As the lazy days of summer come to an end and we gear up for a busy September, I begin to wonder how much of this chaos is really necessary. Like many parents, I will once again be chauffeuring my children to soccer practice and music lessons, while trying to squeeze in homework and home reading. If we eat dinner in the car, I may be able to get both children to their practices, on opposite ends of the city, on time. Does this sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound exhausting?

The truth is, not only is it exhausting for you, but is most likely tiring out your child. Between school, homework, lessons and practice, many children are busier than adults. As a teacher, I can’t tell you how many times a student in my class has dozed off because his alarm clock went off at 4:30 a.m. for hockey practice before school. Or how many times a child expressed dread about an after school schedule that included piano lessons, tutoring and dance class. All in one day. I worry that we may be over-scheduling our children.

Don’t get me wrong. I am guilty of signing my children up for a variety of activities. Like many parents, I want to provide them with as many opportunities as possible. I want my children to be well rounded, happy and successful. However, I am beginning to wonder if they are actually having any fun. I try to ensure that I fit play dates into our busy schedule. I invite children to my house from 3 to 5 p.m. (so that we can still get to drum lessons on time) and I organize activities and games for the children to play. But what ever happened to good old, unstructured, unsupervised fun? It seems to be disappearing in the hectic pace of today’s society.

Unstructured, imaginative play is beneficial for a child’s development. It allows children to practice skills that they will need for the future. When a child plays house or school, for example, they are trying on roles that the adults around them model each day. Building blocks reinforce motor skills and spatial awareness. Playing board games allows children to practice following rules and monitoring of their own interactions with others. When you hear a child say, “Let’s pretend…” it means they are using symbolic and abstract thinking.

Building time into your child’s schedule for play not only gives them a much needed break, but actually helps improve their social-emotional, cognitive and motor skills. Play provides a forum for children to work on their self-regulation, co-operation and problem solving skills as they negotiate situations with peers or siblings. Language acquisition improves. For instance, if a child is pretending to be a doctor, she may write a “prescription” and use other fancy vocabulary for anatomy or medicine. Play often promotes creative thinking. Perhaps a child is trying to write their own song or attempting to build a robot that will clean their room. Would this ingenuity occur if they were being shuttled from one activity to another?

Or maybe (and very likely) your child, being unaccustomed to free time, complains that he/she is bored. Boredom is a good thing! When a child is bored, they become intrinsically motivated to explore their own interests and to invent self-directed activities. They need to entertain themselves somehow and they will inevitably find a way. In exercising choice over how they spend their time, children are moving away from constant parental control and are practicing their own autonomy. Being responsible for how they spend time can actually increase a child’s sense of empowerment and self-esteem.

I am not saying that organized extra-curricular activities are bad. In fact, they have many benefits. Exposure to sports and arts can provide exercise, discipline, creativity and leadership opportunities. Many of these activities have cognitive and developmental benefits for our children. I am simply suggesting that we attempt to create balance in our children’s lives.

As we move into fall, and towards busier days, I encourage you to be mindful of your schedule. It may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

• Is your child tired in the mornings?

• How many unscheduled afternoons does your child have per week?

• How many nights does your family eat together, at the dinner table?

My goal for this school year is to purposefully slow the pace, somewhat. (Baby steps). My intention is to allow my children time to just be themselves. I want them to explore exactly what that means through interactions with their family, their friends and in those quiet moments, which are otherwise known as boredom. Maybe each child only participates in one extra curricular activity per term. If it means we can all be home for dinner, then the sacrifice will be worth it. The bonus is, instead of racing from one end of town to the other, I can relax and have a glass of wine while my children play.

Kelly Cleeve is a passionate educator with 14 years experience. She is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, a wife and a mother of 2 beautiful boys.