I recently had to read my four year-old daughter a book to explain the concept of free time. Her life had become so over-structured that spontaneous play was a foreign concept.
We’d fallen into the trap of overscheduling life; rushing from one planned activity to the next, rarely allowing her to get bored and play spontaneously.
A recent study commissioned by IKEA, The Time to Live Report, reveals that mine isn’t the only family in Australia to live like this.
The study, which was based on interviews, observation and surveys of 1400 family members, found that nearly half (47 percent) of Australian kids do three or more after-school activities each week. In the last month, 43 percent of teens and parents say they haven’t done anything spontaneous.
According to the report, free time is such a foreign concept to families that when they do get it, they don’t know what do to with it. Half of all teens and parents admit that they’d have to stop and think about how to spend an extra couple of hours of free time.
Not only do we not know what to do with free time, we are so out of practice that the very idea of it is stressful. 53 per cent of teens and 46 per cent of adults surveyed admitted they are anxious when presented with free time, with unplanned time giving rise to unpleasant feelings of chaos, loss of control and impossibility.
But despite free time being outside of our collective comfort zones, it’s exactly what we crave. Sixty-six per cent of kids and 73 per cent of adults agree that the best family times are unplanned. A whopping 89 percent of 6–11 year olds said they wish they had more time to spend with family.
Kids are so keen to just hang out with their parents that they even claim that they would be happy to do things they don’t particularly like in order to achieve it.
Over a third of teens said they’d be willing to watch a TV program they don’t like if it meant spending some additional time with their family. And two thirds of 6–11 year olds say they would help tidying up their room and putting toys away if they got to spend a little extra time with their parents. Just over half would cook dinner and almost one in four kids are even prepared to empty the rubbish bins.
It seems that when it comes to managing time within our families, many of us have it wrong. It’s easy to see why. Ours is a culture that demonises supposedly ‘unproductive’ time as wasted time.
Add to this status anxiety and the pressure for perfect parenting, and you have the optimum environment in which to create overscheduling. After all, who wants to turn up to parent-teacher evenings to find yours is the only kid who hasn’t developed perfect pitch and mastered Mandarin. By age 7.
But are routines and schedules all bad? In many cases they’re the only way to balance the needs of everyone in the family and manage the daily grind such as transportation, meals and money.
Routines don’t just benefit adults either. Children have such little control over their lives that having routines — knowing what they will be doing and when — affords a sense of security and comfort.
But there’s a difference between having a routine and scheduling life to the point where it’s deadened routine, devoid of spontaneity and the joy of just being together without having to be somewhere or having to achieve something.
As John Lennon said “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”. It seems that our kids are crying out for more life and fewer plans.