Are you the kind of family who eats dinner in your car?
The kind with two or three kids with two or three after-school activities each, requiring you to manage a drop-off and pick-up schedule worthy of a combination taxicab driver/grand chessmaster?
Do you spend your weekends taking your kids to music lessons or sports matches, none of them conveniently located near of your home, each of them requiring hours of driving and gallons of gas?
It’s time to stop. Not only is this practice extraordinarily environmentally destructive, it also takes both your and your kids’ leisure time and shoves it inside of a car, which it then sticks in traffic.
We need to take that time back. There are multiple scientific studies that show children need unstructured imaginative play time – the kind that they can only generate themselves, not the kind offered through team sports or group classes – in order to fully develop their frontal-lobe critical-thinking skills. “Play deficit” is a real thing, and many kids act out because of a lack of unstructured play time.
It’s also been proven that families who eat home-cooked meals together are healthier and more functional than families who eat fruit pouches or fast food as they drive between activities. I’m sure you’d prefer to eat a real meal than eat string cheese and tube yogurt; don’t you think your kids would too?
The benefits are clearly apparent. However, it’s also important to expose your kids to activities they can’t get at school or at home: things like piano lessons and ballet class and soccer teams. These activities provide your kids with exercise and new perspectives, and teach important skills like discipline and how to play on a team.
How do we provide our kids with activities without becoming the type of kid-chauffeur who never gets to spend an evening in her own home? Here are a few solutions:
Organize non-organized sports
The worst thing that you can do to your family is sign your children up for a traveling sports team. These teams ensure your family will spend every weekend literally traveling the state as your kid plays hours and hours of matches.
Instead, coordinate with other families in the area and organize “non-organized” sports. It’s important that every kid grow up understanding the basic fundamentals of soccer, baseball and basketball. However, they can learn them in the park just as well as they can anywhere else. Take turns teaching the kids and monitoring the activity – or, if the kids are old enough, let them organize the games themselves. Now you have your weekends back.
Teach your kids how to navigate their neighborhood
You’ve heard about the free-range kids movement right? It’s the one where parents teach their children to safely and effectively navigate their neighborhoods and towns so kids can enjoy visiting friends and participating in after-school activities without the parents having to drive them there. It teaches children independence and self-reliance while also helping everyone in the family manage their time more efficiently.
Obviously, the amount of range you can allow your kids depends on the area in which you live. If you have no public transportation, or if your kids’ school and friends are all miles away from where you live, teaching your children how to be free-range will be more difficult.
However, if you live two blocks away from a park, or down the street from a library, there is no reason why you need to chaperone a child older than 9 or 10. Teach children how to be safe, and then teach them how to navigate their environment.
This is the hardest one, but you’ll know when it’s the right step. I remember when my mother told me we weren’t doing ballet lessons anymore; driving 45 minutes each way twice a week just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, we were doing activities closer to home: music lessons in our living room, math club after class, weekly swim team at the pool a few blocks away. My mom knew what our family’s values were, and she worked to make sure we ate dinner at home nearly every night and had plenty of time for both activities and relaxation.
How do you manage your kids’ activities? Do you feel like you’re spending too much time as your kids’ chauffeur? What do you want to change about your after-school schedule?