The computerized calendar shows grey dots everyday of the week. The day starts at 7:00 am and ends sometime around 9:00 pm; perhaps with 30 minutes for lunch, an hour for dinner and sometime in between it all for commutting from one obligation to the next. Sound familiar? This over-scheduled schedule not only belongs to adults, but to many children as soon as their old enough to enter a school-type program. And ending around 9:00 pm may be a conservatitve estimate, especially for middle and high-school aged students. 9:00 is when some finally arrive home to begin their homework or are continuing to work on it because despite their best efforts it stillis not done. The best efforts may even include working with one, two perhaps three different tutors in one evening. What appeared to be parents encouraging natural talents in music or sports has given rise to a hyper-focus on areas of specialization and the building of child prodigies in the arts, athletics or academics. However, very little, if any, of these budding ‘careers’ are related to the child’s school day. Perhaps the long standing problem America faces with education has as much to do with poor schooling as it does with student burn-out. A burn-out that appears to be occuring much earlier and in more extreme ways than senioritis–perhaps now an obsolete term. This critical look at the extrememly scheduled, programmed and packed days of school aged children leaves one questing begging to be asked: What ever happened to having time to play?
In the past two decades, what began as involvement in extracurriculular activities that have shifted into activities to keep children busy, out of the house or off the streets. It it challenging for working parents to be home when children are home or trust them to be able to watch thsemvles at home. Gone are the days of the latch-key kids. However, statisitics are showing that 3 out of 4 children who were involved in sports before first grade are bored, tired of and deciding to no longer participate in sports after middle school. David Elkind of Tufts University, believes that children are not simply bored, but burned out. Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, he believes that there is a fine, yet undefined line, between having children involved in extracurricular activities and over scheduling. Rosenfeld believes children are bored not because they don’t have anything to do, but because they have never had to develop the skills to figure out to entertain themselves, given that their lives have been scheduled from waking to sleeping. Now add the conveiences and accessiblity to technology even commuting from school to soccer provides a quiet structured activity of games on an tablet or a movie playing on the backseat of the driver and passenger sides nicely crafted with headphones so everyone can be appeased.
Dr. Suniya S. Luthar believes that scheduling extracurriculars is the problem. Porblems arise when “…what parents want is over the top…When children feel that their parents disproportionately value personal successes (in today’s grades or tomorrow’s careers), far more than they value their personal decency and kindness, the children show elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety. Parents might think it’s okay to keep the pressure on because they eat dinner together and attend all their children’s athletic events and performances. But such positive gestures do not cancel out criticism.”
According to kidshealth.org children may:
- feel tired, anxious, or depressed
- complain of headaches and stomachaches, which may be due to stress, missed meals, or lack of sleep
- fall behind on their schoolwork, causing their grades to drop
Dr. Luthar adds substance abuse, truancy, anxiety among other internalizing behaviors to list or problems over-pressured face.
From a brain-based perspetive, these various symtpoms cause increase in cortisol or cause damage, which impacts access to the pre-frontal cortext and the very necessary executive functioning skills that students rely on not only during their after-school activites but during their school day and in their social relationships.
All experts agree that the solution is NOT taking away all of the extracurriculuars, but finding a balance between them, school and downtime or the expectations surrouding the activiites. Children need unstrutured activity to allow their brains to not only rest, much like the necessity of sleep, but to have truly free time to play, which research shows helps develop the higher order thinking skills.
John Hamilton from NPR.org reports, “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” claims Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says. It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork. But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.”
This is the same part of the brain that children are unable to access due to sleep deprivation, stress, depression. The lack of
play is not only impacting the devevelopment of these essential skills, but it is preventing them from having access. Simultaneous to this occurance is the increase in acadamic expectations and demands because adolescents are graduating from high school unprepraed for the academic standards at a collegiate level. But is it that they are not ready or simply not capable because their brains were not given the time, opportunity to develop the skills necessary to be prepared for college? Is the solution as simple as, children will be able to do more by doing less?
A shift needs to take place somewhere; because more often than not incomplete homework accompanied with a parent note detailing a child’s inabiltiy to complete it due to three hour rehearshals after school, too many other assignments or they spent
4 hours on homework and were still unable to finish it. Or even worse, when six year olds express they have too much to do. Yet the shift cannot occur in a vacumn or simply exhange extracurriculars for screen time. Perhaps part of the solution is a cultural shift. A shift in what is determined important, worthy of time and essential. Currently the focus seems to be success, financial gain, fame, a full-schedule. Maybe it is time to realize family time, play and even boredom are critical not only to prevent burn-out before the age of thirteen, but to enable the upcoming generation to be developmentally ready to take on what the current generation will ineveitably leave behind.