Why I Overbook My Kids with Activities

overbook kids with activities universal
Paula Boudes

“Let kids be kids”—it’s a phrase we hear all the time but as a parent of two fifth graders (twins) I’ve come to realize that the idea of children just running around the neighborhood and playing is a thing of the past.

When we first moved to New Jersey five years ago, one of the first things I did was look up all of the local playgrounds. Back where we lived in Brooklyn, Prospect Park was the center of activity for anyone with kids, and we often spent late afternoons that in the summer, bled into evenings, letting the kids play on the swings, run around in the grass or just do nothing and enjoy being together outside. But in NJ, the playgrounds were eerily empty. Seeing one too many empty swing sets I had to wonder—where are all the kids?

After the twins started school in our new town, it didn’t take me long to realize where they all were—being shuttled around in SUVs to various activities. When the kids were little, there was a small group of us parents that actually stayed at the elementary school past 3 o’clock. We sat around talking while the kids played on the playground, and ventured into the small forest next to the school where they played war and house and all of those other pretend activities that spark imagination. But we were the exception and most kids left in the car line, going directly from their desks to the backseat of a car and off to an activity.

Many of these children had schedules so full they required charts to keep up with them—Mathnasium on Mondays, taekwondo on Tuesdays—you get the idea. The one that annoyed me the most was “coding.” Maybe it’s because I’m more creative-minded but the idea of little kids sitting behind computers for fun just seemed so wrong to me. But as my kids got older, I began to realize that maybe my idea of them just running around the neighborhood or meeting up at the 7-11 on bikes was some outdated vision from my own youth (or an ‘80s movie). Maybe the reality is that kids don’t “just play” anymore.

Thankfully, my son has one friend on our block who rings our doorbell on random afternoons without parents pre-booking a playdate (or “hang” as I guess I should now call it). But that’s the exception. On the days when I’ve confiscated his iPad and told him to just go find someone to play with, he’s ventured out into the neighborhood only to return 20 minutes later to tell me that everyone is busy.

It’s strange to think of kids being “busy” but when you consider the alternative (them sitting at home, their eyes glued to a device), I’ll choose the overbooked activity schedule. I’d rather shuttle them to swim, yoga, baseball, piano and the myriad other enrichments we take part in than see them sit inside staring at screens like zombies. (The most mind-boggling is when my guy goes online and plays games with his classmates—who are also at home just sitting inside!)

At least most of the activities my kids participate in give them a chance to socialize with other children. Still, the constant back and forth can be exhausting, both for them and me (as their taxi driver). Over the winter, my son was enrolled in a swim school that met twice a week in the evenings and didn’t finish until 8:40 p.m. On the days I would tell him there was no swim, he would celebrate. That made me sad, since I know he loves swimming. I had to conclude that he was just overbooked. We decided not to re-enroll for the spring.

Even though I’ve given up my fantasy that he’ll form an impromptu baseball team like in The Sandlot, I still encourage him and his sister to get outside every day and play, even if it’s just the two of them. Even if the opportunities are rare, I want them to be present for those moments when kids just get together and race bikes, skip stones on a lake or play house in a teepee made of sticks—the kind of socialization that that is so incredibly meaningful and that organized activities can’t provide.

Freelance PureWow Editor

Ronnie Koenig is a writer with 20+ years’ experience who got her start at Playgirl and went on to write for Cosmo, Redbook, The New York Times, The Atlantic and many others. She’s...