Clinical and educational psychologist
"Free play is the best after-school activity for children."
A reflection on how too many scheduled activities and too much screen time affects childhood.
Parents want their children to be cleverer and acquire more skills and abilities, like superkids.
What children need most of all during the first year of school is to develop their senses. In fact, that's the most important part of their development. First of all, they experience feelings. Then, they start to discover all their senses. First come feelings, then awareness and later cognitive skills, which involve thinking and interpreting everything that happens. Children can only comprehend what they experience in life through their feelings. Why introduce more activities if children need this contact in order to learn? Children always prefer to be with other people.
Children's brains are not sponges. In fact, even sponges can't absorb more liquid than the amount they've been designed to hold, and with excessive use they become less effective and start to fall apart. This is what can happen to children's brain. What are what I call "over-stimulated children"? These children are subjected to excessive stimulation in early childhood, before their brains are ready for it. This causes them to experience mental blocks and become anxious about learning. Sometimes, they are forced to do too many extracurricular activities that they haven't chosen or want to do. This makes them become demotivated. Feeling that you like or are good at something is very important as it leads to self-fulfilment.
The rate children learn at must be respected. Why are two-year olds being signed up for Chinese, English, swimming and music classes? In the end, it's not only the children that become stressed, but their entire families. What do children need? Free play. Knowledge comes from inside. Children have to be at the center of their own creations. From the time they are three, children should be playing symbolic games like pretending to be a doctor, lawyer or shopkeeper.
It would be great if the electronic devices that have become a child's main plaything could coexist with more traditional games and games that are played in the open air. They should be playing board games like Ludo, or be out on their skateboards, roller-skates or bikes. They should visit the countryside for the sake of balance. Only then, perhaps, should they be allowed a bit of screen time. Once children become accustomed to getting enjoyment from a screen, they're going to need more and more stimuli to achieve the same effect, which could be damaging. This means they're going to be exposed to stimuli for long periods of time and will therefore lose interest in nature activities, which are experienced at a much slower pace.
It's really important that parents spend time playing with their children. We know that the benefits of playing include developing creativity and psychomotor skills. However, as a parent you'll also benefit from interacting with your kids because when you play with them you may become the best version of yourself. You might be you at your kindest. Also, they get to see you when you're relaxed and enjoying some free time. Parents often spend a lot of time teaching their kids values like empathy, the difference between good and bad, patience, knowing how to lose, etc. Games are a wonderful way to share and help children understand these concepts without coercion or lectures.
It is harmful for children to use screens too much because sometimes it's difficult for them to achieve a balance between their online and offline lives. It can be very enriching to use technology appropriately. The problem is that, sometimes, children use technology in order to retreat from the world. What happens then is that they start to build a fragmented identity Why? because they're exposing themselves to the world, but also hiding behind a mask. On the Internet you can be who you want to be, which may lead to self-deceit. You can exaggerate your best traits and interact with people in a certain way, which could make you vulnerable. This means that, ultimately, a child's self-esteem has no solid basis, but can be adapted depending on the situation they're in. Their sense of worth also depends on what they publish and how many "likes" they get. They're continually looking for this feedback in order to feel valued and accepted, which is very important to pre-teens and teenagers. It can be dangerous for children not to have a clear idea of who they are and to have not formed a more unified identity. If they form relationships with people through the Internet who they have no real connection to, they can disengage from them in the blink of any eye. They can just decide that they don't want to be friends with someone anymore, and that's that. When they see people in real life, in the classroom or at playtime, they can't just ignore them completely, they have to learn to coexist. What's happening is that children are becoming less able to deal with frustration and conflict and are becoming more aggressive because they don't know how to deal with the fact that the other person exists and that they have to find a way to exist in the same environment as them.
Is it possible to control a child's anger? First and foremost, children have to be able to understand their emotions. However, sometimes we don't let them. Sometimes we chastise them for getting angry or having moments of rage. Yet, we all get angry sometimes. Just like we all experience sadness and joy. Also, it seems as though society is more accepting of anger than sadness because anger reaffirms who you are and makes you feel empowered, whereas sadness leads to depression.
Find out more about Alicia Banderas
- Clinical psychologist Alicia Banderas has won several awards, including one for TV journalism. She also wrote the books "Happy children", "Little tyrants" and "Overstimulated children" and has worked on educational projects with children and adolescents for more than two decades. She cares passionately about not overwhelming children with extracurricular activities and thinks that their time is better spent playing or with their families.
- How can we help children overcome adversity?
Parents tend to overprotect their children, which prevents them from developing their abilities. I want to reclaim the concept of "resilience", which was first introduced by the expert Boris Cyrulnik. According to Cyrulnik, "Resilience is the ability people have to overcome adversity." Adversity can even make us stronger. We can feel overwhelmed by life at any time. It's a good idea for children to learn how to deal with small frustrations or adverse situations, because if they don't they won't be able to cope with more traumatic events later in life. Resilient people (including children) share five attributes. If we already know these attributes exist, why don't we try to develop them? If children are not overprotected and have emotional autonomy, they'll be better at doing things for themselves. Children that have perseverance and can keep trying again and again are better equipped to focus on the future. We already know what attributes resilient children have, so maybe we should work on these attributes to help kids to become stronger so they don't succumb to being overprotected.