Missed opportunities: The irony of overscheduling

From sports to youth groups, to music or dance lessons, kids’ schedules are hard to keep up with these days. More than 70-percent of parents say their school-aged children participated in athletics, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center Survey. About 60-percent said their kids were in religious or youth groups.

Busy schedules are often very well-meaning, as parents want to help their children develop skills and talents, and prevent kids from having “too much time on their hands.” Other parents with work pressures may simply need a safe place for their children to spend time.

But when schedules get too packed, kids miss out on some valuable things.

Boredom is beneficial

Dr. Kathleen Hipke, SSM Health psychologist, says by running from one structured activity to another, kids lose out on the opportunity to be bored. Boredom teaches kids to generate ideas about how to occupy their time. It often encourages them to pick up a book or sketch pad, or go outside.

“We run the risk by scheduling kids tightly, of raising teens and young adults who don’t know how to slow down,” contends Dr. Hipke. “There is an expectation of constant activity and entertainment that is structured by others.”

She adds that children could lose out on developing social skills. When all peer activity is designed and run by adults, kids will miss opportunities. For example, consider the values of building a fort together versus practicing for a soccer game. While both can be useful, the fort requires a group of kids to negotiate the rules of engagement together. It can be a powerful way to build skills important to cooperation.

A fine line between fun and burnout

When children are overscheduled, there’s the chance that they’ll lose the joy associated with hobbies such as sports. The fun of a pick-up game could be replaced by the pressure of a traveling team. This is especially true for kids who start practicing in the early childhood years, well before many are ready for structured group dynamics. Sports should be pleasurable for a lifetime, but these days, more and more teens are quitting a previously beloved sport before high school.

How can you tell if someone is burned out?

“Ask yourself if your child is really enjoying him or herself,” says Dr. Hipke. “This doesn’t mean they always want to jump in the car when it is time to go, but do they derive real pleasure from the experience when they are there?”

It’s also important to pay attention to fatigue. As parents, you can first check in with yourself. If you’re feeling pressure by a hectic pace, chances are the kids are experiencing something similar. Moods can also be a sign of overscheduling. Kids who are chronically cranky are often just exhausted.

Recharging the batteries

Kids are just like adults in that we all need time to rejuvenate and re-fill our tanks. It’s just that children’s tanks are much smaller. Young children learn, connect and refresh themselves through play, so they need plenty of time to do it.

You don’t necessarily need to try to plan relaxing activities, but just make sure there is room for them in everyone’s schedules.

“Regular time at home with nothing planned allows for family spontaneity,” concludes Dr. Hipke. “You can take a walk, play a game, or explore a new part of your community. It gives kids space to play, get creative, and when needed, rest.”

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