The combination of long summer days and tightened budgets could be the best thing that ever happened to our children. The retro idea of "free time" is making a comeback in many households; laid-back pursuits such as finger painting and mud pies are replacing the stream of adult-supervised sporting and educational activities to which kids have become accustomed.
According to a new report, Kindergartens in Crisis, published by the Alliance for Childhood, an American organisation that promotes the healthy development of children, the disappearance of unstructured free play can be damaging to a child - far more so than missing out on those Suzuki violin lessons or not mastering basic French by age four. The survey claims that a lack of substantial playtime is responsible for an array of issues including increased bad behaviour, anger and the erosion of social and creative skills. Vivian Gussin Paley, a noted preschool expert, says in the report: "Play contains the only set of circumstances children understand from beginning to end Within this familiar process of inventing new characters and plots, of pretending to be someone else in another place, the children develop the intuitive and universal language that binds us all together."
Professor Jay Belsky, the director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birbeck University in London, says: "I worry that some of the freedom of childhood is being constrained by an adult need to schedule kids and the belief that everything has to start earlier. But if you push children at ever younger ages, too often it gets in the way of their own capacity to develop."
Belsky believes one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that families in the "educated classes" are now smaller, with one or two children sharing parental attention that a few generations ago would have been divided between four or five infants. "Parents are putting all their eggs in one basket. But does it follow that if a mother bird takes her nestling and drops it out of the nest earlier to teach it to fly, the baby bird will benefit? No. What mother birds do is let the baby stay in the nest until it's time to get out. We have this pernicious belief that getting started on everything earlier is better but, as not doing enough carries a cost, so does doing too much."
The clinical psychologist Sabine Skaf, a mother of two preschoolers, works with children at the Dubai-based Human Relations Institute. She agrees one of the main reasons parents are foisting extra activities on their offspring is because they are better educated themselves. "We as parents are more anxious because we have access to so much more information than our own parents did. We have the internet of course, and there are so many books on parenting and brain stimulation theories that parents begin to over-analyse. This is the managed child age. We're self-diagnosing our kids."
The Alliance for Childhood report notes that US policy changed in 2007 to include aptitude testing at the kindergarten level, but that this testing was meaningless because children of that age are subject to so much change. A poor reader at three may easily grow to be a gifted writer; a toddler who produces paintings worthy of any clucking parents' fridge door is as likely to become a talented artist as the child sitting next to him playing with bricks. What is most worrying, the report says, is that structured activity is eating away at the one thing that is truly important to a child's future success: play.
Skaf agrees. "Even if stimulated at a young age, the downfall is they may arrive at school knowing how to read but are socially inadequate. They haven't played with other kids and they don't have these boredom moments that are essential to healthy development." She points out that children have a lifetime of testing ahead of them. "It's fine to monitor normal developmental milestones. But if a child is adequate socially and has no behavioural problems, then there is no need to do tests."
Belsky explains that children need time away from adult agendas and ambitions. While it may appear that they are doing "nothing", their brains may be hard at work in ways that are just as valid to development as structured play. "The mistake people make is they see children playing and think that's all it is. But that's like saying: 'Oh, he's only breathing.' There's actually so much going on under the surface that doesn't appear to be important. But what kids do as a speciality is play and when we are older we too often lose that capacity. It is not a worthless activity."
While children play, they develop a range of skills. "They learn to share and negotiate, to resolve conflict, to develop control and a capacity to regulate their own attention spans. They learn decision-making skills, they find out about creativity," Skaf says. Mev Khan's eight-year-old daughter was educated in the UAE before the family moved back to the UK. Khan points out that while pressure on kids has increased universally, certain differences in educational theory may be down to culture.
"I found that the education system in the UAE is much more academically focused. Amara went to kindergarten at Mirdif Private School in Dubai and then on to Cambridge International School [in Dubai]. From her first year, there was a full timetable, and Amara would come home every day with homework assignments - learning about colours, numbers and exercises to teach her to write her name and the alphabet."
Khan says her daughter seems happier in her current school environment in the UK, where there is more focus on play. It seems as if there is peer pressure to fill a child's schedule to the limit. "You fall into the trap," Skaf says. "The other parents say things like: 'Oh, you're not taking your child to baby massage, to sign language classes?' It's important to resist that and to keep a balance. I don't take my six-month-old baby to classes to learn music. The classes are for brain stimulation. But you have to keep these activities short."
Belsky says the future effects of regimenting children's time can be seen into adulthood; someone who may have been an entrepreneur might instead find themselves in a production or manufacturing role. "When we overload our children with extra lessons and activities at the expense of unstructured play, there's a risk of undermining the cultivation of the imagination." At the other end of the scale, kids who are parked in front of televisions may also experience negative effects. A recent study by the American Institute of Paediatrics reported that children from families where a lot of television is watched were more likely to experience delays in normal language development.
"I ensure my daughter has time to play on her own," says Khan. "And I think that has helped her to be creative. I can leave her to make things out of paper, old cereal packets; she is happy to make things by herself. One of the important things a child has to learn is how to deal with boredom. You can't always expect to have something to do, and learning to gaze out of a window and relax your mind is important. There is a fine line between cramming and giving your children something constructive to do that isn't watching television all day."
So what's the most sensible approach? For Khan, the answer is found in her child, and not in studies or books. "You have to see what your child actually enjoys. If they aren't happy with extra activities, you shouldn't force them. When Amara started karate lessons in Dubai, she decided after three lessons that she didn't like it. Even though I'd paid for the classes, I didn't force her. I thought, well, you've tried it, you didn't like it, fair enough."
Belsky says moderation is the key. "As long as one can judge when the child doesn't want to do something, that is good. If you have Suzuki violin lessons, tutoring, and an arranged play date it's the overkills that should be a source of concern, not the activities themselves."