Playtime used to mean going outside and kicking a ball around. It meant going over to a friend’s house and climbing the big tree.
These days young children are under pressure to excel at sport, dancing, music, ballet, while keeping up with their school work.
Children aged 14 leave home at 7am, and will only get to bed at 10pm – if their homework is complete.
Primary school children take on so many activities that they’ve told their therapists they don’t have any time to just play.
Experts agree there are many benefits to being involved in a number of extramural activities, including a wider circle of friends, increased self-confidence and self- esteem, and learning about teamwork, leadership, and discipline.
But they say all children need time out and that every child needs play, especially before the age of 13.
Play therapist Jodi Lord described unstructured play as one of the most essential components of being a child. It helps in forming their personalities and play contributes to them being well-rounded, she said.
But much has changed since a generation ago.
Lord said many parents are being swept up in after-school activities. Because everyone else copes, parents believe their children should too.
“These children are being swept from one activity to the next, to the next.
“Then throw divorce in the mix and the results are anxious, burnt-out children,” warned Lord.
Above the set number of sport and extramural activities required by some schools, several children needed extra tutoring and also had hobbies like horse riding.
“So for some children free time and play dates are no longer an option,” said Lord.
She suggested children have at least one afternoon free, and that weekends be family time without structured activities.
She described the typical overloaded child as anxious and unable to cope in their world.
In one of her sessions, she re-enacted a young client’s typical school week with her.
All the while the little girl had to keep a smile on her face. But all she kept saying was: “I’d rather be at home with my mom.”
Mark Connelly, psychologist and life coach, said there was cause to worry when parents pushed their children into too many activities.
“The general belief is that too many activities can lead to increased stress in children,” he said.
This stress presented as negative behaviour, increased anxiety, sleep problems and fatigue.
Depression was also a possibility, said Connelly.
He felt that the child’s needs – not the parents’ – should be met, and moderation was important to balance structured activities with unstructured play opportunities that allowed children to “play out” their stressors and challenges.
“Unstructured time often allows for positive relationships to develop with parents rather than parents simply being the driver of the car to get you to the activity,” said Connelly.
Tony Ryan, headmaster at Rondebosch Boys’ Preparatory School, said it was a good idea for children to be exposed to a number of activities so they could find their niche.
However, he warned it became problematic when too much time was spent on organised extramural activity and children didn’t have enough time to relax and play.
At his school, a survey was done each term to ensure the boys were participating in some activity, but also to monitor whether they were taking on too much.
“We are careful that the boys are able to take part in the cultural activities, as well as the sporting ones,” said Ryan.
Some boys took part in two winter sports, but this along with academic pressure from homework and assessments were continually monitored by the school.
To lighten the burden, Ryan said assessment days were chosen on the basis that they were not preceded by an afternoon of sport.
Ryan suggested that children be active for at least two afternoons a week.
These sessions could be less, but should never be longer than two hours at a time, he said.
“Children should have a weekly schedule which is well planned and which includes a lot of ‘free’ time to take part in unstructured activities,” Ryan said.
Play and parent care made for a happy and relaxed boy
The parents of a nine-year-old Cape Town boy sought out play therapy for their son after he displayed behavioural problems.
The child had extramural activities lined up every day at school. He was juggling six after-school activities during his school week, including swimming, water polo and music lessons.
His typical day would include being picked up from school, and then having only 30 to 40 minutes between activities.
Once at home – between 6pm and 7pm – he would have to prepare his bags for the following day’s activities.
When he started therapy, the boy continuously tested boundaries, back-chatted his parents and didn’t listen.
The Grade 3 child told the therapist he was distraught and felt he was not being heard. He was exhausted, worried and felt pulled in too many directions. He never had time to play.
Play therapist Jodi Lord recommended the parents listen to their child and that three afternoons of the school week be cleared of structured activities. On those days, the parents were told to put away their cellphones, stop what they were doing and connect with him through unstructured play.
The boy has since made remarkable strides. He’s more energised, talks to his parents about his day and is all smiles.
Revise your child’s schedule if:
Get the balance right