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Ready, Set, Relax!
Learning to Value Downtime
A Conversation
with Ready, Set, Relax Executive Director,

Marcia Marra

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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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 more balance.
How do the schools fit into the picture?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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 the initiative.
How do you gauge how many activities are appropriate?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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?

Marcia Marra:
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.

Do you feel your children are overscheduled? How do you deal with it? Please let us know.

contact us.
Copyright© 2006, Dr. Istar Schwager
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