Routine Versus no Routine: What’s Better for Your Children?

Is it more important for children to have unstructured free time or a scheduled routine? Parents and experts share their opinions.

I’m a free spirit, and if I had to do the same thing every day, I might go mad. It seems like my 4-year-old, who has inherited my curls and facial expressions, has the same take on his world. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in routine. He wakes up to a different tune every day, wanting to go on different adventures and even fights me about going to preschool.

He also enjoys playing freely, without being told what to do. I took him to a karate class recently, and he had more fun running around the studio before the class started. Once the instructors started to give him orders on how to kick his feet and punch his hands, he fell onto his knees and started pouting.

The majority of experts and moms say that kids need a routine to feel safe in their world. Maybe they are right, but I sometimes feel like we create so much structure for our little ones that they aren’t allowed to be free and self-directed — although, for some parents, a self-directed child is a scary thought.

Dr. Peter Gray writes about the decline in play and rise in mental disorders in a Psychology Today piece. He says, “Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.”

I’ve also come across a few moms in my area recently who have admitted that their kids suffer from anxiety and are on medication. I can’t help but think there’s some link between the rigorous schedules our kids experience every day and their unhappiness.

According to Gray, “We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression and other disorders.”

In my opinion, kids not only feel better when they have less routine and more play, but they seem to learn better, too. According to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of “Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children” with Roberta Golinkoff, kids do learn better through play. She says, “When we’re sitting there like a couch potato, we aren’t learning as much as when we’re doing.”

When chatting about this topic with some other moms, several of them disagreed.

Mom Lyndsey says,”We went from a play-based preschool to a structured ETK [expanded transitional kindergarten] program, and my son is just loving every minute of his new structured life. But, seriously, he’s like coming alive with it! He was really craving more structure but also more academic instruction. I wasn’t expecting that!”

Mom Meg says, “It totally depends on the kid. Some thrive on routine. This is not a blanket statement that can be made for all kids.”

Mom Sharon adds, “I think there’s a big difference between a structured schedule that builds in time and space for free play versus all directed, regimented time. When my kids were small, there was lots of time for self-directed play but also a predictable schedule of meals, bedtime, free playtime, etc. Being able to predict and know what’s coming next helps kids feel safe.”

Yes, we have a few routines too like at bedtime, but I usually don’t get very far when it comes to brushing teeth! Still, my gut instinct tells me that more play is necessary versus structure and routine for kids these days. If you agree, licensed psychologist Dr. Emily W. King suggests you do the following to create more free play for your little ones:

  • Schedule the free play: Have a scheduled family weekend day (or afternoon) of free play where all family members participate and no structured outings are scheduled.
  • Spend time in nature: Hiking and exploring allow kids to move at their own speed and climb and jump, which is imperative to their gross motor and sensory development.
  • Allow your child to choose in play: Encourage your child to express themselves in wardrobe and art as well as their play ideas.
  • Leave the structure for teaching routines of sleeping, eating, toilet usage and self-care.

Routine or no routine (or a little bit of both), it’s always good to check in with our parenting selves. For example, after exploring this topic, I think I might need a better bedtime routine. Still, with a little more freedom and playtime for our kids during the school day, we all may just find ourselves on the right track.