It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Best enrichment activity?

798783_dandelion_girlI was chatting with a friend about the stress levels in his life, levels of a sort that may be familiar to many of you. The busy-ness of work and home and meals and T-ball and baseball and dance class and craft class and trumpet lessons and clubs and…

Stop! It’s TOO MUCH!

Why do we do this to ourselves? Because we are Good Parents. We want our children to have full, enriched lives. We want them to explore and develop their talents, we want them to be fully-rounded people.

Thing is, how do you get to that? By racing around from one activity to the next in a stressed-out frenzy? I don’t believe it.

Tammy wrote about how she restricts her kids’ activities to “one physical, one musical“. I did something very similar when my children were small. One physical, one non-physical.

When they were small, the physical was shared: they ALL took swim lessons, they ALL played soccer. As they became old enough to have more say in their activities, they were also deemed old enough to start taking some responsibility to get to and from. Now that they are teens, I very rarely drive them anywhere. (Helps that we don’t have a car, I know, but this was true even when we did.)

We live in a very extroverted, activity-driven society. Reality is in the doing. “Busy” is seen as a virtue. What if I told you that “busy” is a vice? And that an unending round of activities don’t enrich your child, it reduces their quality of life?

What is enrichment? When does enriching occur? If you read about people who made huge discoveries, scientist who’ve won Nobel Prizes, artists who’ve created things of immense beauty, social visionaries who have changed their societies, you’ll often note that they had their great insight during a time of reflection.

You can’t think when you’re going, going, going, doing, doing, doing.

Enriching occurs in the putzing-about, the unscheduled time that allows you to process the things you’ve done and to hear the thoughts in your own head.

So, yes, you need some external input, you need some time absorbing information and ideas from the outside world. You need to spend some time doing.

And then? Then you need to get away quietly, and “do nothing”. Just be. Your kids need time to muck about, hang out, “do nothing”. (And if they can’t handle that? If down-time is an endless series of “I’m bored” and demands that you play with/entertain them? They’re too used to being busy. They need more practice with the downtime. Ignore them. Or threaten to find them something to do. Mwah-ha.)

The best “enrichment activity” for your kids is unscheduled, minimally supervised downtime. Really.

What does that gain you? A quiet(er) home. A more measured existence. Children who know how to entertain themselves. Children who are learning to think, not just do. Time to relax, yourself.

And far, far, far less stress.

June 3, 2009 - Posted by | parenting, socializing | , , , , ,


  1. I agree. My kids only do “activities” during the summer. They have enough to worry about during the school year. Of course, they’re only 6 & 7 right now, but they both already have homework everyday and with bedtime at 7:30pm, when do they get to just be kids? When they get older and want to do more things, that’s fine. But for now, they’re doing exactly what I did growing up, and it’s just like you said: learning how to entertain themselves. I turned out just fine and I didn’t even have one musical, one physical. I just had time to play and have fun.

    If your children are six and seven right now and you haven’t succumbed to the constant activity bug, you’ve done well. I know lots of children who are/have been overscheduled since the age of two. When your children start their activities, they’ll have some idea of what they’re giving up to make room for it in their lives. They are far more likely to end up balanced in their choices. (Oh, and their bedtimes? GOOD FOR YOU!)

    Comment by Jami | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  2. My 5yo is behind me, coloring paper “valves” to tape onto his paper towel tube trumpet. His 8yo brother is playing with Lego. They’ll have some travel and two weeks of day camp, but the rest of the time they’ll play and swim. School year- one physical during one season and a non-physical that lasts all school year. I need down time and I’ve always just assumed they do too. I think one of my boys would thrive on constant activity, but I wouldn’t be able to keep up and the whole house would suffer.

    Even those who thrive on constant activity need to discover the virtues of “just being”. You’re doing him no harm, and when he’s older (and can get himself to and fro), he can increase his activity levels, but as I said to Jami, by then he’ll have an idea of the alternative that he’s going to give up/reduce to achieve that. Informed choices are better choices!

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  3. My husband and I both work. Giving each child 1 activity is about all we can manage ourselves, not to mention the kids, and still keep the house from falling down and have some time together. (There’s a couple years between them, so of course they can’t go to the same dance class. ugh.) And neiher one is even in school yet, so we haven’t even started to add in homework to the equation.

