My oldest son is eight and one of the few in his class who is not involved in soccer…and never has been.
It hasn’t been an intentional choice on our part. He has never really shown an interest (for more than one day). Plus, I’m not ready to commit our precious free time after school and especially on weekends to sitting in the hot or cold or rain to watch him practice.
Am I a horrible mother? The society-driven guilt part of me says, “yes,” but the authentic me says, “heck no!”
Truth be told, I kind of like being a soccer mom rebel. I don’t enjoy always doing the expected motherhood thing, and my son isn’t one to just “go with flow” when it comes to activities like that. He has participated in certain activities from time to time – summer baseball (we missed half the season traveling), “ninja” gymnastics (right up his alley), and chess club.
Overall, however, I find that he does best just hanging out with his friends after school – the few who have also eschewed soccer.
What we do instead
The other day, I found my son and two friends making an “arcade” out of a bunch of huge cardboard boxes and some Nerf guns. I couldn’t have been more proud. They used their best salesmen techniques to try to convince some younger boys at the park to play for a fee (ha!).
They didn’t make much money, but they had a blast, and you could tell they felt empowered by their experiment in entrepreneurship.
I’m not against all organized activities. They have their place. But seeing the pride on my son’s face while planning and accomplishing his arcade idea reinforced my hunch that there is something to allowing kids to just do their own thing.
Plus, his behavior and mood improves when he has plenty of time to play with friends without an agenda. During free play, kids get the chance to release their emotions, pent-up anger, or anxiety. Think of how you feel when you’ve been stressed and then you go for a long walk or a strenuous workout. You feel de-stressed and cleansed, right?
This is what play does for kids. Without it, our kids’ emotions and frustrations spill out as misbehavior, whining, and overall crankiness.
This past weekend, for example, we were pretty busy. We went to an amusement park with some friends, my son sold popcorn for Cub Scouts, and we had church and a party to attend. We are not usually that busy on weekends, but it just ended up that way. By Sunday night, I felt a little spent but it seemed my eight-year-old was doing okay.
Guess what? Monday after school, he lost it. Total meltdown. He had not gotten enough downtime over the weekend. He had held it together at school all day and needed an emotional release. He whined and cried off and on, and then we talked for about what’s been going on at school and on the playground, etc.
Once his energy had been restored, my son became a totally different kid. The night before, you would have thought everything in his life was a disaster. The next morning, he was eager for school and ready to move on.
What does the research say?
Child development researchers are delving into this topic and trying to understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.
In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers at The University of Colorado looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured verses unstructured activities) and the development of executive function.
Executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develop during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life.
Executive function includes things like:
- planning ahead
- goal-oriented behavior
- suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors
- and delaying gratification.
Do these sound familiar? They are typically all the skills that break down when kids are overtired or stressed and have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road.
Researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s activities and their level of executive function. The results showed a correlation between these factors. The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.
So what does this all mean? Before you pull your kids out of their activities and turn to “unschooling,” keep in mind that this study was small scale (70 children) and only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured verses unstructured activities cause a change in executive function, or if there’s something else going on here.
What this study does show is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study. What is it about unstructured time that might enforce executive function skills? Is there something about structured activities that limit executive function?
A study like this encourages parents to reassess the cultural norms and expectations we might be adopting. Are we involved in activities because our kids like them or receive some benefit from them? Or are we just doing “what soccer moms do”?
Activities can be great, but don’t feel like you must enroll your child in every enrichment opportunity out there because that’s what society dictates.