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The Overscripted Child
Mom: “Cindy, when I pick you up today, we’re going to go buy you some shoes.”
Cindy: “Mom, did you forget that I have dance after school?”
Dad: “Jim, this Saturday morning we’ll go to the park and hit some balls.”
Jim: “Can’t go Saturday, Dad. I have Little League practice.”

Does that sound like your family? Well, it’s like a lot of family schedules. Gymnastics on Monday, dance on Tuesday, piano lesson on Wednesday, Cub Scouts on Thursday and on and on. Although all of these activities, and the many I haven’t mentioned, provide excellent learning and socialization opportunities for children, it is possible to overdo things. I have called this “overscripting,” implying that we “write lines” of schedules for our children and give them very little opportunity to improvise and do their own thing.

Many people, including parents and children, have become aware of this tendency to go overboard on scheduled activities. Recently there was a Doonesbury cartoon that dealt with it. Two mothers are bringing their children to school on the first day of fall, and one complains about all the activities her daughter had participated in: French lessons, swimming lessons, theater camp and so on. She asks the other mother what her child did during the summer. The second mother replies that the little girl played outside and built a tree fort. The first mother then opined that technically, perhaps, that wasn’t child abuse!

Is it child abuse to let your children spend a lot of time “just playing”? Of course not. Such time is as important for children’s development as the special lessons we arrange for them. And it is not necessarily “down” time. Think of it more as “consolidation” time, a time for putting things they have learned into action.

This is not to suggest that children should always choose and control their learning experiences. For many years in preschool education the idea that teachers should never suggest or arrange learning activities for young children seemed dominant. That was the prevailing position when I was just entering the field of early childhood. But soon we saw the rise of leading curriculum developers who advocated using the entire classroom period for formal, teacher-dominated instruction. It took a long time for the debates between advocates of these two approaches to resolve their differences and adopt the position that the wise course of action would be to strike a balance between the two extremes.

Today we see that kind of balance in most programs of high quality. However, with the widespread endorsement of the importance of early childhood education for successful academic learning (something we struggled for years to achieve), the pendulum appears to have swung too far toward the position of cramming the daily schedule with formal teaching activities and leaving little time for assimilation and expression of individual interests and inclinations.

This cramming of scheduled activities has now invaded the family domain such that parents are made to feel guilty if they don’t fill “every unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run,” to quote Rudyard Kipling. Leave some time in those unforgiving minutes for just playing with toys, or even a bit of creative dawdling or piddling. If you do so, your children will benefit and so will you.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education