Restoring balance to your family calendar

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Pure joy. That’s the feeling I had after our daughter officially ‘retired’ from swimming lessons last week. Not graduated, retired. Big difference. In fact, our son did the same thing. He retired from swimming lessons about 12 months ago. More joy. Two less activities scheduled on the family calendar. You too can experience this feeling.

Now don’t get me wrong, our kids can both swim. I can’t tell you how many swimming lessons they’ve been to over the years all year ‘round; summer, autumn, winter and spring.  Don’t you just love swimming lessons in the middle of winter? That investment of time, energy and money has paid off in spades. They can both swim laps of the pool and happily and confidently competed at school swimming sports last month. Our son even made it through to the district swimming team; thank you Kings Swimming. The time had come. For them, and for me. 

My relief at this family decision was palpable. And it’s not that every night of the week is spent at activities for our kids but striking something off the calendar, instead of always adding more, gave us back one more precious afternoon of coming home after school and chilling out, however we want to. 

So many family calendars are jam packed, with after school activities taking away from precious, relaxing, down time and play time after school. When cancelling an activity has so many benefits, why then are families filling up the week with so much to do? 

There’s lots of reasons actually. We know how important sport is in the lives of our kids, how it impacts their physical health, their mental health, getting them out of the house, friendships, self-esteem, winning and losing, persisting, developing skills, time off screens, the list goes on. Other activities like language classes, learning an instrument or developing leadership skills have wonderful benefits for kids too. After school activities are also lots of fun for kids, if they’re choosing them for themselves. But there is a limit to how much time spent in organised activities after school is good for them. We all need more balance, especially for the sake of our kid’s mental health. 

Research shows that a driving factor behind enrolment in afterschool activities comes less from contemplation of the benefits for our kids, and more from our want to be ‘good parents’. We are more able to afford activities we may have missed out on as kids, there’s sooooo many activities to choose from and when screens are pulling our kids’ attention away from playing at home, it’s understandable some parents would rather schedule activities to compensate for lack of activity or lack of interest in doing a range of activities under their own stem in their own backyards. 

Well intentioned efforts to create opportunities for children can do more harm than good if left unchecked. We live in a time where rates of mental illness, particularly anxiety, are climbing. One in seven Australian children have a diagnosed mental illness. That’s 3 in your average classroom. Many more go undiagnosed. 

Rushing to activities, late nights and stressed parents aren’t the conditions for family members to enjoy flourishing mental health. Too many organised activities also detract from time to hang out with friends, to comfortably complete homework tasks, to spend time with family, to get bored and importantly, to simply play. Research professor of Psychology and author Dr Peter Gray attributes the rise in anxiety, depression, suicide and narcissism among children to the decline of play and the lack of control our kids have over their lives, especially their spare time.  While play might seem trivial, and something for kids to engage in in between more structured activities, the opposite could not be more true. Play creates opportunities for children of all ages to learn to get along with other children, solve problems, make decisions, think creatively, develop friendships, compromise, learn new skills, test limits, take risks, develop interests, follow rules, make new friends, have fun and experience joy. 

Every time our children play, their experiences are akin to deposits in their emotional bank accounts. If we rob them of the opportunity to play, we’re missing a critical opportunity to enable our children to develop the internal resources that will see them flourishing now and throughout life. 

So what to do? If you’re wondering if there’s too much on the calendar for your family I have a simple question you can ask your kids to re-orient them in the direction of more balance. Here it is…

“If all of your after school activities were cancelled, which one(s) would you plead with me to re-enrol you in?”

That’s it. 

That’s the question that will help you to lighten the load and free up more time for your kids to be kids. You’d be surprised at how many activities kids start and lose interest in, only to keep going with them because that’s their routine. If your kids can’t decide, aim for two to three activity free nights a week and ensure down time and a balance of activities, play, and family time on the weekend. The benefits are endless; more time, less ferrying to and from activities, less cost, happier kids, happier parents to name a few.  It’s possible for everyone to enjoy more balance, after all, extra-curricular activities are a choice, not a must. 

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