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5 Ways Even Working Parents Can Factor in More Free Play

In an overscheduled world, I am an under-scheduler. The summer planning seems to begin sometime around February these days, which means that I've been answering the following question for a solid four months now: But what will they DO during the day?

Although I do my best to avoid overscheduling throughout the year, we do have things like dance, soccer and football during the school year. One of my kids wants to try karate next year, another wants to add art classes—it already feels too busy.

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During the summer months, we play. This summer, they both want to try tennis lessons and take an art class. That's it. The rest of the time will be spent playing, which brings us back to that question.

Yesterday, they climbed rocks along the shore for an hour, played some version of badminton on the front lawn, shot hoops in the driveway and created a complicated play scenario involving several stuffed animals and a few items found around the house. I didn't catch the storyline, but I heard the laughter.

I have the luxury of working from home, and I have learned to work very efficiently, so I can allow for tons of playtime around here. That's what works for my family. But all families are different, and the days of sending the kids out to play for eight hours at a time aren't realistic for many.

That doesn't, however, mean that kids shouldn't have time to play.

Play is often overlooked these days. With endless opportunities for enrichment programs, learning camps and sports camps, kids don't necessarily have time to sit down and play. That's a shame, really, because play helps kids reset their souls. Play increases friendships. Play teaches. Play improves emotional health. Play soothes. Play is essential to the well-being of kids of all ages. We have to make room for play.

Kids don't have to play all day every day to reap the benefits of unstructured play; they just need time to play on their own terms.

How do you factor in sufficient playtime when you have work, childcare and other hurdles to consider? Try this:

1. Change the way you think about play

With the rise of the scheduled playdate, play appears more complicated than it needs to be. The very essence of free play is that the play in question centers around what pleases the player.

Play comes in many forms, and it doesn't need to include specific toys or props. For some kids, toys are essential for play, while others only need the space to tap into their imaginations.

Play can be fetch with a dog, drawing a picture, looking for bugs in the yard, building a fairy village out of stones and sticks, daydreaming, jumping rope and the list goes on. Don't overthink it; just let it happen.

2. Keep weekends free

Summer is party season for sure, but many kids lack adequate downtime to get down to the business of play.

Resist the urge to attend every social gathering that comes your way and make room for slow, family-filled weekends instead. Sometimes the best plans emerge when you have no plans at all.

3. Dial back the daily stress

Responsibilities are good. Kids like to feel responsible and get a boost in self-esteem when they are given age-appropriate tasks to accomplish. But sometimes well-meaning parents pile on the chores to fill the space during vacations, and this can feel like a never-ending to-do list.

The truth is, the reasonable expectations throughout the year help kids thrive, but too much pressure at home can cause stress. Instead of piling on extra chores and buying a bunch of workbooks to avoid the dreaded summer slide, help your kids find meaningful ways to learn at home. Play provides plenty of opportunities for learning, particularly when kids can spend time outside engaged in nature.

4. Choose playful activities

Some kids crave structure. Some work schedules don't allow for endless downtime at home. That's OK. You can still provide a playful summer for your kids.

Instead of choosing the best enrichment camps and summer learning camps to fill the time, choose playful camps that rely on nature and group play. That basketball camp probably won't be your child's ticket to the NBA, but a summer of playful fun with a group of friends will make for a lifetime of happy memories.

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5. Trade childcare

I always laugh when people reference "vacation." We all know there are no vacations in parenting. There are always errands to run, piles of laundry to conquer, meals to make, bills to pay and various other grown-up things that get in the way of vacation.

Trading childcare helps. When moms get together and take turns caring for the kids, the kids get to play and the moms get to run the errands solo. There's your vacation!

Get together with other parents and create a rotating schedule to keep the kids playing while the parents do the rest.

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Image via Twenty20/przemekklos

Image via Katie Hurley

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