Arts Programs-What Works
Anderson the Music Man
Selecting Movies for Kids
Becoming a New Dad
Alice Hoffman Kids' Books
Kingsley on "Holland"
Monday Night Art Class
The Sisters Yankowitz
Istar on Harry Potter
Learning to Value Downtime
A CreativeParents.com Conversation
with Ready, Set, Relax Executive Director,
For the past five years the town of
Ridgewood, New Jersey has encouraged families to spend more time together
cooking, playing games, telling jokes and just hanging out. To support
this initiative they’ve set aside one night a year when the schools
give no homework, and there are no sports practices scheduled. Ridgewood
Family Night/Ready Set Relax was started to foster a dialogue about overscheduling.
Other towns have adopted, and adapted, the program. To learn more go to
talks to Marcia Marra, mother of three, and Executive Director of Ready,
Set, Relax .
What spurred you to start Ready, Set, Relax?
I was working at a family-counseling agency and my job was to assess the
needs of the community. I saw that everyone was stressed and overwhelmed.
As a parent I also recognized how the pressures we felt to keep kids involved
in so much, at young ages, were creating stress. I pulled together people
in my town – the head of the PTA, some parents who were coaches,
and others, and held a meeting. We saw how much this issue resonated for
all of us. We did some research to see what other communities were doing.
It helped that, because it was part of my job, we had some funding to
keep things moving.
What was your initial goal?
We wanted to get a dialogue going. We saw that parents weren’t talking
to their neighbors, and we wanted people to talk and share. The group
came up with the idea of one awareness night a year as a way to raise
consciousness and sensitivity, to share information, and get people connected.
What do you see as the reasons kids and parents today are so stressed?
Our whole culture is high stress. We are a culture that tries to use every
minute to be efficient. Our definition of parenting has changed. Parents
feel it’s their job to expose their kids to as much enrichment as
possible. As a result, different activities have been developed to meet
that need. Parents look to friends and neighbors to see what others are
doing and sometimes sign their children up for more activities than they
plan to because they want their children to fit in.
Why is it so hard to break this cycle?
Parents fear that their children will be left behind. Many parents think
that if kids aren’t in adult -structured programs, it’s a
waste of time.
How have your views changed over your 5 years of running Ready, Set, Relax?
I started out looking at the stress issues, but I realize that by not
valuing downtime we are robbing kids of important life lessons.
How would you describe the life lessons that come from downtime?
When kids have unstructured time, they get experience making their own
choices, solving problems among their peers, practicing their negotiating
and leadership abilities. These are great life skills. Without them, kids
lack the ability to be able to make their own decisions and think for
themselves as they grow up and go out into the world. We need to remind
parents of the benefits of downtime – that it’s okay not to
have things to do every minute. If you let kids sit with their boredom
they come up with great, creative activities.
Where do you find “the experts” weigh in on all this?
Many counselors and physicians are concerned. They are seeing more anxiety-
related and sleeping disorders in young children. Educators recognize
that children need more downtime to nurture their creativity. More professionals
are speaking out, and groups like ours are urging parents to consider
How do the schools fit into the picture?
In my town preschool used to be social, but now parents are feeling that
kids need to have more structured programs and some schools are changing
to meet these parental expectations. Tutoring is also becoming more common
and can just become one more scheduled activity that adds stress to kids’
lives. Tutoring certainly has its place, but parents need to remember
that kids benefit from working hard to achieve academically on their own…
and that not all children are going to get an A in every subject…..
and that is OK.
Why have sports become so pressured?
Most professionals who work in youth sports and health education are on
board with the more relaxed approach. They have seen a disturbing rise
in sports injuries and burn out among kids today, and are anxious to make
important changes regarding intensity and year round play. However, most
club programs for elementary age kids are run by parent volunteers who
coach primarily by remembering high school sports, and apply that experience
to younger kids.
We say “just let the kids play.” But parents compare their
programs to other towns' and become anxious if their program is less competitive.
Town recreation departments are put under pressure to create more competitive
soccer teams, for example. And when parents are watching their own young
children play – they just can’t help getting over involved.
I’m so glad my parents weren’t out there watching me play
capture the flag at age 10, screaming “Marcia – grab the flag.”
It must be very stressful for the kids.
In what ways has Ready, Set, Relax had impact?
Parents are writing in saying, for instance, “we decided to do just
to one sport a season,” or “we are dedicating one night a
week to play a family game,” or “we spoke up to a soccer coach
when we thought there were too many practices.” In our evaluations
70% of people say that we have been successful in “raising awareness
about the impact of overscheduling on kids and families,” and 38%
say they have “made changes in their lives” as a result of
How do you gauge how many activities are appropriate?
I try to make sure kids are having fun in an activity. If they aren’t
having fun then there’s something wrong. In the past, when there
were more non-structured activities, kids were able to monitor how long
they were able to play something. Now they are forced to do one thing
for a long time.
Sometimes they burn out. Kids may give up activities at a young age because
they aren’t perfect at them, or they are sick of them.
Up to at least 4th grade, most activities should be primarily recreational,
with very little competition or intensity. And remember, all kids are
different. You need to trust your instincts as a parent about what is
right for your child.
Do you face any opposition or skepticism?
We do get some people who object and say "this is life "---
that we live in a high-pressure world and kids just need to get used to
it. We have parents say they would like to have kids in activities rather
than hanging out.
How do you respond?
What we are suggesting is a healthy balance between structured and unstructured
activities. Each family has to make a decision about these things. There
may be some times in a family’s life that are more pressured, and
you need to say "no" to things to protect your time, to protect
your kids. Otherwise parents find that the pressure and overscheduling
catches up with them.
Try not to be afraid to give up some structured activities. Trust that
your kids will be fine. Keep experimenting until you find the pace that
is right for your family.
you feel your children are overscheduled? How do you deal with it? Please
let us know.
2006, Dr. Istar Schwager
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