Activity pyramid at home

April 2, 2010 7:59:59 AM PDT
How much time should your child be allowed to watch TV or sit in front of the computer each day?

Should they spend time reading daily? When do you fit in time for friends, family, hobbies and down time?

These are tough questions that most parents just decide on the go as they rush from one activity to another. Of course, there's nothing worse than hearing your child or children repeat a chorus of "Mom, I'm bored," or "we just did that last week, can't we try something new?"

As a new mom, I faced the same issues 9 years ago. So, when Jake was just a baby, I decided to divvy up his day, mostly to keep myself interested in his activities but also to make sure his days were well-rounded and interesting. I instinctively realized he needed to be outside every day exercising or playing. As a baby that meant I would take him on nature walks for at least a half hour each morning and to the playground for another half hour in the afternoon.

Jake still gets a minimum of at least one hour of time outside on a school day (even in the winter) and 4 times that amount on the weekends. Taking your child outside also forces you to stay active too, which I love. (Although I don't pretend I can keep up with my son in sports anymore. I think he surpassed me in every activity outdoors by age 7.)

As a newborn, I also began reading to him daily, exposing him to the arts every day (music, crafts, dancing and writing) and giving him some free time so he could make fun choices. I also decided I wanted to expose him to the educational and fun aspects of television and movies, even as a baby within limits. I don't like the idea of "parking" a child in front of the TV just to fill the time. So, I would limit him to 2 hours of "screen" time as a small child; I increased that a bit as he got older. Of course, Jake was riveted by Sesame Street, Disney movies and shows, Baby Einstein videos and just about anything on the screen.

Fast-forward to the elementary school years and we still used a similar approach with Jake's free time. Certainly it's easier to structure your child's day once he or she starts classes. Jake was already guaranteed to get exercise, reading, the arts and free time from age 3 and up with half days, then full days of school. Still, a creative, smart child will need some guidance to best use the remaining 5 to 8 hours of awake time at home. And weekends can really get long if you don't have some structure or ideas in mind.

Once again, I reverted to the exercise/arts/screen time/friends/formula. Usually that meant letting Jake watch no more than 1 1/2 hours of cartoons on a Saturday morning, because I would explain to him that he could play computer games or watch a Disney movie later in the evening for another 1 to 2 hours. I asked him even at age 3 and 4 to start making choices about how to divide up his "screen" time per day. He was very cooperative about it and it even helped him learn to tell time (waiting for his "favorite show" to come on.)

Then we would cut off the TV and computer and get out the paints, chalk, markers and scissors. We made cards for family members' birthdays, constructed gifts for Christmas presents, decorated the cat's room so Zolo would have some art over his food and water bowls, etc. Jake still loves art because we made it a priority from age 2, and always with some classical music playing in the background. Now we listen to classical during art time, then hip-hop and Top 40 songs in the car.

Baking is another fun activity we do each weekend. We both love the way our kitchen smells when we cook up banana bread, pumpkin pies or cookies. And we love having homemade foods to contribute to charities, school bake sales and to give our friends. Jake has been cracking eggs, measuring and pouring ingredients and stirring up desserts since he was barely sitting up straight. Now he bakes all by himself (with supervision!)

Of course, when Jake's friends are over, the fun always includes some indoor time and outdoor time with sports, exercise and silly games a priority. We've staged more scavenger hunts, obstacle courses and games of hide-and-seek than I can count. None of which involves having the Wii on, the TV on or computer games going. I'm not opposed to those, but I like them to have a limit. And without some structure, my son could watch TV 24/7. So even with friends over, he knows we have a limit to "screen" time... and he's fine with that because it's always been that way.

Now at age 9, the real challenge is making sure you give them enough "down" time to relax. During the school week that is tough... between sports practices, games, play dates, music lessons, dance classes, dinner and homework. The rule of thumb at our house is school comes first. I've explained to Jake, my 9-year-old 4th grader, that school is like a "job" for him and I want him to give it his full attention and devotion. Because he sees that I enjoy my job, he doesn't assume that means it is drudgery. Instead, he approaches his schoolwork with excitement and sometimes finishes homework assignments early. Not every day, mind you, but most of the time. Of course, like any child he puts off the topics he's not too pumped up about. But they eventually all get done and we still generally have time for an hour of fun each night.

Weekends are trickier to manage because there are so many hours of free time. All the same rules apply at our house, just in an expanded form. I ran across a great article that put it all in perspective for me, and reinforced my instincts on a child's time management. The Child Activity Pyramid was based on information from the National Reading Panel, the U.S. Department of Education, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and The American Academy of Pediatrics. Their guidelines say your child's weekend and summer days should include:

  • 4 hours of physical activity
  • 3 hours of screen time (T.V., Wii, computer, video games)
  • 2 hours of family/friends time
  • 1.5 hours of literacy time (reading and writing)
  • 1 hour of creative play time
For the literacy segment, Jake reads to me or silently for 20-30 minutes mid-morning, then we sometimes write a journal, poems, a family newspaper, or silly articles about our family traditions/our friends/or our pet, later that night I read to Jake for another 20-30 minutes. You'll be surprised how "into" literacy your child will get when you make it fun. This one is easy for me since it's my career! Also the creative activity can include performing in skits, playing dress up, building a tent out of blankets, hanging artwork, anything to get the creative juices flowing.

Try the activity pyramid at your house!