    Comment by ktjrdn | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  4. Is there such thing as too much enrichment time? 🙂 I tend to err on that side. 🙂

    But every time I think I ought to get off my duff and start having more structured and firmly enforced routines and activities my 7 year old wanders up to me and says, “Did you know…?” Because he’s been reading his child craft encyclopedia for the past hour.

    I’m a big fan of chores to fill up any time that weighs heavily. 🙂

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  5. When my daughter was six we signed her up for her first scheduled lessons (aside from swimming lessons the year before). Skating and ballet both started in Sept. Skating ended in March and she was sad about that (she LOVES skating). Dance continued until the END OF MAY! Which was far too long a season if you ask me!

    This past year, she chose skating again but opted out of ballet and joined Brownies instead. Two activites with my one child just about maxes out my energy as I teach yoga one evening and I also like to be involved in something creative one evening per week as well.

    I am in total agreement with you about avoiding overscheduling our children’s time.

    I asked my girl what she would like to do this summer, a list of 3 activities that we will strive to complete and the rest of the time will be spent at the library, park, backyard and beach (with a few visits to the grandfolks thrown in there as well).

    Her list? 1. go to a baseball game 2.go to the science centre 3. take 2 friends to the movies and then have them for a sleepover for her 8th birthday in Aug.

    I can handle that!

    Comment by karmacoy | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  6. Have you read Outliers? 😀

    But I completely agree on learning to entertain oneself. I have socially met kids who magnetically attach themselves to me and demand me to play with them. Their parents seem to take it as a compliment that their kids love me so much to play with me. Ugh! I am your colleague, not your kid’s classmate. Children ( and adults) should learn to enjoy their own company – if you cant be just with yourself, how can you expect others to be?

    Both my parents worked, and still do. I was made to take care of the dog since I was six and was provided with an abundance of books. Developing a read habit is a good idea.

    Comment by Suzi | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  7. The pattern of taking kids everywhere and picking them up no matter the age has always struck me as odd. When I was 11, I took tennis lessons. I found out about them on my own, went over and signed up on my own, and got there on my own to every lesson. I’m not sure my parents were ever clear on exactly where the court was.

    I’ve seen suburban areas where it wouldn’t be possible for an 11-year-old to manage that, so fetching them makes sense. But it seems to have gotten common to ferry them everywhere even when they could manage on their own.

    When I was 10-12, my absolute favorite summer activity was to get someone to drop some friends and I at a wilderness park way out in the country for a day.

    Comment by Helen | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  8. Thanks for the link!! You’ve put into words what I was feeling. I’m glad to see there are other parents who feel the same way….in my circle of friends, I’m considered “weird” and “selfish” for refusing to participate in each and every activity.

    Comment by Tammy | June 4, 2009 | Reply

  9. I wish I could send this to B’s mom anonymously. At last count B was in NINE activities and K was in six. No wonder he was so happy that his game was cancelled twice this week. Poor kid is exhausted.

    Comment by Angela | June 4, 2009 | Reply

  10. I think that sometimes kids who are over scheduled have parents who can’t sit still themselves. Who can’t stand their own company and therefor can’t teach their own children to enjoy quiet downtime. How can they, when they can’t do it themselves.

    Comment by Chantal | June 4, 2009 | Reply

  11. This was encouraging to read. I have a 10-month-old baby and we hope to allow him time to just “be” as he gets older too. My husband likes to have a lot of unstructured, unplanned downtime and I know already that it would make him crazy to have most weeknights and weekends solidly booked with chauffeuring duties. I am already trying to practice letting A. just noodle around on his own with his toys with minimal input from me.

    Comment by Jaimie | June 15, 2009 | Reply

  12. Oh, and the comment from Chantal really rang true for me. I know some families that would fit that description.

    Comment by Jaimie | June 15, 2009 | Reply

  13. […] encourage people to have unrealistic standards and goals. I think it’s good mothering to be a bit of a slacker, to indulge in a little benign neglect. I don’t hold myself (or anyone else) to an impossible […]

    Pingback by Why Wouldn’t I? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | March 15, 2012 | Reply

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