Most students have very busy days at school, chock full of exciting activities and adventures. Because their school days are so full, it is also wise to limit the number of after school programs or activities included in children's schedules. Going from school to another structured class or lesson almost every day can be stressful rather than enjoyable, particularly while the children are still adjusting to school. Remember, each class means adjusting to one more unfamiliar person with different expectations and style, and possibly more stress. Therefore, it is best to be choosy and limit the number of activities in which your children are involved.
Even when children seem to enjoy many activities, it is best for them not to always be scheduled; they truly need down time.
A question to consider is: “How much time do children need with peers, with adult attention, and/or left to their own devices?”
The key is balance. Unstructured interaction with peers, particularly in a home setting, provides opportunities to develop social skills such as sharing, taking turns, cooperation and compromise. Time with parents or other adults in their lives provides a sense of security and of being loved, valued and significant. However, it is important that you not to be their constant playmate or program director. Having open time during which children need to occupy themselves is equally important. This is when children engage their own imaginations for creative play, and it is time for them to daydream; it is the time that they learn to be comfortable in their own company.
A second question is, “What should be happening during the unstructured time?”
Often times, children are so used to having the attention of an adult, whether parent or caregiver, that they are unused to entertaining themselves and are unable to do so. To help children develop the ability to be comfortable in their own company, you may have stage those opportunities and tell your child(ren) that it is time to play alone for a specified time period while you do something else. Offer suggestions if they need them. Activities such as building, using manipulative materials and doing arts and crafts are open-ended pursuits that foster imagination and creativity. Reading books and engaging in dramatic play with dolls, figures and stuffed animals (that are not role-designated by commercial media) also fall into this category.
Why aren't electronic options on this list? While these have a time and a place, they are entertainment devices that replace the adult rather than encourage active, creative or imaginative play.
By helping children learn to be comfortable in their own company; being sure they have tools to use; and letting them choose their methods, evaluate their results, and try again, children will learn to explore, create and develop their passions. Anything can happen and all things are possible. Who knows, we could be helping the world’s next great inventor or humanitarian who may make this world a better place.