Soccer on Mondays and Thursdays, dance class on Tuesdays and Fridays, Girl Scouts on Wednesdays and art camp on the weekends – sprinkle in school, homework and screen time and you have one tightly packed schedule for a kid.
All that scheduled structured playtime might not seem shocking to many parents (in fact it might even be considered a blessing), but experts say it is and it is harming kids more than parents believe.
According to a new survey by toy company Melissa & Doug and analytics organization Gallup, parents aren’t fully appreciating unstructured child-led playtime and would much rather choose structured activities to keep their kids occupied and days filled to the brim.
“Today’s children are experiencing unprecedented levels of pressure, anxiety, and depression – all stemming from a lack of self-confidence, resilience, independence, connection and sense of self,” Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa & Doug, said in a statement. “We may think we are protecting them from being bored or falling behind, but ultimately we are preventing them from the open-ended experiences that allow them to discover themselves, their passion and their purpose.”
The survey interviewed 1,000 adults over the age of 18 with kids up to 10 years of age in Canada, Australia and the U.K. and asked them what they thought of different types of play children engage in.
When it comes to unstructured play, 57 per cent of parents believe the only skill children get out of it is creativity. Only three in 10 believe children develop problem-solving, self-confidence and other skills (art, athletics, etc.).
But when asked to identify which of the 12 qualities are the most and least important for children to develop by the age of 10, 63 per cent said the most important was self-confidence, followed by social skills (46 per cent) and academic skills (42 per cent). Only 28 per cent identified creativity as an important skill followed by problem-solving (24 per cent).
And when it comes to boredom, only about one in five parents strongly agree that it’s good to let children be bored. And when this happens, oftentimes parents will jump in with potential activities.
Sometimes that involves intervening with television, smartphones and other screen time devices.
According to surveyors, children in the U.K., Australia and Canada average about 19 hours a week of screen time, however over 40 per cent of parents would prefer that their child plays outside or do things with a parent or another adult.
(The Canadian Paediatric Society does not recommend children under two have screen time. Children between two and 5 years should only have less than an hour per day of screen time.)
These results are troubling, parenting expert Gail Bell of Parenting Power says, but they’re not surprising.
“Parents face perpetual pressure to keep their kids engaged – perpetual pressure from who, that’s their own issue so parents have to own that because nobody’s pressuring them but themselves,” she says. “And if they feel like somebody is pressuring them, then they’re just using blame.”
Bell agrees that by allowing children to play without structure and embrace boredom at times, parents are allowing their kids to build skills in creativity and problem-solving. They’re also helping them build their self-confidence and resiliency.
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“In homes where parents aren’t appreciating it, they don’t know the research around it… but I’d also suggest that parents don’t want to put up with their kids learning how to play,” Bell says. “What do they do? They shove a screen in front of their face – and they do that because parents have a screen in front of their face and they don’t want to interact with their kids.”
This causes a huge disconnect, Bell says, because parents believe they’re spending all this time with their kids – driving them to their structured activities and whatever else – when in reality parents are actually spending very little time with their children.
“If you go to a park, very few parents are playing with their kids because they’re actually sitting on the bench playing on their screens while their kids play,” she says. “This is a full circle because kids are trying to get their parents’ attention but they have to fight for it.”
But that’s not to say that structured activity is bad and that kids don’t get any benefit from it because they do, Bell says.
Learning how to work within a team, listen to others and how to fail are just some of the benefits of structured activities. However, the message here, Bell says, is balance.
Too much of one thing is not good, she adds, so it’s important that families find a way to manage family time, as well as structured and unstructured playtime.
“Stop making excuses and start parenting,” Bell says. “Parenting is spending quality time with your kids – and kids need to be playing.”