Part 2: Burnout Among Young Learners – Early Childhood and Over-Scheduling

Note: This is the second installment of a two part series. Read the first part on this blog.

Enrollment isn’t a term used solely by schools anymore.  It seems like everyone wants to enroll young children in something – dance, music, swimming, drama, organized sports, art.  The list is endless.  The number of organized activities available for children as young as toddlers is startling.  They run from one place to another all day long with little or no downtime.    Children as young as toddlers have schedules that look more like adult calendars that that of 2 year olds.  It is no wonder that this over-scheduling is a contributing factor to the burn out that we are seeing in elementary school students. 

What happens to these over-scheduled preschool and elementary school students?  According to Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, former head of child psychiatry at Stanford University and author of The Over-Scheduled Child, “"By the time they reach high school, they are bored and burned out… their parents have the well-meaning idea that the right way to parent is to over-schedule them, with hopes of keeping them busy, active, and out of trouble."  They are bored not only because they have been involved in activities for so many years but also because the endless organized activities have led to the expectation that they will be entertained all the time.  By the time they reach high school, students have forgotten how to explore and create.  We need to revisit the activity level of our youngest students to prevent this from happening.

When I speak with preschool parents about the importance of children having time to play, they tell me that they do play.  Some parents point out how much fun they have at dance or acting or sports.   Activities organized by adults to meet adult goals are not play.  Other parents tell me that they enjoy playing with video games or on the computer.  Sedentary activities in front of a screen are not play.  Play is child created and not adult driven.   Play is the way children explore and develop an understanding of their world.  It is an essential part of proper brain development and uses all of our senses.  I remember many an afternoon as a child in front yards and backyards.  I remember laying on the grass watching amazing ants carry things twice their own size.  I remember children riding bikes and feeling the wind in their hair.  I remember setting up toys and pretending.  Play helps children to learn critical thinking skills, develop self-esteem and become confident decision makers.  Children cannot do that while they are meeting the objectives of other people who measure their own success by the children’s ability to perform or to get a high score.

There needs to be a balance between learning to participate in group activities and having time to think.  As soon as an adult says “here is how we will do this,” the children stop thinking.  They just begin to follow instructions.  Following instructions and trying to achieve goals has its place.  Free time has to have its place, too.  Children need time when pressure is not imposed from outside them.  Don’t you need that time?  After a long day of work, don’t you sometimes need to just be left to do things that are not meant to please anyone but yourself?  If you need that – and we all do – then so do our young children. 

That balance needs to take place at home as well as at school.  Preschool schedules should reflect a balance of teacher directed and child directed activities.  At home, make sure to add free play time to your daily schedule.  Block off some time to allow your children to slow down, think, and build upon their own knowledge through exploration.

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
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