybe religious activities such as church or youth groups or other family traditions. The balance is making sure the most important values in your family are addressed first and add in others as there is time, finances and desire. When your family decides to engage in extracurricular activities, be actively involved in supporting them, but do not create an atmosphere that fosters bad attitudes, rebellious attitudes or disappointment in their performance. No matter if your child participates in several activities or no activities, the most important activity they will participate in is a strong relationship with their family. Children don’t usually rebel against authority, they rebel against a lack of relationship. Know your kids, let them be who they are, support them in their strengths and work with them in the weaknesses. If the priorities are being squeezed out, the balance may be off.
Greg Gunn, founder of Family-iD, is a life coach, pastor, author and speaker from Oklahoma City. Married for 30 years, Greg is a father of seven kids, a father-in-law and a grandfather of two. For 17 years, Greg has led Family Vision Ministries, a ministry that helps families put their purpose on paper and pass it on to future generations.
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta: I view “ideal balance” as a reasonable proportion of “have to” responsibilities to “want to” activities. This definition reflects the fluid nature of family life and incorporates structured and unstructured time in the formula. Ideal balance is not a fixed goal. It is an ongoing process of assessment and re-adjustment. Before you say “yes” to a new “want to” or “have to” commitment gather as much information as possible to evaluate how it will impact your current family balance.
During the short time that you are raising your family, you are establishing life habits and values. When it comes to lifestyle balance, you don’t want the send the message that busy is better, and that boredom is bad. Intentional planning will afford your family the time you crave for connection, creativity and catching up on rest and responsibilities.
There are so many shiny opportunities available for after-school enrichment; it’s not surprising that families can quickly become overextended. Start small. Especially during the school year, one activity per child (per season) is a great place to start. Consider your child’s interests and abilities when choosing an activity, in addition to how this commitment will affect homework, dinner time and other priorities of family life.
Most parents are understandably concerned about quitting, so it is easier to add an activity than take one away. Summer enrichment tends to be offered in smaller chunks of time and is a great way to add variety without overloading the schedule and can be flexible with the changing interests of your child.
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta is celebrating 22 years of private practice. She is a clinical psychologist in Edmond with a special heart for women, children and families. Dr. Marotta enjoys writing, public speaking and blogging. She and her husband Sal have two young adult daughters.