British Columbia

Pandemic a great opportunity to loosen structured parenting, experts say

The limitations created by the COVID-19 pandemic could prove a great opportunity for parents to take a less structured approach to their kids' summer holiday activities, some parenting experts say.

'They don't need so much structure and activities, definitely not the level we were seeing before'

Child psychiatrist and author Dr. Shimi Kang says unstructured time and play is essential for kids. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The limitations created by the COVID-19 pandemic could prove a great opportunity for parents to take a less structured approach to their kids' summer holiday activities, some parenting experts say. 

Child psychiatrist and author Dr. Shimi Kang says before the pandemic, there was too much structure in many children's lives and it was having a detrimental effect.

"Prior to COVID, we had an epidemic of childhood stress. [We had] kids who were overscheduled, who were sleep deprived. They were too busy," Kang said. 

"They don't need so much structure and activities, definitely not the level we were seeing before the pandemic."

Kang says while the pendulum may have swung the other way during quarantine — with very little to do or an over-reliance on screen time — it's up to parents to guide children to what Kang calls more "innate activities."

"All children — all humans — will thrive through play ... social connection, and downtime, meaning unplugging, resting your mind, being in nature," she said. 

This can be challenging when kids are used to WiFi, iPads or other electronic distractions, which are designed to "hook" young people in, Kang acknowledged.

"A stick outside and a blade of grass isn't going to be able to compete initially because our kids are de-conditioned from it," Kang said. 

But by removing schedules and structure, "that human brain will kick in," she said, 

Christine Pilkington, the publisher of VancouverMom.ca, says biking is a good outdoor option for younger kids during the pandemic because they are always in motion and you can’t actually get that close when you’re on a bike. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'These are the essential activities of parenting'

Christine Pilkington, the publisher of VancouverMom.ca, said this loosening is taking place organically in her neighbourhood where kids as young as five have been out riding their bikes with others around the block. 

"I don't know if a year ago we would have said, 'Ok, five-year-old, go on your bike and start biking around with the eight-year-olds in the neighbourhood,'" Pilkington said. 

"[But] given the options available [during the pandemic], I think people are a lot more open to all of this."

Pilkington says it's still important that kids understand the physical distancing requirements because of COVID-19, and also basic safety considerations like where they can go for help in their neighbourhood if they need to.

"The best thing to be is to be out, let the kids wander down into the street, then start loosening up the perimeter a little bit more as they show a little more responsibility and confidence," Pilkington said.

"But also be clear about what the boundaries are and make sure they are staying within them before you give them more responsibility."

Kang says this kind of freedom allows kids to be creative and develop essential problem solving skills.

"Getting kids to be free to not have instruction, to try first before you tell them how to do something, to give them hints and not a solution, to encourage play and learning through trial and error," she said.

"These are the essential activities of parenting that we've forgotten over the years."

With files from BC Today

now