The importance of 'down time' for kids should not be underestimated.

The importance of 'down time' for kids should not be underestimated. Photo: Getty

Along with an increasingly loud call to start literacy and numeracy earlier in our children’s school lives, comes a larger than ever trend to occupy our kids in organised extra-curricular activities and enhanced learning activities.

Occurrences of ‘kids too busy to play’ are not uncommon; in fact, they appear to be rapidly becoming the norm.

This worrying trend is robbing kids of vital free time to develop their creativity, their wellbeing, and their social and emotional competency.

The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca is famous for saying that “when you do not know which harbour you are making for, no wind is the right wind”.

This quote offers a beautifully written reminder of the importance of knowing where you are heading in life before you set your goals. This is as true for the goals we set our kids as it is for ourselves.

If you ask a parent what is the one thing they most want for their children, they invariably answer, “I want them to be happy”. 

As parents we tend to look at the measures of success in the society around us and decide what goals will make our kids the happiest, based on this information. 

It is of little surprise that in our achievement-driven society we come up with the idea that high educational outcomes offer the best harbour for our kids to sail towards. 

The worrying truth is that the increased emphasis on spending time with school work and other structured activities is having detrimental effects on both our children’s happiness and on their ability to embrace a successful adult life. 

Chinese education expert Jiang Xueqin wrote about how the failings of a rote-memorisation system like that now in China are well known: lack of social and practical skills; absence of self-discipline and imagination; and loss of curiosity and passion for learning. The more we try to mirror China’s system with a focus on working hard from an early age, the more we mirror their growing mental health issues and disengagement with life.

Often, our good intentions as parents result in us placing our children in structured programs to foster (or spark) a new-found interest in art or music or dance or football. However, in doing so, we can quench their passion for engaging with life by disallowing the freedom they need to be truly creative. We don’t always value these endeavours without an outcome.

Extra schooling and extra-curricular activities take away important free time. This loss of free time equates to greater rates of depression and anxiety in our kids. It also equates to an increased inability for kids to self-regulate emotions, think creatively and make self-determined decisions in later life.

University of Cambridge researcher Dr David Whitebread describes the vital importance of free time in the development of learning and problem solving. He cites studies that show that superior learning and motivation arise from free play as opposed to instructional approaches to learning. He also cites longitudinal studies that show that young children actually obtain better academic, motivational and wellbeing outcomes if involved in play-based programs as opposed to early formal education.

Creativity is declining in our children along with a rise in mental health issues and loss of self-directed engagement in learning. In particular, creative elaboration (the ability to take an idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way) is declining at a worrying rate. Yet, creative collaboration is a better predictor of real-world achievements than IQ, high school grades or others guess’s about who will achieve the most.

It seems that our fears of failure within our developed society have led us into an increasing frenzy of giving kids more and more content, and less and less ability. We are trying to quench our kids’ thirst for life with salty water. 

In contrast, kids learn many of the vital ingredients of success by simply being left alone to play and be creative. They learn how to get along with each other (kids do not tolerate tantrums in other kids!). They learn how to self-regulate and deal with their own emotions and how to engage in their passions. They learn skills for modern-day survival and how to foster their creativity. 

I am not advocating that we forget formal education and let our kids simply play until adulthood. Rather I do believe that it is vital that we pull in the reins on our expectations of formal structured activities and extra learning. 

Kids, especially young kids, need time to explore their world without any formal rules or guidance. They need time to be bored and to beat boredom. Time to find a way to engage in life and learn important life skills for themselves. 

Free time is not down time from the rest of life, it is a vital part of learning how to lead a successful life, perhaps the most vital part of all.

 

Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (positiveschools.com.au) and will be talking about creativity at this year’s event in May. Helen’s third book (co-edited with Neil Porter), Better than OK: Helping Young People to Flourish at School and Beyond (Fremantle Press) will be launched at the conference. @PositiveSchools