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Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

It's back-to-school time, and back to the daily grind for Canada's kids: morning hockey practice, lunchtime piano lesson, after-school tap dance and after-dinner Spanish class. But when is a kid supposed to do her homework and take out the garbage, let alone relax and have old-fashioned, unstructured fun?

The average Canadian child is registered for almost five hours a week of extracurricular programs, which teach social skills and teamwork, introduce new friendships, offer a diverse sampling of pursuits from which to choose eventual favourites, and – for the Tiger Mom – test for any genius genes that may be lurking undetected. After all, an eight-year-old doesn't perfect his tennis serve by climbing trees all day. Or does she?

Recent Canadian research shows that more unstructured play, as opposed to specializing and over-scheduling too early, leads to better talent development in the long run. Through the umbrella group Canadian Sport for Life, sporting organizations of all stripes have created a Long-Term Athlete Development Model that emphasizes varied play experiences for girls under age 11 and boys under 12.

Even aspiring young scientists should note that Albert Einstein once said, "Play is the highest form of research." So how do we help expand our kids' horizons without overburdening their schedules?

This week's question: How do we balance engaging our children in organized activities with enough time for unstructured play?


John Byl, president of the Canadian Intramural Recreation Association – Ontario

"Physical education classes and athletic leagues are key places to develop broad physical literacy, provided the child's literacy is a much greater goal than the score board. But there is equal value in playing games made up with friends, testing out the limitations of bicycles and gravity, skinning knees and learning from failures. The freedom to explore through play is a gift to pass to our children."

Nick Holt, professor of physical education and recreation, University of Alberta

"Young kids should be playing more. Doing organized activities everyday is draining on children, parents, and the entire family. When it comes to picking organized activities, I'd say no more than two nights per week at an absolute maximum, while making sure kids have free time to play on the other days. This, of course, can change with age."

Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

"When your child complains, 'I'm bored,' say, 'Gee, that's great! Now your imagination has a chance to come alive and help you out!' Kids need free time, time to get bored, and then create some interesting, new adventure."

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