Making Health a Priority: Scheduling free time this school year

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

children in costumes playing on homemade ship set outsideSomething interesting happened at a family reunion.  We were at my aunt and uncle's house. (They graciously host each year.) Several of the adults were sitting outside — visiting, catching up, reminiscing, and enjoying the evening. As we did this, I noticed that something was strange... out of the ordinary... odd... 

It took a little while to put my finger on it, but then I recognized it... It was that feeling you experience as a parent when the kids are being too good, too cooperative, too content. And you think, Okay, what are they up to? 

These are some of the things that the 20 kids at our reunion (who ranged in ages from toddlers to high schoolers) were doing: 

  • Running around the yard
  • Playing catch with a football
  • Playing basketball
  • Doing cartwheels
  • Playing in the dirt and landscape rocks (the little ones)
  • Building with Legos
  • Creating and rehearsing a play that we would all later watch (a much-anticipated yearly tradition)   

It was a parent's dream! I'm not making this up — we had some sort of kid utopia going on! The kids were outside in the fresh air, doing physical things, doing creative things, cooperating with others (mostly anyway). And it was all self-directed, without any "I'm bored" comments or requests to turn on the TV or I-pad. 

It was the kind of scene that leaves a parent wondering, How did this happen? And, How do we re-create more of this? 

Perhaps the fact that we didn't create any of this was the whole point. Perhaps magic happens when we simply: 

  • Open up time in our schedules and space in our homes,
  • Step back,
  • And just see what unfolds.

Something I Struggle With

One of the (many) things I struggle with as a parent is finding the balance between giving my kids opportunities, yet avoiding an overbooked schedule full of adult-lead activities. As my 6-year-old daughter is about to start first grade, it's time to think about which extra-curricular activities she'll do this year. Options include: 

  • Soccer
  • Swimming 
  • Gymnastics
  • Martial arts
  • Dance
  • Music
  • Theater
  • Religious programming
  • 4-H
  • Girl scouts
  • Basketball
  • Softball

"Back when I was a kid" (yes, I guess I'm officially old)... we didn't have all these options. A first grader basically went to school, came home, and played.

younger children laughing and playing on green and blue playground structurePlease don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that organized activities are bad. They can be a wonderful opportunity, promoting health and teaching valuable life lessons. My kids will participate in some, and they'll have a great time. And we're all thankful that the kids don't have to rely on me for their athletic and musical skill development. :)  

Yet I think it's essential to remember a very important activity — one that never shows up on sign-up lists and doesn't have a registration form, although it is invaluable to a child's health and well-being

That activity is called free time. As the parent, I consider myself the "program director" for it.

The cool thing about this "program director" gig is that my only "job responsibility" is to free up some time and space for my kids, and let them take the lead. I don't even have to drive them anywhere!

Something To Consider

I love the work of Dr. Shefali Tsabary, who is a clinical psychologist and author. In The Conscious Parent, she writes:  

Many in modern society have lost the ability to respond to life without turning it into a major production. Consequently, our children grow up believing life is to be lived fast and furiously. In their everyday existence, drama trumps simplicity, excitement beats out stillness. They grow up addicted to a life of highs and lows, unable to [appreciate] the ordinary, with little perspective on how to glean enjoyment from the mundane. 

Children learn who they are and what they really enjoy if they are allowed to sit with themselves. Inundated with activity and subjected to lesson upon lesson, how can they hope to recognize their authentic voice amid the den of all this doing?

Speaking of an experience when her own 4-year-old daughter was restless, hard to please, and bored: My first instinct was to rescue her, and in the process myself. Isn't a good parent supposed to schedule their children's time? As I contemplated whether I should turn on the television, do a project with her, or take her to the park, the insight came to me. How would she learn to navigate her way through her boredom if I rescue her all the time? 

... Indeed, when we fill our children's lives with countless activities or artificial trinkets, we rob them of their imagination, and hence of their ability to create their own pleasure. When we empty our life of clutter, noise, and distractions, prioritizing our schedule around the creation of space, we open the way for vital experiences.

As this school year begins, I am excited about all the new opportunities and experiences my children will have. These experiences will help shape them into the individuals they will become. At the same time, I hope to give my children sufficient time and space to figure out their authentic selves, to find their own joy in the simple things, and to start recognizing their unique gifts to this world.  

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.