Are Your Kids Overscheduled?

How to reduce the stress and plan downtime
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After-school chess club, robotics class, gymnastics, tutoring and violin: Sound like your child’s weekly calendar? Then take note. In the quest to enrich the lives of children, you may be unwittingly cheating your kids out of opportunities for growth. Researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver studied dozens of 6-year-olds and found that those who spent more time in unstructured play had better planning and organizing skills than those with less free time. Unscheduled time may foster open-ended play that boosts independent planning, which begs the question: Does your child get enough downtime? Here’s an age-by-age guide to cutting back on overscheduling in your child’s life.

Early Years: Restful Nest

Though we tend to associate overscheduling with the school-age set, babies, toddlers and preschoolers can feel schedule stress, too. Toddler gym, mommy-and-me sessions, language classes, music lessons and family commitments can add up to a child who is rarely at home, at play or at peace.

“At this important stage of development, focus on creating a very loving, nurturing and emotionally close relationship with your young child,” says Raelee Peirce, a parenting coach in Chapel Hill.

This translates to prioritizing one-on-one time and downtime over classes and out-of-the-house activities. Keep in mind that babies and young children need lots of rest to be at their best, too. Your little one may need up to 12 hours of sleep each night and two daily naps until 15 months of age, and a daily siesta until age 3 or so. Until then, one or two “value-added” activities, such as classes or playdates, per week, can help your child explore his world while still allowing freedom for daily rest and play.

Elementary Years: Time Alone

In grade school, extracurricular and academic commitments can pile on, leaving kids feeling drained. There's some value in scaling back activities and prioritizing personal time to help kids learn to manage a full calendar, but there's only so much parents can do to clear a child's calendar of commitments. Homework may be non-negotiable, for example, or a child may deem a time-consuming sport too cherished to quit.

Susan Kuczmarski, author of “Becoming A Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul,” suggests that the elementary years are a great time to teach kids how to recharge, so they can begin to self-manage a stressful schedule.

“Introduce time alone,” she says. “I call it ‘hammock time.’ Children are profoundly nourished by introspective time. Too much focus on busy activities and games leaves very little time to dream, wonder, reflect and discover.”

Teen Years: Connect

Between rigorous academic schedules, after-school jobs and internships, extracurricular activities, and full social lives, teens may be particularly susceptible to the stress of over-scheduling. In fact, to parents, it may seem that teens rarely are home.

Parental guidance and connection is still vital during the teen years, even when busy schedules make connecting a challenge. It doesn’t take an immense amount of time to establish a vital connection and alleviate some of your teen's stress, Kuczmarksi says.

“Try to take 15 minutes each day to connect one-on-one with each of your children, including teens; let your child take the lead. If your teenage daughter wants to teach you how to send a text message, go for it. You'd be surprised how much 15 minutes one-on-one means to your teen.”

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.”