By Sophia Fromell
This weekend I took my son to his swim lesson. Coffee on hand, I’m seating amongst the other glassy-eyed parents watching the children, trying to resist the chance to check my blackberry yet one more time.
The bunch of 3 year olds in the pool are giving the instructor a hard time, one is crying refusing to get into the pool, another is throwing away the water toys, while a third keeps screaming “mummy look at me”.
The mum next to me, equally embarrassed like the rest of us by the behavior of our unruly toddlers, starts chatting about the day’s activities. Her girl is going to ballet later that afternoon. She has also recently started with tennis lessons, which she loves and she is an up and coming star. The mum is almost shell shocked when I admit that we only send our boy to one activity over the weekend; He just does swimming. “Well, what does he do with the rest of his time them?” she asks, not being able to hide her surprise. When I tell her that he goes to school in the morning and in the afternoons he just plays, she gives me that look that tells me she will be calling child services before the swim lesson is over.
I can’t say I was not puzzled with that mum’s response. Should we be sending our son to more activities? Are we damaging his future and his development by allowing him to play too much? What if he has a hidden talent in a specific sport or music instrument, how will we ever know unless we try most of them?
But hold on a minute! He is only 3! What were we doing when we were 3? Were our parents driving us the whole weekend from one activity to the next? As far as I can remember, my main activity was playing in the road outside my house together with the other children of the neighborhood. Every single day, including the weekends.
What has changed since then? What is it that one generation later makes us put so many demands on our children? The answer is that we have changed as parents. When I was young, my mother was not working and that was typical of most families around me. Nowadays, both parents are away from home working, as a result spending less time at home with the children, compared to a generation ago. That makes us parents feel guilty; guilty for being away from home, for having to work long hours; for spending less time with the children and for missing important milestones in their lives.
As a result, we tend to over compensate for time lost. To ensure that the family is spending as much time together as possible, we tend to overcompensate with planned activities. Going to tennis, to swimming, to football, to the play area.
That may often become even a bit of competition between the working mum and dad, as to who will plan the more fun activity and who will get the biggest thumbs up from the children. Not to mention that it even becomes to an extend peer pressure for the parents to enroll the children in activities; when most people do it, then it must be the correct thing to do, right?
Wrong! A number of studies have shown that children who enjoy free play are more likely to pay more attention to academic life. Additionally, free play is known to contribute to the development of language skills, enhance problem solving ability, teach children how to get along with others, control their impulses and fears and follow rules.
According to Dr. Peter Gray, over the past 50 to 60 years, we have continuously decreased the opportunities for children to play. This dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play has been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders.
Structured physical activities such as sports classes are not an alternative for free play. Even though structured activities can benefit children, they don’t deliver the same positive outcome as free play because these activities are too structured and rely heavily on adult-imposed rules.
Albert Einstein claimed to have developed his concept of relativity by imagining himself chasing a sunbeam and catching up with it, and then thinking about the consequences. So next time we stress around town running from one activity to the next, let us think whether it might be better to just let them play in the park, ride their bikes, build with blocks and just be children.