Gone are the days when children rush home from school to play in their yards and ride bikes through the neighborhood. Unstructured time for today’s kids is nearly a thing of the past. If kids aren’t roaming the neighborhoods, hanging from jungle gyms, or making forts in their backyards, where are they? Most are busy with a variety of extracurricular activities. While it is wonderful to widen your child’s horizons through enrichment, the question remains: How does this decrease in unstructured time affect children?
The concept of the “overscheduled child” is a phenomenon that has slowly developed over the past 15 to 20 years. Dr. William J. Doherty, author of The Intentional Family and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, has done extensive research on the subject. His studies indicate that unstructured time for young children is on the decline. As a result of increasingly busy schedules, outdoor play time has decreased by 50 percent, and general unrestricted play time has decreased by 25 percent in the past ten years. In addition, less than one-third of American families regularly eat dinner together. Does this decrease in unstructured play time and family time affect kids? Experts think so.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Dr. Tracey Borriello Murphy, NCSP, a school psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts who also maintains a private practice, agrees today’s parents are overloading their kids’ schedules. “Some children do not have the opportunity to learn how to play independently, creatively, or spontaneously,” says Dr. Murphy. “With too much structure, they rely on adults to give them direction for everything.” This reliance on adults can inhibit a child's general ability to organize their own play.
Dr. Murphy identifies these children as the "I'm bored, mom!" kids who, when faced with down time, are at a loss because they haven’t developed independence in play or self-entertainment. Dr. Murphy says children who are overscheduled can experience a heightened and significant sense of anxiety—they can be overwhelmed with the feeling that there is too much to master, too much to rush to, and a general feeling of chaos in their lives. “Under extremely stressful scheduling situations, some parents may even consider medication to treat anxiety without even recognizing that the anxiety may stem from environmental influences as opposed to an organically based disorder,” states Dr. Murphy.