Protect Your Children’s Free Time

Research by the Population Association of America reports that children’s free time has decreased by 12 hours per week, and time spent doing unstructured outdoor activities decreased by 50 percent over the past three decades. Conversely, the amount of time children spent on homework increased by 50 percent, and time spent in structured sports activities doubled. These statistics suggest children’s and adolescents’ lives are more structured and increasingly performance-focused. Of course most parents do not maliciously enroll their children in piano lessons or sports, or press for “doing your best” in the classroom. However, an unanticipated consequence of a performance-focused and highly scheduled daily life is that time spent talking with family, time for sleep, meal times and playtime can all get pushed off to a “tomorrow” that never comes. Ironically, it is these activities that are invaluable for helping children and adolescents manage the demands of school and the stresses that frequently accompany performance expectations of parents and teachers.

Elevated pressure on children to perform, academically or athletically, can lead to anxiety and depression. In a study published in The High School Journal, researchers looked at adolescents and their amount of involvement in extra-curricular activities. They compared the amount of time spent in extra-curricular activities to self-reported symptoms of anxiety. 118 students from a suburban high school participated in the study, and of those students, the average amount of time spent in extracurricular activities was 31 hours per week, which included 11 hours of homework. The researchers found that greater time spent in extracurricular activities was related to increased levels of anxiety, especially in girls.

Parents need to help children and adolescents determine the right balance of “pushing for more”, with downtime. Here are some tips you can try with your children (or even yourself):

Make sleep a priority

Treat bedtime the same way you treat soccer practice: put it on your calendar and stick to it. It is difficult for most children to get the recommended 10-12 hours of sleep, but cutting back on your child’s activities is in order if s/he consistently gets less than nine hours per night.

Commit to family dinner

Family dinners provide children the opportunity to talk about things that are going on in their lives, problems they may be having, or simply to enjoy each other’s company. Schedule at least three dinners per week where you and your kids have the chance to connect over a meal. If you can’t sit down for dinner, consider family breakfast, or spending time together during the evening without a television or computer.

Stand your ground

The marketplace recognizes that many parents want to provide enriching experiences for their kids and it is eager to provide many options. Avoid the temptation to enroll in every fun or cool new activity that comes along. This is especially the case for young children; time spent playing at home is just as important for healthy development as playing soccer or participating in art class.

Involve your child in the decision

Allow your child or teen to choose their activities. If your kids want to participate in everything, remind them of their personal time constraints and the family’s time constraints, and then limit their choices to one or two activities that fit. Once the decision is made, remember the reason you enrolled the child in the activity. Very rarely will an extracurricular turn into a life’s work. Keep the focus on having fun or learning something, not earning a blue ribbon or the gold medal.

Take a break

If your child seems excessively tired, irritable or “burnt-out,” it’s OK to let him or her take a break. Kids need downtime just as much, if not more, than adults.

Listen to your gut

Every child is different. With differing personalities, activity levels and interests, what works well with one child may not work well for another. You know your children and family best, so listen to your gut if you get the feeling your children are pushed too hard or overscheduled.

* This Evidence-Based Parenting article was supported by funds from the George Kaiser Family Foundation awarded to the Oklahoma State University Center for Family Resilience. Joseph G. Grzywacz is the Kaiser Family Endowed Professor of Family Resilience and Director of the Center for Family Resilience.  He can be reached at or 918-594-8440.

Categories: Health