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Free Time: The Lost Extra-Curricular Activity

“Leave the house and don’t come back until dinner.” Such was the description of my daily extracurriculars as laid out by my mother.

She was an incredibly loving and devoted parent. But as other parents of the time, she felt comfortable leaving her three children to their own devices while taking care of what she needed to at home. And to this day I remember those few hours between school and dinner - creating fantasy worlds with other kids in the park, teasing poor alleycats, devising elaborate pranks - as a golden time.

Today I watch as stressed out moms, children tagging behind them, storm RSM’s lobby - late for class after racing from another activity. Every hour of our students’ days is mapped and planned, all in the name of enabling our children to become perfectly well-rounded beings. And I get it, I also want my granddaughter to speak my native language (Russian classes), to be comfortable musically (piano classes), even possibly on the dance floor (dance classes). Nobody wants their kids to miss out on opportunities.

But in this effort, unstructured time is lost. The time for a child to learn himself and to develop his own personality. To daydream, to imagine entire worlds around himself, to learn the art of introspection. Playing with other children in an unstructured format enables children to deal with reality. Kids are not nice. They do not suffer the circuitous route of political correctness. They put each other in their place immediately. It is in these invaluable environments where kids learn social skills, gain sensitivity to facial expressions and cues.

A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that free play for children is essential, and expressed concern at the reduced time allotted for it in today’s society:

“As they master their world, [free] play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”

These days, kids are constantly waiting to be either entertained or helped by an adult. They have no cause to create their own entertainment and figure out their own solutions to problems.

We as parents relish those rare vacation days where we control our own time and activities. Why deprive our children of this gift of free time?

Written by Inessa Rifkin, Founder of the Russian School of Mathematics 

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