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To Keep Your Kids Mentally Strong, Stop The Overscheduling And Let Them Play

In order to raise independent adults, we have to let our children experience times of being truly independent and self-directed.


An article published earlier this year in the Journal of Pediatrics examines the effects of overscheduling on children. Specifically, researchers examined the possible link between the increase in children’s mental disorders and the decrease in free and unstructured time available to children.

Our current culture has seen a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression, including among children and young teens. The article proposes that “a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

The researchers suggest that the skills gained through self-directed activity “may promote mental well-being through both immediate effects, as a direct source of satisfaction, and long-term effects by building mental characteristics that provide a foundation for dealing effectively with the stresses of life.” If you think back to your own childhood, you can see the truth in this claim. Whether extended imaginative games with other children, a first babysitting job, or the responsibility of managing a household task, the times when we were on our own to figure something out were often the most formative.

While people like to tout the decrease in teen pregnancy and traffic fatalities (undeniably good developments), we seem to have ignored the flip side. A generation of children who are not allowed to venture out on their own and have unstructured, unsupervised time away from adults may avoid certain mistakes, but they also lack the opportunity to develop independence and confidence in their own self-determination. This fundamental lack, researchers note, contributes to mental disorders.

One of the biggest culprits in eliminating children’s free time? Overscheduling. It is not uncommon in a suburban neighborhood for a three-year-old to participate in multiple activities, and that is often in addition to attending preschool or daycare. Children are expected to participate in more activities at younger ages, from soccer practice to ballet, music lessons, and taekwondo.

Sports Are Adult-Led, Not Self-Directed

Adults often assume that sports are a healthy, physical activity for kids. They may think the more, the better. However, it’s important to note that athletics are adult-supervised and directed. Children do not determine their own rules for the game by negotiating among themselves. They are expected to remain attentive to adult instruction and follow rules predetermined by overseeing adults.

While children have the opportunity to gain beneficial life skills through sports, including discipline and teamwork, they are not given the opportunity to develop the above-mentioned mental characteristics that promote happiness and resilience. In order to raise independent, self-directed adults, we have to let our children experience times of being truly independent and self-directed. Yet, at ever younger ages, tots are pushed toward more organized sports and activities. Why?

One of the challenges of a society with a declining birthrate is less widespread familiarity with children and what they need to thrive. It’s considered by many inhumane that it used to be said that “children should be seen, not heard.” However, we now live in a society that increasingly acts as though children should be neither seen nor heard.

Many parents do not know how to handle children’s seemingly explosive and relentless energy. After holding it together for a seven-hour school day, children can come home bursting with chaotic noise and physical activity.

Sports may seem like a way to channel all that energy and avoid the unpleasantness of having loud children at home. This has, unfortunately, led some parents to deliberately schedule activities for virtually all non-waking hours outside of school. In such a schedule, when would children have independent activity? The short answer is that they don’t.

Opportunities for Independence

Does this mean we should neglect children and leave them wholly unsupervised? The alternative to overscheduling and the host of mental disorders that can result is not just being a lazy parent. There is a growing movement of mothers and fathers who take seriously the task of directing and overseeing their children’s health and safety, which includes real opportunities to develop independence.

Lenore Skenazy has written and spoken extensively about the benefits of free-range parenting and allowing children to engage in self-directed activity. Skenazy was dubbed “the world’s worst mother” after she wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone. Since then, she has written several books, hosted a television show, and appeared in numerous interviews discussing the reasons for and benefits of facing our fears and finding ways for children to exercise independence. Suffice it to say, Skenazy is not shocked by the recent Pediatrics article.

In addition to the free-range parenting movement, there is a growing awareness among parents of the need to give children unstructured time outside. Ginny Yurich started 1000 Hours Outside to encourage parents to find ways that their children can spend more time in the great outdoors — without soccer cleats, iPads, or educational instruction. Yurich launched a challenge for parents to track the number of hours spent outside each day with the goal of reaching about 1,000 hours over the course of a year.

The idea of spending three or more hours outside on a daily basis seems outrageous to many people. However, it is surprisingly achievable once families instill outdoor habits in their home life, and it is a solid foundation to unstructured, independent activity. If we don’t try, the end result may be serious harm to our children’s mental and physical well-being.

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