How Much Structure for School Children?

Brookline Tab, August 2000

Socrates said, “Everything in moderation.” My question is: does that apply to school-age children as well? How do you know if you are overscheduling your children? When is enough, enough?

The answers do not come easily. This fall, for example, I will be faced with the prospect of sending my todder to preschool. I registered him rather precipitously last spring after realizing that most of his playgroup would be in preschool. I was afraid he’d have no peer group and that he’d miss out. Then I found out that a member of my playgroup had decided against preschool. Instead, she is signing her daughter up for swim lessons, art class, and gymnastics — and she has a job outside of the home. I don’t know how much activity is necessary for my toddler, but I know I can’t do as much as that. All those activities, just right for my friend and her daughter, would be hellish for me to juggle.

For older children, how much structured activity is necessary? Now that camp is over, my 8 year old is struggling with filling his days adequately. There is a limit to what he can do, especially with so many friends out of town for the month. In theory, these could be days filled with exploring the neighborhood on a bike; lying in the cool grass and reading; taking daytrips with the family; and yes, finishing that summer journal for last year’s teacher so you can go to the pizza party when school starts. Unstructured time need not be time to panic — unless, like my son, you only have a few entries in the journal. I ask my friends what they do. Karen, a mother of an 8- and a 5-year-old says, “Kids need structure with their down time.” This is especially true for the long summer days when camp is over. She and her boys make lists on the chalkboard of what they have to do and what they want to do. “It gives us a sense of what we did get done,” Karen says.

Judy, a Brookline mother of two girls, has quite a different take on structure for her children. She signs them up for many different activities and is no stranger to the carpool. Some of her decisions for her children’s activities are driven by the demands of her job; but she always considers each particular child’s needs and interests first and foremost. “Balancing what a child wants with what they’re capable of…resisting the temptation to sign them up for everything and listening to what they can cope with” is her philosophy for structuring her kids’ days. But Judy is also determined that her girls get the down time they need to relax, play with friends, or just be.

I try to balance exposure to the new with each of my children’s level of need and my available energy. I can’t help but feel, however, that if I don’t provide them with a lot of structure and things to do, I am shortchanging my children. The pressure to organize and schedule our children’s days is pervasive. Yet, I do believe that toddlers should be allowed to be babies sometimes and that children should be able to handle a few weeks of empty summer days. But because some of them can’t handle as much down time as others (like my son), kids like him do need a little more choice, like a half-day art camp or a chalkboard full of ideas.

I look to my 10-year-old for validation in this matter. He gets home everyday at 4:30 because his school has a longer day than most. By the time he gets off that bus, he is so thankful for a little free time without demands that he stays outside as long as he can, just playing on the lawn, asking nothing of me. Maybe he then watches a video before dinner, or plays on the computer. As long as dinner is served on time, he’s happy.