Now that the kids are settled back in school, it’s time to get family time back on track. It is perfectly acceptable, not to mention beneficial for development, to not have every day booked solid with scheduled activities. And it’s important that our children have unstructured time to be just that, children. If you feel like you need something to make that time feel a little less hectic, yet advantageous for your child, here are some tips for reaping the most benefits from time outside of school.
Make it just that, a routine. As I shared in last year’s blog, “I Don’t Want to Go: 4 Ways to Ease the Transition to Pre-school,” consistency is key. From the steps you take to get ready in the morning, to the way you say goodbye, you must be consistent. Deviation from the ordinary, even in a minor way, is a huge deal for young children and can cause them to doubt their expectations. Very little things in your child’s life can cause big reactions. Establish a routine for the morning, the afternoon, and the evening, including bed time. The more accustomed children are to a routine, the less resistance they will exhibit.
Be truly present with and for your children. Make time during the day to talk with your children. LISTEN to what they have to say. Make conversation with them rather than simply asking, “What did you learn/do at school today?” ( “Want your kids to tell you about their day? Instead of asking questions, try this.” ) Interact person-to-person with your child – play games with them, read a story with them. Put aside your cell phone and your work. In the end, they will forget what gadgets or toys they had, but they will remember spending time with you.
Limit their access to technology. If technology is present in your house – set a time and a place for it. Ideally, this would be after they have spent time reading, playing outside, being helpful around the house or for a neighbor, etc. Perhaps technology is a privilege earned after helping to prepare dinner. Preferably, it should not be available in the morning, especially if you need to get yourself and your children out the door to work and school. If you need something in the morning, a white noise of sorts, soft background music can help keep things calm through this process. Technology should not be used as a ‘babysitter’ or entertainment while you are doing something else or talking to another person (books/coloring books are great for that purpose). Check out my previous blog, “How to Help Your Child Achieve Balance in Today’s Digital World.”
Involve them in ‘real’ activities. Rather than sending your children to their pretend kitchen to slice plastic foods which they can then imagine they are eating, spend time cooking with your children. They love working side by side with you and are more likely to eat something they helped prepare – even vegetables! While playing pretend is a quintessential (yet no data says crucial) part of childhood, research has shown that youngsters overwhelmingly prefer real activities to pretend ones. Real activities provide children the opportunity to feel accomplished. Children who chose pretend over real often did so because they were afraid of the real thing or thought they weren’t able to do it. Child sized versions of traditional household materials are readily available, allowing children to take part in these activities while using items that fit their smaller hands.
Don’t over-schedule – provide your child the opportunity for some quiet time. It is so important to balance structured activities with tranquil and undisturbed time. Many of today’s parents are overly concerned with preventing their children from being bored, when in fact, being bored is good for them. (Follow the link above to my blog about technology to read about why experiencing boredom is so important for our children.) It is better to have an environment where children are free to explore, investigate and inquire with help from a guide. (Sounds like a Montessori environment to me – and you can do this at home!) If children are interested in exploring outside with rocks, sticks and dirt, then they should have the time to do so. Learning has a longer lasting effect when it comes from within versus cramming it in through excessive practice and memorization. We know as adults we learn best when we choose our own activity. We do it how we see fit and then reflect on the process. Children need this too – it’s how we see who they are. This process begins with quiet time, where children can sit, rest and observe, rather than a schedule determined by adults. An over-scheduled day does not provide the time to sit quietly and reflect, a concept with which many of today’s children have difficulty.
Keeping these thoughts in mind, you and your child can work together to plan out a routine for both before and after school. Involving your child in setting a routine will make implementation much smoother, allowing your child to receive all the benefits from time spent in school as well as time spent at home.
Carol Martorano, M.Ed., has been working in Montessori for over 20 years as both a teacher and administrator. She is the parent of two teenagers who attended Montessori through the elementary years and is currently the Head of School at the Montessori School of Long Grove, in northwest suburban Chicago. She has her Montessori credentials in Elementary I and II, as well as Administration. She earned her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and sits on the board of the Association of Illinois Montessori Schools.