June 11, 2013 at 8:07 AM ET
If you think kids are busier than ever, you're not imagining things. But are they too busy to learn how to imagine? It could be a costly mistake.
Jennifer Holiday's two children, age 4 and 7, have a typical weekend schedule.
"Saturday, they both play soccer and baseball, so there will be two of each of those games," said the Long Island, N.Y., mom. "There will be at least one birthday party. This weekend, there's a trophy ceremony, and then their coach is having a pool party to reward them."
It's also graduation season, which means plenty of ceremonies, dance recitals, and more parties.
"Forget about June," she said.
It also means forgetting about time for unstructured play, an element of growing up that child development experts are only beginning to understand.
There’s no doubt that kids have fuller schedules than in past generations. Between 1981 and 1997, kids' free time shrank by 7.5 hours per week -- the length of an entire school day -- according to a research published by Sandra Hofferth, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Family Science Center. Meanwhile, participation in sports rose 35 percent. Participation in music, dance, and other arts soared 145 percent.
There is no agreement, however, on whether this busy-ness is good or bad.
In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that a “hurried lifestyle" could cause stress and depression in kids. Plenty of parent-columnists lamented their busy lives and longed for simpler days gone by. Then Hofferth published research titled "The Hurried Child: Myth vs. Reality." She found that busy kids are well adjusted, often better off than non-busy kids, and found no evidence that excessive ballet classes cause depression.
But stress and depression aren't the only potential costs of having a clogged Google Calendar by the age of 4.
University of Pennsylvania neuroeconomist Joe Kable is studying the intersection of imagination and good life habits. Using the latest brain scanning technology, he's found that adults who have active imaginations -- are good at picturing getting a new car or a new house in the future -- are better at saving money today.
In fact, in many areas of life -- healthy eating, drug use, love life, even paying the mortgage -- having a healthy imagination is one key to success.
Kable has kids of his own and he worries that the importance of having an active imagination has been overlooked.
"There are a lot of things that I think we sometimes think of as silly that kids do, that turn out on second inspection to be quite profound," he said.
"The things I'm learning suggest that time on your own, where you have to construct and imagine other worlds and construct things in your head rather than have them immediately presented to you, is important to future decision making skills."
Holiday doesn't disagree, but she has reasons for keeping her kids on a color-coded schedule. They attend private school some distance from home, and activities like soccer are the only chance they get to meet other neighborhood children. Like most parents, she wants her kids to try everything so they can discover something they love to do.
But her most urgent reason for the organized activities is that without them, the kids would play video games all day.
"They never just go out and play. I don't think kids know how to goof off any more," Holiday said. "My son, as many sports as he's involved in, he never picks up a bat and ball or shoots a basketball at home. It has to be (organized), or else they just veg out at home."
So Holiday and other parents across America keep a busy weekend schedule that -- even Hofferth agrees -- stresses them out. Done with the best of intentions, but perhaps out of balance with children's natural need to be bored once in a while.
“We are starting to key in on (humans’) propensity to build futures in our heads, and it might seem like silly kid stuff, but it’s actually really important psychologically," Kable said.
"One thing you are doing when bored is trying to think of things, sparking your mind to go off on flights of fancy. We haven’t really recognized the importance of this, and haven’t thought about how to develop it in kids. … It would be a shame if we take it away with modern tinkering.”