Making sure your child's free time isn't overlooked -- or overbooked

A snow fort. Her eight-year-old son was going to spend the afternoon building a snow fort with a friend. No swim practice, no ski lesson, no Cub Scouts. Rose Margosian was delighted -- and relieved. ``It has been come home from school, do homework, eat dinner, and then into the car for swim practice,'' says Mrs. Margosian, who lives in a Chicago suburb. ``He hasn't had any time to be a kid.''

Although her son is all ready to sign up for karate, she plans to schedule his activities more carefully and to curb some of his enthusiasms.

``Basically I have a kid who wants to do everything,'' she explains. ``I honestly am feeling he was doing too much.''

Like the Margosians, parents across the country are taking a close look at how their children spend their out-of-school hours.

Is the child using that free time to the best advantage, exploring and acquiring new interests and skills? Or is the child perhaps overbooked, hurrying from one activity to another without a free afternoon to build a snow fort?

What is the right balance?

These are important questions, according to Joan M. Bergstrom, a professor at Wheelock College in Boston. She helps families find that balance for children aged 6 to 12 in her newly published book, ``School's Out -- Now What?'' ``I really believe if they are not doing anything, they are missing opportunities,'' Dr. Bergstrom says.

Children in this age group, especially the younger ones, are very social and like to experiment, she explains, making them ripe for enrichment and ready to learn to be with other children and adults.

Many of the ``extras'' in children's lives develop into careers and lifelong interests, she adds.

At the same time, it isn't good for children to be doing too much. ``Driving from one activity to another just doesn't do it,'' she says.

Focusing on an activity the child especially likes helps develop a sense of mastery, she says, adding, ``I don't mean that they go on to Carnegie Hall.''

Children who are doing too much may begin to show signs of stress, cautions David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University. Dr. Elkind has written two books on the subject: ``The Hurried Child,'' which is mostly about younger children, and ``All Grown Up and No Where to Go,'' which focuses on teen-agers.

It is not hard to spot an overextended child, Dr. Elkind says. They tend to whine, complain all the time, drag along, or cry at night. Their behavior might change abruptly and schoolwork will fall off.

``Kids tell us,'' he says. ``They get tired. They get cranky.''

Parents should not worry if their children are not involved in organized activities all the time, Dr. Elkind says. Those open hours are important.

``Kids need time to just look at the world, look at clouds, fool around,'' he says.

According to Dr. Bergstrom, children need time to sit with their families at the dinner table and to do chores. If all of their time is spent in organized activities, they won't learn how to entertain themselves.

``I call it the other three basic R's,'' she says, ``resourcefulness, responsibility, and reliability.''

Parents need to take an active role in helping their children decide what to do -- and they need to stay involved, Dr. Bergstrom says. They should begin by picking up on an interest the child has already shown and by talking in detail about what the child likes and dislikes.

``What kind of experiences speak to the child?'' she says. ``The child is the leader.''

An elementary school child can probably handle three to seven hours weekly, including time for transportation and practice, she says.

Filling in all activities on a large calendar helps families see that there are ``holes,'' unscheduled time for doing things like building snow forts, she says.

She also recommends that families set rules right from the start, making it clear that signing up for a team, a club, or lessons means sticking with it until the end. Some children will cry or protest before going to an activity, says Dr. Bergstrom, but that does not mean they are necessarily doing too much. The key, she says, is to watch their reactions once they get there. If they get involved quickly and leave loving it, this may mean they are just having trouble making the transition from home.

According to Dr. Elkind, one activity is enough for a preschooler, and that includes nursery school. ``I really don't see the need [for more],'' he explains.

Adjusting to kindergarten is a big task, and children may not need anything else until they are well settled into school, he says.

The best activities for children are those that build self-confidence, he says, not those that are heavily competitive. Activities should reflect the child's personality. Although all children need other children, some are more social than others.

``There are some kids who are very private people,'' he says. ``They like to read.''

Parents should not push their children into activities, he says. If, however, a child is totally isolating himself or herself, parents should try to help the child.

There is no formula to determine how a child should spend out-of-school time, Dr. Bergstrom says. Parents need to watch their children, to listen to them, and above all, she says, to ``trust your intuitions as parents.''

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