Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz family picnic 150x150 The Joys of Unstructured Time for Free Play vs. Structured ActivitiesQuestion: My kids (Zoe, age 2, and Benjamin, age 7) love nothing better than unstructured time for free play. They invent games with each other and whoever else is around, play with their toys, read, help me with something in the house, or paint. They seem calmer and happier when they have that free time. I’m getting a lot of pressure, though, to enrol them in organized sports and lessons. My husband and I both work, and our lives are full to bursting already. But I don’t want to let my kids down. When is it too much? 

Answer: I love your description of the joys of unstructured time for free play, and the way free play can help kids find calm happiness in the middle of busy family lives. Your question is a good one—how to provide kids with enriching learning opportunities like they can get in music classes or team sports or other structured and organized activities, but also make sure they get enough unstructured time for free play to relax into themselves and figure out what they want to do.

A few well-chosen structured activities can provide children with opportunities for learning and enrichment, but you’re right to wonder how much is too much. As with so much else in parenting and life, there is no right answer for all kids at all ages. It’s all about finding a healthy balance.

The balance changes day to day and year to year, so what works for your toddler won’t be the right thing for your 7-year-old. At 2, Zoe’s biggest need is for someone to listen to her, respond to her, and play with her, finding a balance between allowing her to set the pace and agenda, and creating enough structure so that she’s safe and secure, and her basic needs for sleep and food and shelter are taken care of. She requires lots of time for unstructured time for free play. At 7, Benjamin’s old enough for more autonomy and is better able to help you figure out what’s best for him, including whether he’s ready for structured activities, and how many. Zoe needs you to be proactive in initiating activities, where Benjamin’s parenting needs are becoming increasingly reactive.

The right balance of unstructured free time vs. structured activities is also different from one child to another. As she gets a bit older, Zoe might be one of those children who loves learning in a structured environment. She might benefit from having three or four regularly structured activities in her life—organized sports, art classes, language instruction, etc.—starting in two or three years. Benjamin, on the other hand, may prefer structuring his own activities. You might find that he has his best learning experiences when he has all the time and resources he needs to design his own science experiments, or create stories for himself. You can follow his interests and look for activities he might enjoy. If he loves science, for example, you might look into a science-focused summer program or Saturday class where he could develop his interests further and meet others who share his interests.

Another dimension of all this is your own needs, and your husband’s. I’ve seen too many families living ragged lives, rushing about from one activity to another, grabbing fast-food meals because both parents are working full-time, then stretching themselves to the breaking point to get kids from one structured activity to another. They don’t have time for simple healthy cooking, or easy, pleasant time with each other. Children who grow up in such high-stress families can end up as frazzled as their parents. Way better to slow down on the activities, and make time on your schedules to live well, and enjoy each other’s company.

Your job as a parent is to observe, listen, and reflect on what you see and hear from your kids, which your question shows you are doing very well already. Your question shows that you’re paying attention, that you know your children well, and are providing them with the kind of home life they need, at least for now.


More thoughts on the importance of unstructured time for free play:

New evidence showing that the Tiger Parent method—lots of structured activities and competition—doesn’t lead to the best outcomes:

Another response to the same kind of question as yours:

Some thoughts on assessing a child’s readiness for dance class:

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What do you think?

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