You don't need to read it here to know that parenting is a balancing act. Between long school days, homework, extra curricular activities, and family time, there's not much wiggle room left. And that's for the kid without siblings, who doesn't have to sit and wait for a brother's or sister's transitions among the activities above.
So how do you know when your child's schedule is too packed or too empty? We all want to think that our kids are getting enough extracurricular challenge and stimulation while also having enough downtime to "just be a kid." Below is an informal review of appropriate expectations for kids in different developmental ranges, bearing in mind that every child develops differently and age is just a number.
Toddlers exist in a fairly small world. Any one of their senses is as acute a learning device as another, which will come as no surprise to all those parents who have observed their children look at, feel, listen to, smell, and taste the floor. As they're behaving like sponges, immersive experiences are the watchword for children aged birth to 3. Exploration is key, and particularly sensitive are language and music acquisition, which are less materially available for independent exploration, hence the proliferation of early childhood musical immersion programs. A good amount of quiet time is called for to emotionally and intellectually process the vast quantity of new experiences, not to mention the massive hormonal changes babies and toddlers endure. If you're foregoing naps to maximize structured stimulation, you're probably overdoing it.
Preschoolers need a good amount of digestive time where they can play freely and sort out their thoughts and feelings. The emergence of pretend play reveals a newly developing ability to direct and process their own learning. Like toddlers, preschoolers long to explore their environment indefatigably, now socially as well as sensually. As much as intellectual stimulation, preschoolers need opportunities to exercise their burgeoning social abilities, be it in playdates, playgroups, or preschools. Significant amounts of thoughtful quiet time, and simply having naps, will help the preschooler keep a grasp on the rapid-fire intellectual steps he is taking. Whether or not you have taken advantage of toddler programming, with a preschooler you may want to respond to areas of personal interest with supplemental experiences. Special offerings he loves get your preschooler into unprecedented realms of language acquisition and usage, and also get his feet wet for later experiences across a variety of formal settings.
Early elementary-age children are often coping with what is for them a significant transition into fulltime school years. Depending on your child's disposition and the nature of her primary program, it can feel like a lot or barely enough. Personality and energy level are major indicators of whether this is a time to take advantage of the closing moments of the early childhood learning sensitivities or to take it slow. Remember that your child's early elementary program is designed holistically to meet her entire raft of needs, though no more so than at other ages, and extra stimulation need not be packed in if your child really just needs some time to cogitate everything she's already got going on. This cogitation time might be quiet play with toys, or just relaxed doodling alone in her bedroom.
Later elementary-age kids tend to be like their younger counterparts, but with far more stamina. They want to gather information and then get into action to apply it themselves. "Together" takes on a new meaning as well, where the older elementary child may want to take a class in an interest she shares with a friend. More than during any other timeframe, the older elementary child is in survey mode and has the energy to handle it. If there is an age of low risk for taking on too much, it is the later elementary years. Give things a try – you may be amazed by how much your child can handle.
Pre-teens are drawn to peers with a forceful magnetism that cannot be resisted without significant drama. Who hasn't heard the rejoinder from a middle-schooler: "But Johnny gets to do it!" During the pre-teen years our kids are mucking around with major questions of identity, but also entering a gauntlet of demanding physical change. They may be eager to continue the dabbling of the late elementary years, but commitment to something that won't pan out as the right choice is anathema to them. An interesting dynamic has developed in this phase where institutions, by no means accidentally, offer try-outs. Though challenging feelings may come up, these tests of identification and measurement are useful to the pre-teen, who wants to learn from the try-out results just who he or she is. Worth noting is that our pre-teens may need more rest than they did in the upper elementary years. They've got a lot of change and growing with which to cope. Be sure to support them in their exploratory trials, but the only push they should need from you is to get to bed on time.
Teens enter a phase of specification they have been distilling through the social gravitational forces of their pre-teen years. This may not be exclusively the case for teens with diverse interests, but with their developing organizational skills and heightening ability to act independently many teenagers have the opportunity to go into unprecedented depth in a given subject area. A great benefit of this phase is that the commitments one makes are a microcosm for life as a whole. Sometimes extraordinary skill sets and self-discipline can be developed, while the field itself may be set aside in a low-stakes manner at the transition out of high school (witness the successful wrestler or musical performer who surprises us when they put that pursuit aside after they set off for college).
In sum, if there's never a lick of time for anything new or spontaneous in the life of your child, it may benefit him or her to ensure there's some flexibility present. Structuring unstructured time requires truly purposeful parenting.
On the other hand, the perennial draw of television down to the lowest common denominator has to be considered, and if your instincts tell you that your child could meet with more challenge or a new form of stimulation, you're probably right. You won't be surprised to read it here: find the balance.
WILL CRAIG is educational director at Partners With Parents, Inc., which offers educational consulting and tutoring services in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley. He can be reached at 212-928-5016 or [email protected] For more information: www.partnerswithparents.com.