When school restarts after a break or summer, the reality of long structured days and homework-filled evenings starts to sink in. When children go back to in-person learning, there will also be an adjustment. With increasing school demands, life can be stressful for even young kids and many kids are experiencing anxiety at increasingly younger ages.

Unstructured time can be a relief from busy Zoom schedules, but summer activities can also help kids get ready for in-person school in the Fall.

If you’ve heard your kids say they’re bored (who hasn’t?), you know that kids often just don’t know what to do if activities aren’t planned for them. Helping our kids incorporate enough free playtime into their lives balanced with activities is one of the best ways to promote healthy development.

How can you help your kids strike a good balance between structured and unstructured time? Let’s consider the benefits of both.

Benefits of scheduled time:

  • Structure and self-discipline do not come naturally for some kids. Depending on your child’s birth order, personality, and learning style; structure may be a skill that needs to be learned. The school-day schedule may seem like torture for certain kids. But unstructured kids need to know that self-governing routines are part of life and are important to learn. For these kids, some type of schedule reinforces life skills needed for positive development.
  • Structure and schedules can help during times where other things in life are chaotic. In times of illness, grief, moving, divorce, or other losses, routine and familiarity are therapeutic for kids. When natural occurrences or adult choices affect a child’s life, stability in other areas can bring a sense of certainty for a child. During these times, schedules might be particularly helpful.

Benefits of free playtime/unstructured time:

  • Free playtime develops key skills. Many children just do not know what to do with unstructured time. They are becoming so accustomed to being entertained or busy that they are losing the skills developed during free playtime: creativity, contentment, problem solving, and self-motivation. To counteract this, consider leaving time for unstructured play. If your child doesn’t have time to just play, you might consider taking something off the calendar.
  • Unstructured time teaches kids to get along with other. Learning to get along with siblings and friends is an essential life skill. Structured schedules, just for the purpose of “keeping the kids busy” so they won’t fight, can take away children’s opportunities to grow in their peer relationships.
  • Kids still need time to just be kids. If you think about it, adults work for fifty (or more) years of their life. A rigid schedule—one that lacks opportunities for kids to explore childhood, to be creative, and to just “be”—may not be the best approach. Childhood is different than adulthood for the simple reason that “kids are meant to be kids” regardless of advances in technology or changes in society.

In short, kids need a balance between a structured schedule and unstructured free time. If your kid is the type that thrives in highly structured environments, they might need modeling on how to relax and be more carefree. And if you yourself need to learn how to just “be,” consider taking on this challenge of not overscheduling your child and of spending time together just hanging out.

by Kathleen O’Conner, MSW and Clinical Social Worker