That was Then...
When I was growing up (half a century ago), life was different. Telephones had rotary dials and did not double as game consoles. Kids sat next to the TV because we didn't have remote controls to change to the other three channels and rabbit ears needed constant adjustments. Al Gore had yet to invent the Internet or even serve as the inspiration for Love Story. Kids started playing Little League baseball around age 8 and no one even owned a soccer ball. We dined out maybe once a week and that usually meant a square piece of fried fish and watery mac and cheese at the cafeteria.
The pre-Global Warming summer heat in Houston didn't deter our outdoor activities (and I don't recall applying any SPF 50). We rode bikes, flew kites and played ball in the front yard (at least until a neighbor sent a line drive through our living room window). We made up games with friends and learned to play them alone as well. When we needed a break from the heat, we lounged inside on the couch watching Leave it to Beaver reruns, where we learned of even simpler times and debated Ginger vs. Mary Ann with our girl-crazed friends. We used our imaginations, created things with Legos and built model planes (at least the more competent among us did). High tech meant Lite Brite, Etch-A-Sketch and Rock'Em, Sock'Em Robots, and we marveled at the graphics genius behind Pong.
We bowled for 50 cents a game, had a choice of two movies at the neighborhood cinema and caught the occasional day game at the Eighth Wonder of the World (before the Astrodome became an embarrassing eyesore). Chuck-E-Cheese had yet to be born. Vacations meant a road trip in the station wagon to Dallas, where my dad spent his days wandering the furniture market, but came home each night to swim in the hotel pool and play catch outside our room.
This is Now...
My daughters have never seen a telephone that didn't fit in a pocket. Thanks to multiple Nickelodeon channels (and DVRs), they never have to wait for a certain hour to watch Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob (sadly, this includes during rides in the minivan). Their questions are answered instantly through the click of a mouse and they will never do research by thumbing through pages in the World Book Encyclopedia. McDonald's French fries have become a primary food group and we take credit for keeping several neighborhood restaurants in business.
My 6-year-old daughter has already played on three soccer teams, two baseball teams and a basketball team, and spent a miserable few months in ballet class. She stays for after-school activities most days and is learning the art of Tae Kwon Do (and can count to 10 in Korean... though I have no idea if she is correct). During the past summer, she attended two different day camps where she "mastered" dodge ball, kickball, tennis and swimming (or, at least, the most effective "cannonball" technique). Her (almost) 2-year old sister recently completed her first gymnastics class, has been enrolled in music for most of her life, participates in weekly story time at the library and (reluctantly) attends preschool three days a week. When she does not have an organized activity planned, she has play dates with other 1-2-year-olds where they learn the harsh realities of sharing and emulate each other's picky eating habits. Vacations have taken them to the mountains of Utah, where the oldest already has surpassed my skiing ability.
By and large, the kids are busy from morning until night and their "routines" seem far more hectic than ours. We get emails about new activities and determine whether ours should participate or even have the time. Their schedules are excessive; every hour of the day is pre-planned; they don't have much opportunity for make-believe and simply to use their imaginations. But if they miss the latest organized function, they may fall behind their peers.
Sometimes a Kid Just Needs to be a Kid
We believe a little R&R with absolutely nothing to do is a necessity of life (whether you're 50 or 2). My kids relish the odd break, the less-active weekends when they can sleep late (these days, 8:00 a.m. is late) and lounge around in their PJs for much of the morning. Legos are known more for their themed characters than for their building potential, but they have been replaced by colored magnets of various shapes and sizes and my kids transform them into magnificent castles that serve as homes for their toy dinosaurs and stuffed animals. My little one can engage in a tea party by herself, though we must make sure she doesn't swallow the plastic bell peppers or broccoli (her imaginary taste buds are far more developed than her actual ones). Her sister can spend a good hour in the bath, talking to herself about nothing, making up games with her squishy toys and superhero figures and singing an occasional song she learned at school. Together the two love playing games of chase (until a skinned knee brings out the tears) and no one is ever too old to blow bubbles.
For the most part, however, downtime means Temple Run, Plants vs. Zombies and Cupcake Maker on the iPad. I suspect my kids far exceed the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommended time allotment for television, though I find today's programming more educational than Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry and even SpongeBob possesses admirable qualities (loyal friend with a solid work ethic). While computer games and television should never assume the roles of babysitters, mindless activities in moderation are not such a bad thing (though not everyone would approve of my definition of "moderation").
It was a simpler time when I was growing up, though not necessarily a better time. Technology has brought educational tools (and, of course, games) that none of us could have imagined 50 years ago. Our children have more opportunities to participate in activities that develop physical and mental skills and help enhance their socialization. Too often, however, we believe that more is better and a day spent with too much downtime (or any) is wasteful and limits their potential for learning and development. Despite the vast innovation and their hectic calendars, our kids still need time to be kids, to play their games, to watch their shows and turn on their imaginations with periods of make-believe. Now, if only some genius could develop an app for Pong, I may just be able to beat my 2-year old at something.