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April 2011

Ages & Stages

Spring Cleaning

Decluttering Your Family's Schedule

By Maureen L. McElroy, M.A.

It is 4:30, and Anne is picking up 10-year-old Danielle from gymnastics. From there, she will drop off 8-year-old Jonathan at baseball. She will bring Danielle home, make sure she has dinner, then take her to her piano lesson. On the way home, she will pick up Jonathan, provide his dinner and take 12-year-old Evan, who has been glued to his video games all afternoon, to his fencing class. She has not yet figured out when he will eat dinner, but maybe she will get take-out for Evan and the rest of the family.

Scenarios like this play out all over the Washington metropolitan area every day. Parents and children are lucky to have plentiful resources in this area. However, the old adage, “Less is more,” rings true and can help parents do some “spring cleaning” of their school-age children’s schedules. Extracurricular activities are important and enriching, and so is family time. The goal is to balance the two and lead a less frenetic life.

Less Scheduling, More Family Time

Kids crave time with their parents. This time is easier to give when we are not always shuttling children to and from activities. We can be available to play a board game or toss a ball or a Frisbee with our child.

Family dinnertime also becomes easier. Research done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) finds that the more often children have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.

Carol Hoffman, of Rockville, keeps a close eye on the schedules of her children, Tyler, 10, and Camille, 8. “We seek out activities that have the least impact on our family time,” she says. “As our children get older, this will become more challenging. However, we will strive to maintain the family mealtime during the week. Family dinner right now is every night, and it is when the best conversations and learning take place, when questions arise about current events and when values discussions begin.”

Less Driving, More Peace

Less time spent driving to and from activities leads to decreased stress. Elizabeth Jones learned that after she decided to cut down on the activities in which her son, Eddie, 6, participates. She now lets him attend mainly programs offered at his school, thus limiting the times she needs to disrupt his play in order to drive somewhere. “Being late causes me a lot of stress, and we are enjoying the relative downtime,” she says. Children sense their parents’ stress, and, as calmer parents are less likely to lose their cool with them, the kids are calmer, too. “I strongly believe in having unstructured time on weekends, especially,” says Jones. “With the changes we have made this year, my kids have commented on how much more relaxed things are at home.”

Less Scheduled Time, More “Special Time”

What kids want most is one-on-one time and appropriate attention from their parents. Before scheduling another activity, consider regular special time with your child. This can be as little as 30 minutes, but it should be something your child can count on each week (or more often) as focused time with you, a time when you enter his world and play a game or participate in an activity of his choosing. This time can be spent in your home or backyard and does not need to cost any money. Special time promotes a feeling of connection and belonging. When children have these feelings, a side benefit is that they are less likely to misbehave.

Less Structure, More Creativity

Fewer structured activities can mean more free time for children. While parents might think that having nothing to do is a bad thing, it can lead to great creativity. When kids are bored, that is when they decide to set up a lemonade stand, have a good, old-fashioned pillow fight or play tag. “I have seen a child with ‘nothing’ to do suddenly work for hours creating a new Erector set machine,” says Hoffman. “When our children have more free time, they are more interested in helping us with work around the house, as they want to be involved and helpful and learn new skills.”

Barbara Strom Thompson, M.A., a child development specialist with an office in Chevy Chase, says, “A steady diet of being overprogrammed and overscheduled can actually result in compromising a child’s productive cognition and work ethic.” She notes, “A crowded schedule can foster a certain passivity in children, who often feel like their ideas and choices of daily activities aren’t valued.” She sees value in children’s being able to “linger in their work and play,” having opportunities to curl up with a good book or spend time enjoying activities on their own.

Less screen time (including TV, video games and computers) means more time to be physically active, a key to preventing childhood obesity, as well as more time for normal child development. Decreased screen time also can make more time to read. In a study published in the August 2010 issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that children who exceeded the two hours per day of screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics were 1 1/2 to 2 times more likely to be above average in attention problems. With less screen time, elementary-school children have more time to manipulate objects, through building, playing, organizing and even cooking. These activities are important to developing fine-motor skills and good spatial relations. Children also have more time for playing outdoors, which helps to develop gross-motor skills.

Go ahead and take advantage of some of the wonderful physical, cultural and learning opportunities in our dynamic metropolitan area. However, be sure to do it mindfully, remembering that family time (especially family dinner), special time with you, and free time give lasting value that no enrichment program can offer.

Resources for Giving Kids What They Really Want

What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy, by Betsy Taylor. Center for 2 New American Dream (

“Good Times Made Simple: The Lost Art of Fun,” a free booklet from the Center for a New American Dream. Inexpensive, noncommercial family fun alternatives to video games, TV and shopping.

FamilyTimeFun ( offers several collections of 51 simple games to play while you eat. Each collection comes in a colorful tin.

Maureen L. McElroy is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). PEP offers classes and workshops to parents and caregivers of children of all ages. Spring classes begin April 4. Visit or call 301-929-8824 or 703-242-8824.