Busy Isn’t Better

When I was in high school, I didn’t have time for lunch. By that I don’t mean that I was so busy I spent my lunch period doing homework or other things, I mean that I literally did not have time in my class schedule for a lunch period at all.


While I think that’s probably an extreme example, and one would hope that none of us are packing our toddlers’ schedules so full that we forget that they need to eat, many of us have accepted as normal a constant state of ‘busy-ness’ in which we feel so pressed for time that we put some of our most basic needs aside in order to keep up.

It can be hard to slow down and let our kids be kids when we are so used to being constantly on the go ourselves. It can feel unnatural and perhaps even cause us to worry.  Will our kids fall behind their peers if they don’t start music lessons and sports in preschool? What will we do with them all day if they’re not in lots of activities? Won’t they get bored? We’re supposed to spend our entire weekends shuttling them to and from various engagements, right? Are there certain activities that are more important than others? How many activities is too many? Too few?

Of course, there is no magic number of activities in which to enroll our kids, no set formula for dividing time between structured and unstructured things. The key is to find a balance that feels right for your family. Here are some things to consider when scheduling your kids’ time:

  • Respect your child’s need for unstructured time to play. Sometimes scheduling a lot of activities for our kids comes from a desire to make sure they keep up and learn new things. However, research shows that a lot of learning and creativity comes from downtime and boredom. Children need this time to grow.
  • Select activities for your kids carefully, and be open to their interests changing over time. Just because you loved soccer or music or dance as a child doesn’t mean that your child will.
  • Observe your child and how he or she responds to their schedule. Do they drag their feet whenever it’s time for a particular class, or are they excited to go? Do they seem stressed or anxious? Every kid is different and what might be an overwhelming amount of stimulus and activity to one may not be to another. As in most things in parenting, there isn’t a single right or wrong way to do things. You will always know your kid best.
  • Unstructured time doesn’t have to mean chaos. You can still maintain a loose routine for your child and for yourself without falling into the over scheduling trap. 
  • Encourage independent play from a young age. For some of us, scheduling activities for our children comes from a desire to avoid having a bored kid or to give ourselves a break from entertaining our kids. If we cultivate our children’s natural curiosity, though, we may find that we are less taxed by unstructured time with them. There are many ways to do this! Parenting educator Janet Lansbury has some great tips for fostering independent play, including in this post. 
  • Model the types of behavior you’d like to see from your child in unstructured time. Do you pull out a phone or device whenever you have a free minute? If we want our kids to develop the ability to play independently and to be comfortable with unstructured time, we need to put this skill to practice ourselves and give them the opportunity to observe it in action.

As in so many aspects of parenting, balance is key. There’s no harm in letting your kid try out classes and other activities. But there’s also no harm in resisting the pressure to sign up for everything! Try to trust that the real learning our kids are doing as toddlers does not require they be enrolled in a particular music or sports class. Simply by being in the world and interacting with it and with us, our kids grow and learn. We are enough for them! 

-Emily Melahn