Are we over-programming our kids?

So there I was ….

My youngest child, let’s call him ‘E’, is 9 years old. He currently doesn’t have an ‘outside of school’ interest, sport or hobby. So we’ve been encouraging him to try sport other than his normal physical education at school.

This morning he started a three day tennis clinic. When I say three day, it’s an hour and a half in the morning three times. There were many parents on the sidelines watching their children participate in the tennis clinic. The subject of tennis training for this upcoming season was brought up. It was all about which section would train and when.

I was sort of on the edge of the conversation because, without a current outside of school interests for our kids, our afternoons are pretty free and available. However, I was the odd one out. I listened as the parent group engaged in the ifs and buts of which night of the week would suit them better. What with gymnastics, basketball, cricket season about to start, cheerleading, hockey, etc, it was starting to get very difficult to find a common time and day for the tennis training.

And in my mind it begged the question, Are we over programming our children? My wife and I have always been very keen to allow our kids open time to play in the outdoors. We like it when they get dirty, make things out of pieces of the garden and forest, build cubby houses and generally get creative in an open space. It’s an incredibly healthy pursuit for them both and we place a very high priority on creating that time for them. This ability to ‘free play’ is especially valuable when we are on our family camping trips. On our most recent camping holiday our two children (the other a 13 year old girl) were reading a book series called Ranger in Danger while travelling in the car. At the campsites they would pack their Ranger Danger Emergency Packs  that they had put together from bits they found in their packs and in the campertrailer and be off in imaginary land for hours …. every evening.

All ready with backpacks for another episode of Ranger in Danger on the beach

But surrounding us is a world of over programmed children. When I was working at an elite Melbourne private school I saw it over and over. It was almost as if we are not allowed to let our children sit still at all. That their lives need to be filled with ‘things to do’ and ‘places to be’.

I wonder, is this healthy? Have we lost the art of letting children be children? I believe our children have a deep sense of belonging to their home and are incredibly creative as a result of the time spent playing amongst the trees. I think it’s very important that children have a ‘Sense of Place‘.  I think that over programming children competes with this Sense of Place to a point where children become unsettled and overstimulated.  This problem isn’t helped by the physical surroundings that we have built for ourselves in cities and suburbia. Our houses now almost fill our blocks of land and areas to play outside have become tiny and without too much in the way of garden, you know, old-fashioned shrubs and trees. Whilst we can’t easily go back on the types of houses we’ve chosen to live in, it quite possibly is time to think about the weekly schedule that our children keep and how much we reserve for free play.

It’s not something that you would notice from the outset, but I believe this lack of connection contributes to some of the issues that we see in the mental health statistics of young people.

So maybe it’s time to slow down a little and not see every minute as something that can be filled with an opportunity to achieve something. Maybe it’s time to let children be children and encourage them to play more in a park or backyard or even their imagination.


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