The Structure Your Child Needs Comes Down to Love

Sep 21, 2019

In today’s environment, we often question how much of a child’s time needs to be on a schedule. We don’t want to over-schedule a child so that they never have a childhood, so where do we find that balance? I get concerned, more so at older ages, that kids have way more activities than they can metabolize. Plus, I mourn for all of the “childhood” experiences that they are missing on their way to the Olympics. It is scary.


Having said that, the first thing we have to remember is that there is a difference between “scheduled” or “programmed” vs. “structured.” Let’s get that one straight first. To my mind, what scheduled or programmed means is that the tasks or activities that are going to be happened are decided and defined for the child. They are in dance, or art, or some activity that is set for them. These are very good for a few reasons.

First of all, they build skills in the child, developing their brains in a lot of ways, as well as their ability to function in groups and socially. Second, they do add focus, structure and routine which are very important for a child as well. Those things add order, security and teach them that the world is not one of chaos. Life is a “known quantity,” and as they run into the same activities week after week at the same time, with the same people, doing the same ordered things, they settle into a secure, dependable world and in that kind of context their system is free to grow and develop. Their circuits are not having to create order out of chaos, which puts them into overdrive. Instead, they can focus on gaining competency and mastery. Third, they learn to obey the limits and boundaries, the rules and expectations inherent in programmed activities and how to be “good soldiers.”

But, they need some non-programmed time as well, which can also be structured. More about the structure later, but first, let’s realize that non-programmed time is very, very important. It gives them space to “be” themselves and discover what they like, what they want to do, to create, dream, experience their talents, have fantasy play, and be with other kids with no agenda. How would you feel if every time you dropped in to visit a friend there was an “agenda?” You get the point. So, non-programmed time is very important as well.

Having said that, that time can also be “structured” in that it is planned into the schedule of sorts, and they know that they are “responsible for their own fun” in that time. “Giving a child the opportunity and requirement to learn how to entertain themselves and independently occupy themselves is a gift that will last a lifetime, and help them also in their future work. So, make sure that happens, which is what I mean by structure. It is “in the schedule” or somewhere planned to make sure it happens: “OK, Susie, you get to have some free time now to do whatever you want until dinner,” (or nap time, or the next structured block of time).

The idea is that it is not programmed and is free for them, but they are still not lost in space. They still know that their life has order to it. You can also give some soft structure for that time as well by introducing a menu: “You can play in the den with your blocks or your art supplies or whatever you want.”

There is no absolute formula for the number of hours for each. Some children have more programmed time than others already because they are in preschool classes, etc., so at least half of several of their days is already structured and programmed. For those kids, I think a couple of other structured activities a week is way plenty. They need their free time at home and with other kids to play without an agenda. When my kids went to half-day preschool three days a week (at their desire as they were ready and wanted to go), they also took a dance class, and another activity or so as well. That was all. My feeling was that this is their only childhood, and hanging out in the neighborhood, or being free to play in the yard, etc. was as important as being in some program.

Here are some thoughts to help you achieve balance:

Watch for engagement. If they are having to be pushed to the programs, that may be a sign that they are over-programmed and need more free time. Or, the ones they are in are no fun.

Watch for listlessness and over-dependency in their free time. If they are lost, or coming to you too much, then they may have exhausted their ability to utilize the free space. You might need to add some structure or programming at that point.

Watch for a balance between social and activities. You want to make sure that they are developing both sides of life, task and relationships. Each are important and whatever mix you choose should have a balanced diet of both.
Monitor energy levels. Kids who are often tired may be being pushed too hard and need more rest or free time. Over-programming can exceed their capacities.

Remember that it is not about Harvard at three years old. Forget the pressure to have your child “ahead” of the game. What you want to do is introduce them to tasks that are age-appropriate for them. The “early readers,” etc. usually are caught up with by the other kids soon thereafter and the normal kids will learn how to read, as well as the “little Einsteins.”

Balance the types of activities. That will help them discover their gifts. Art, music, sports, educational, social, etc. are all important. Do not get imbalanced in one direction too early.

The big idea? Love them, and be with them while they still want to be with you! Have fun, and help them gain some skills and competencies. Stay balanced, and avoid the extremes.