My favorite part of summer is how relaxed our days are.  There is no homework to look over, or paperwork to sign or commitments that take up our afternoons when we’d rather be hanging out doing nothing after work and school all day.  We are free to just Be.

I have such great memories of childhood play.  Spending hours each day with the kids in the neighborhood building forts, playing games on the swing set where we couldn’t put our feet on the ground because it was a pit of lava, riding our bikes all throughout the neighborhood (without helmets-gasp!) and playing Ghost in the Graveyard well into the darkness of the day.  These memories shape the way I choose to parent my children now, longing for the days of a simpler life and yet, competing with an era where life is not so simple and carefree for kids.

Working with teenagers, I see the strain our culture puts on them to stay in the game.  The pressure is on to be a top scholar, join a bunch of different clubs and activities to be “well rounded,” play sports, but play one in particular really well and commit to it year round if you want to get ahead.  And the purpose? It could be a variety of things.

Is it because they feel the need to stand out to prospective colleges? Is it because their parents wanted them to try everything they didn’t get to do? Is it because they want to spend every one of their waking hours proving their self worth to….???? It’s different for each of them.  Either way, the pressure is on both internally and externally to do everything they can and do it all well.

And I wonder, when do they ever get to play?

Recently, I made the decision to not allow my 9 year old daughter to play on a premier soccer team in addition to our town’s travel team.  I struggled with this one for a while.  Since she began doing activities at age 3, I’ve always said she could do one activity each season, and the rest of the time, she was expected to enjoy free play.  But now, at age 9, they play soccer each season, just as you can play most sports each season.  It’s great if you know that soccer is your thing and you just want to play that sport, but what if you don’t know?

What if you, like my daughter, has had limited exposure to other sports because your mother only allowed you to do one activity per season and you chose soccer because it’s the one you know and like?  What if you just think it’s your favorite activity, but then you discover tennis later in life and find you are the top dog in the town, but you missed years of developing your swing? What if your neurotic mother lies awake at night trying to decide if this is the right move for you?  Hmm…and I wonder why I have a What If Child.

At the end of the day, or the long night I kept thinking about it, I decided that she needed to be exposed to more sports or activities, but she wouldn’t have to give up soccer, I’d allow her to do both. However, that meant she could only choose one soccer team to play on and pick up something additional.  Yet, another example of how our parenting theories shift and re-balance based on the decision of the hour. First, introducing nitrate laden hotdogs and now, adding more activities. What will be next?

But seriously, I just want my kids to play.  I want them to get off the school bus, jump on their bike or play games in the yard.  I want them to play “don’t touch the lava with your feet or you’ll melt” on the swing set and Ghost in the Graveyard into dark.  I want them to be kids and just Be.

Group and individual activities are great.  They allow them exposure to their different strengths, how to follow instructions, how to communicate well with others, and how practicing a skill makes them better at it.  They also teach the importance of commitment to the community of those who share their interest.

But free play is equally valuable.  It allows them to use their imagination and to problem solve.  It teaches them how to communicate with others, but also how to sit comfortably on their own.  It awards them space to find their strengths without instruction and investigate what works for them.

The strive for balance is universal.  The way to achieve it is individual.

When it comes to making decisions for our children, which we still get to while they live in our house and use our resources, it’s helpful to look at the short term and long term goals of what’s important to us and to them.  What we teach them now is the foundation of what they will expect from themselves and from others as they grow and develop into their individuality.  No pressure….

Except there is pressure and it’s everywhere.  The key is to ask yourself where the pressure is coming from and how you want to handle it.  What is the end goal you are shooting for when offering opportunities to your children?  And are you both enjoying the ride?  When you can answer these questions comfortably, you know you are on your way to balancing what works for you and your child.

In the meantime, get outside and kick the ball around, catch fireflies at dusk and maybe even start up a game of freeze tag.  The value of play never decreases and never gets old.

Do you think kids are over scheduled these days and what do you do to avoid over scheduling your own?