One girl swings on a tire swing while a second girl stands beside her laughing. It's a sunny day.

Why kids need free play (and how to protect downtime)

It’s Tuesday night and my eight-year-old is complaining (again!) that he doesn’t want to go to skating lessons. 

I’m not particularly pushy about most sports. But I do want my kids to learn to swim, skate, and ski—because these activities align with the things I want us to enjoy together as an outdoorsy Canadian family—so I make him go. (He also chose to sign up for skating lessons, and they were expensive).

When the lesson is over, it’s clear he worked hard: He’s red-faced, sweaty—and he’s smiling. I feel instantly smug that I was right to make him go. But there’s another part of me that feels conflicted. We rushed from school pickup, home to eat, back out to the rink for him and his brother to skate. Then we rushed home for showers and dinner and then it was bedtime. And we already did the same rush this morning for school. When he’s at school, he has to listen as he’s told where to sit, when to talk, and when it’s recess.

In short, he’s shepherded through his day, and left to make very few of his own choices. 

I’m acutely aware of articles discussing how today’s kids are overscheduled, too busy, and don’t have enough time to play or create. Many health organizations recognize that unstructured play benefits kids [PDF], improving their mental health, well-being, resilience, and more. And this informs my parenting choices too. After all, I want to raise creative thinkers and problem-solvers. 

But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t schedule any extracurriculars. My interpretation of this research is that it means kids need balance—and that they need the adults in their lives to provide structure, while also fiercely protecting their downtime. 

If the aforementioned skating scenario was happening five nights a week, I’d want to rethink our schedule. As it stands, that is his only extracurricular—so he has four entire weeknights to do as he pleases. 

It also doesn’t mean that he can come home, turn on the TV, and call it a night. Protecting his downtime and creative play time means that he’s given freedom to explore and create without too much direction. He can kick a ball around with me in the field, we can go to the park, he can hang out in the backyard, we can go for a bike ride. He can do art or draw or read. I need him to know these things are all just as valuable as a sweaty session at the rink or a busy day of learning at school.

Family time is also valuable. And whether we’re building a puzzle, cooking a meal together, or going for a walk, it’s essential connection time that we wouldn’t get if he was overscheduled. It’s also when I hear about his day and help him troubleshoot any issues he might be having. 

So how can you protect downtime and still make space for the extracurriculars you and your child value?

1. Evaluate

What are your family values? What does your child show a strong interest in? My eldest would happily sign up for nothing, while my middle child wants to do everything. And personally? I want to go outside. I let them choose one extracurricular per season, and I also make sure they’re learning life skills like swimming and biking. I leave the rest of our time as unscheduled as possible.

2. Create space for the creative play they crave

If you know your kid loves to climb trees, at some point in their free time, visiting a green space will be helpful to support their play. If riding bikes is their thing, ask if they want to check out a new bike route with you.

3. Say no to unnecessary commitments

A friend’s birthday party is great. But they don’t need to attend every event or party just because they’re invited. 

4. Have a screen time schedule

If your child’s go-to is TV and video games, but you want to make sure they’re also getting plenty of active free play, keep their screen time consistent. If they know that screen time is 30 minutes every night after dinner or only on weekend afternoons, then they’ll be able to settle into their creative play, knowing that screen time isn’t an option at that moment (while taking comfort in the fact that it is coming at a predictable point in the future). Here are more great tips on managing screen time in kids.

Key takeaway

This winter, our family will be visiting Ottawa to skate on the canal. My son might not have loved every skating lesson, but he will love this iconic Canadian experience. And he’ll also love the free play at the Canadian Children’s Museum that comes after. Finding balance and protecting downtime is unique to every family.

Find what feels right to you and let go of the rest.

Read more about free play:

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