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Scheduling free time: Unstructured play for kids

How many parents do you know—maybe even you—who call themselves a kid taxi? From a young age, children have more activities lined up than most adults: soccer on Mondays, swim lessons on Wednesdays, improv classes on Saturday mornings and the list goes on. What about those hours in between? Studies have shown that unstructured play time—activities with no coaches, teachers, directions or rules—leads to brain development that can't happen otherwise. While playing and using their imaginations, young brains learn to balance emotions, solve problems and strengthen social skills.  

Here are four tips to scheduling (screen-free) playtime:

1. Schedule it. That seems odd, doesn't it? But when our lives are driven by the calendar, it's important to make time for things. Clear the calendar on Sunday afternoons and give your child the freedom to discover how to spend it. Coordinate with friends or neighbors a day to meet at the playground. And let them run wild.

2. Be a hummingbird, not a helicopter. Protecting and helping our children is our first priority, and you can still do this, but allow children to problem solve their way out of a challenge before swooping in. Letting your four-year-old figure out how to zip his coat develops determination. Also, you can watch your eight-year-old on the swing set, but try watching from the living room. You both are learning trust and independence.

3. Create balance. Don't cancel hockey and guitar and math club. Structured activities teach physical and social skills, discipline and self-esteem, but there should be room for being a plain old kid, too. Leaving children to their own devices allows space for imagination, exploration and inventiveness. Take a family outing to a nearby trail and let your children enjoy themselves aimlessly—it's OK if they fill their pockets with pine cones or get wet throwing rocks in the stream.

4. You're the best example. If your daughter sees you sitting at the kitchen table coloring or enjoying the peacefulness of the sunset from the deck, you're saying a lot without saying a word. Spending some of your own time in a meaningful yet carefree way will be emulated by your little ones.

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