Three Things Overscheduled Kids Need More of in Their Lives

 (STEFANOLUNARDI/iStock)

Playtime. Downtime. Family time.

According to Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, these three factors — or PDF as she calls them — protect kids against a host of negative outcomes, strengthen resilience, and bolster students’ mental wellness and academic engagement. 

Pope is co-founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford-based organization that works with families and schools to redefine and embrace a broader definition of success and promote student well-being. In a recent interview with KQED’s Forum, Pope shared her suggestions for raising resilient, ethical and motivated learners. 

Make Time for Downtime

Pope says the research is clear, “Every kid needs PDF every day.” It is critical for the mental health of children, but it often gets lost in all the pressures and hustle and bustle of schools. Even extracurriculars such as sports, which adults perceive as downtime, can generate a lot of pressure.

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Pope understands the trend toward overscheduling children as a way to keep kids supervised while families are juggling work schedules. However, she says, keeping kids busy with supervised activities is "to the detriment of what we know kids need for healthy development, which is free, unstructured playtime.”

“Years and years ago people used to say, go outside and don’t come home until it’s dark,” says Pope, and while that’s not feasible for most families, she encourages parents to explore activities that maximize playtime and downtime, such as sending kids to a park with one adult to keep an eye on things, utilizing free open gym times at recreation centers, or choosing after-school care that allows for kid-directed play. 

According to research, extracurricular activities that “used to be a stress-buster” have now become key sources of stress, particularly if a child is engaged in an extracurricular activity because parents "are making them or because they want to please you.”  For some teenagers, extracurricular obligations almost become a full-time job on top of school and homework and she says that’s just not healthy. 

One way to give children more agency over their lives is by asking them what they want to explore before signing them up for classes and activities, says Pope. If you allow them to pursue their interests, it will increase their motivation. Remember, 10-year-olds “don’t need to specialize.“

Each fall Pope teams up with the Stanford Dean of Students to share this message with parents of incoming freshman: “Let your child major in what they want to major in. It’s much more important for them to be excited and interested in what they are going to be studying — they are going to do better and learn more — than to slog through a major that you think is going to lead them to a better job. It turns out that interest and motivation, what we call engagement with learning, is going to lead them to do much better in that field and prepare them for a wide variety of professions.”

Prioritize Family Time

Pope encourages daily check-in conversations with kids of every age. “We need to look them in the eye and ask about their day. It’s much harder to fall through the cracks when you are getting that face-to-face attention multiple times a week, and that’s why family time is considered a protective factor.” 

Start by making mealtime a tech-free environment for kids and adults, says Pope. “We are all glued to our phones way too much, and what we are finding is there is not enough face-to-face conversation happening, particularly at home.” 

When parents prioritize family time, it’s easier to listen for the meaning behind the words.

For example, says Pope, “We often hear ‘I hate school,’ and you think, ‘Oh, they are just lazy, they’re tired, they don’t want to go.’ But you want to make sure that there is not more to that. Really dig in and listen.” Do you know who their friends are, who they sit with at lunch, and which classes and activities excite their imagination?  “It’s amazing how infrequent it is that we really have those conversations with kids because we are on to the next activity.”   

Communicate Your Values

Pope and her team surveyed over 200,000 middle and upper school kids across the United States in high-performing schools. When they ask parents what matters most, “the parents basically say, ‘We just want our kids to be happy and healthy.’” 

But the kids are hearing very different messages, says Pope. Students report that what parents really care about is grades and test scores. Why the disconnect? 

“The first thing a parent says when a kid walks in the door is ‘How did you do on the math test?’ or ‘Have you finished your homework?’ They are forgetting to talk about things that really promote health and happiness. So the kids are getting the message that the most important thing that can happen to them during the day is what they do in school, the grades they get, where they are going to go to college, or how they did on the SAT.” This pressure to achieve and “do everything right” is unhealthy. It can increase anxiety and erode integrity, says Pope. “Eighty percent of students that we survey admit to cheating in the last year.”

What you praise reveals what you value, says Pope, and a strong G.P.A. is not necessarily a sign of ethics, curiosity, or tenacity. “If you want to encourage persistence and effort, that’s what you want to praise.” 

Pope says parents’ obsession with grades is misdirected. “We are fretting and worrying way too much over academic perfection. We should be focused much more on: Are they resilient? Do they know how to cope with stress? Do they know how to get along with others? Do they know how to think outside the box and be creative?” 

These traits do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with top grades, says Pope. But they will give students something more important than a perfect report card: the strengths and habits they need to find success in college and beyond. After all, “we know that what you do at college matters much more than where you go.” 

Focus on What Matters Most

Schools need to be mindful of PDF as well, says Pope, and that means offering “more recess, longer recess, less homework, fewer tests, and more emphasis on social-emotional development.” 

Even if schools are slow to change, parents can take a stand for their children’s well being. For example, Pope points to the research on sleep and its relationship to emotional regulation and healthy brain development. In their families, parents can overtly prioritize “sleep and health” as core family values. Together parents and children can examine their schedules, course loads and extracurricular activities with this vision in mind. 

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No matter what community children live in, their developmental needs are “fairly consistent,” says Pope. “Every kid needs to feel like they belong. Every kid needs to have social and emotional learning skills. Every kid should have the opportunity to be motivated and engaged in school.” 

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