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Summer is a time to relax and have fun, right? Or is your child overscheduled? Listen in to my interview on WCCO-TV to help you decide  and also take the “Is My Child Overscheduled?” Assessment here and tally your results.

Then, I have a great article to help you plan your summer.

“Surprising Secrets to a Successful Summer”

You’re probably busy planning every detail so your kids can have a memorable summer packed with vacations, summer camps, sports activities and more.

As you finish your planning, be sure to allow time for three surprising activities that are research-proven to help your child’s emotional, neurological and physical well-being.

Secret #1: Allow time each day for unstructured, child-directed play (or free time for adolescents).

Research is emerging that the hectic lifestyle that many parents have chosen for their children may be harmful to a child’s development.

Remember when you were growing up and you just went outside to play? It turns out that the fun you had using your imagination, playing tag and hanging out with other kids was actually causing nerve growth in the frontal cortex of your brain which controls the executive controls, along with numerous other positive neurological developments.

There are other benefits to play: it requires attention and sharpens the senses; it demands mental dexterity and flexibility; it thrives on possibility; it expands human variability; it expands our nervous system; it allows us to take risks and try on new roles; it teaches kids how to get along with others and control themselves; it encourages creative problem-solving; it fosters decision making, memory, thinking and speeds up mental processing; it reduces aggression; it develops brain cells that exert control over attention, regulate emotions and control behavior. (1)

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called unstructured play and free time “essential to development and the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognized play as a right of every child. (2)

Many children have limited access to play, however. With the increased marketing machine that urges parents to buy gadgets that will give kids an “edge,” to the increased academic pressures from No Child Left Behind, the professionalism of kids’ sports and over-the-top college admissions pressures, parents have succumb to the notion that their child has to be involved in multiple structured activities and has to excel at all of them.

Play and free time have decreased rapidly. The amount of free time in unstructured play and outdoor activities decreased from 40% of children’s time in 1981 to just 25% of a child’s day in 1997 (1) and I would guess in 2009, that number may be reduced to 15%. When children do have free time, their favorite activities are TV, computer use and video games, all sedentary pursuits that limit creativity.

So what’s a parent to do? Cut back on the number of organized activities your child is in and just let him/her have down time. Provide toys that are conducive to imaginative play. Limit the time your child is on electronic gadgets. Send them outside. Teach them old-fashioned games and let them hang out with the neighbor kids.

Your kids may need some ideas to get started. Three websites that provide a listing of fun outdoor games for kids are: and

Secret # 2: Let your child connect with nature.

A movement is sweeping the country with the claim that our children have “Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Wood, who first coined the term, describes it this way. “Nature-deficit disorder is not an official diagnose but a way of viewing the problem, and describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.” (3)

Others are reminding us that “No Child Left Inside” should be the goal. “In a typical week, only 6 percent of children, ages nine to thirteen, play outside on their own.” (3)

Yet the effects of connecting with nature are bountiful. “Children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors. Green plants and play yards reduce children’s stress. Free play in natural areas enhances children’s cognitive flexibility, problem-solving ability, creativity, self-esteem, and self-discipline. Students score higher on standardized tests when natural environments are integral to schools’ curricula. Effects of attention-deficit disorder are reduced when children have regular access to the out-of-doors.” (3)

The recommendation is for parents and grandparents to simply take children outdoors and share the joys of connecting with nature. Visiting a park, playing in the backyard or walking in the woods will have restorative powers for stressed out kids and adults.

Families who want to take a bigger step can organize a nature club. Here’s a link on how to get started:

Secret # 3: Just hang out as a family.

The number one factor in keeping children emotionally healthy, drug and alcohol free and out of trouble is the amount of time that they spend with their families, according to Bill Doherty, head of the Family Social Science Department at the University of Minnesota. (4)

Doherty shares studies that show sharp declines in the number of conversations that children have with family members, the number of family dinners people share, and the lack of free time that families have for connecting. “A warm and limit-setting family is the most important element for kids and that requires a lot of time, time not spent running around. Children need time to daydream, to chill out. We’ve reversed it all,” said Doherty.

“A deep-seated connectedness to and caring about others that create the love, safety and security that children need to thrive” is what children need most to survive in an ever-increasingly challenging world, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics report. (2)

Family activities such as talking, making meals, playing games and playing sports together are some of the best interactions which occur when downtime is allowed, the report concluded. The tried and true method for helping children be successful is family time.

Doherty and co-creator Barbara Carlson have a web-site (and a movement) called that provides parents with tools for putting the breaks on overscheduling and practical tips for reconnecting as a family.

In conclusion, children need a balance of activities to help them develop fully. Free time, family time and connecting with nature in combination with structured activities and academic pursuits will help your child build a strong foundation for success.


  1. Marano Estroff, Hara. A Nation of Wimps, Broadway Books, New York: 2008, pp. 85-92.
  2. Ginsberg, Kenneth, M.D., The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007.
  3. Charles, Cheryl, Louv, Richard et al, Children and Nature 2008: A Report on the Movement to Reconnect Children to the Natural World,
  4. Doherty, William, Ph. D. Overscheduled Kids, Underconnected Families: The Research Evidence.


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