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Make sure your child's busy calendar includes plenty of free time

Make sure your child's busy calendar includes plenty of free time
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Making a family schedule

Stress and your child

BY LAURIE MCPHERSON
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2010

School supplies - check. Dental and eye exam - check. Swim lessons, hockey, dance class, Scouts - check, check, check, check, check . . .

Fall is upon us and families are getting ready for another busy year of co-ordinating school and after-school activities.

Parents are often faced with the challenging task of balancing their children's school commitments and extra-curricular activities with their own goals for their children, all while keeping within the family budget. But how much is too much, and how does one know when they have overloaded their kid with too many activities?

The answer to that question varies, depending on the individual. But research into the question offers some insights and guidelines.

Today's school-aged children are often involved in several different activities or programs after school and on weekends. Parents want their children to be engaged in a variety of positive experiences and activities. Some parents fear that their children will lag behind others, get bored or get into trouble if they don't participate in daily scheduled activities.

While exposing children to sports, music and other activities is often positive, it's important for parents to keep in mind that children benefit from maintaining a healthy balance of scheduled and unscheduled activities. In other words, make sure you add some free time to your child's activity checklist.

Scheduled activities can have benefits such as learning a new skill, building selfesteem, setting and reaching goals, and fostering social connections. Think about the goals that you have for your child and why you support your child's participation in the activity. Are you hoping they will gain confidence and self-esteem? Would you like to see them develop a competitive spirit or be part of a team?

Unscheduled time also has its benefits. Children who learn to manage "free" time at home learn how to think for themselves by choosing activities, enjoying social time with friends or exploring hobbies and interests at their own pace. Free time can also allow children the opportunity to talk about what's going on for them and may help to develop stronger family relationships. If parents have concerns around how free time is spent, they may want to set some age-appropriate guidelines, for example, around "screen time" activities such as television, video games and computer time.

Sometimes problems develop when children are "over-programmed." Children who don't learn to manage free time may not develop the skill of thinking and planning time for themselves. Children can experience significant stress while trying to keep up with all the demands of extra-curricular activities, or they may constantly feel that they don't measure up when everything they do is somehow being judged. Children need free time to just be themselves. Free time also leaves time for children to develop positive friendships with their peers. Childhood development research shows that the ability to develop healthy social connections and friendships is one of the most important factors in children's overall health and well-being. Making friends takes time and effort.

Consider other things that are going on in your child's life. Is your child attending a new school this year? Are they adapting to family changes such as a new baby or family separation? Are they struggling with their grades at school and needing assistance with homework? These and other factors may play a role in deciding how much time is spent on outside activities.

Every child is unique. For example, one child may thrive on being involved in several activities, while another child may feel overwhelmed with more than two activities per week. Some parents have expectations about their children following in their footsteps. A parent who is passionate about gymnastics, for example, may have a difficult time accepting that their child does not enjoy that sport.

Watch for signs of imbalance in your family life. Are you stressed out every night, racing through the drive-through for supper while you get your children to their lessons on time? Are the basics like a good night's sleep and a nutritious meal taking a back seat to all the activities? Does your family find time for a relaxed family meal or evenings when you can just hang out together? Set aside time every week on the calendar for "down" time and encourage the family to enjoy a relaxing evening together. Bake a batch of cookies. Watch old family movies with a bowl of popcorn. Go for a neighbourhood walk or bike ride. Enjoy a board game or explore the library and read books. Ask your children for ideas and encourage their imaginations. Before long, your children will look forward to this special time spent with their family.

Try to keep your eye on the big picture when it comes to deciding how to spend family time. In five or ten years, your child is more likely to remember and value the times you spent together having fun as a family more than any lesson or club they participated in. Finding the balance between scheduled activities and free time within your family paves the way for positive family relationships and a rewarding lifestyle for everyone!

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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