How much structure do kids really need?

There are two very different birthday party trends among Big Girl’s (8 years old) friends.  Several kids have had parties that are super-hyper structured, like the two that were held at art studios where each of the girls painted the exact same painting under the guidance of an “artist.”  Those glorified paint-by-number events make my skin crawl.  I found myself wanting to scream, “It’s supposed to be the process!  Not the product, people! Please, let them be creative!”

Then there’s the other extreme: sleepovers or late nights with no structured activity at all. Just a wild, jumping on the furniture, swinging from the chandelier, dumping out every toy in the house and not putting it away free-for-all.  Those also make me want to scream. A little wildness is good, trashing the house is not.  (It’s wasteful and disrespectful, darn it!)

These birthday parties become one of the biggest parenting debates writ small:  How much structure is good for kids?  At what point does structure become too rigid and prevent kids from developing their own skills to plan, imagine and explore?

This is definitely something we struggle with in our parenting because neither of the two extremes seems ideal, and neither works for my kids.   Both of my girls hang back when kids are just running wild.  They want some structure so they know what the expectations are and so they know how to behave.  But, when it’s hyper-structured I see that my kids aren’t really enjoying the activity.  They are too concerned about doing it wrong!

I found myself facing this dilemma when planning Big Girl’s birthday party.  Despite the fact that they were flexible, at heart the crafts we planned were not open-ended—hair ties and headbands & charm bracelets—both either work or they don’t.  They were fundamentally about the product; making something cute.  And, they were a big hit. The kids loved to learn to make them for themselves.

But, I was uncomfortable with doing only structured crafts so we also added a third activity: clay play (model magic, really).  It was definitely the favorite activity.  The kids mixed colors, made shapes  and mushed it around.  For some it was just sensory fun and never turned into anything.  For others, they made elaborate pieces that they brought home to dry.  For every single one of them, it was a few moments when they stopped worrying about doing it right and instead focused on just doing it.

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It was a really good reminder to find that balance of both structure and open-ended.  Even for big kids who seem like they might be too old for “clay play”!

One of the joys about my new-found unemployment is that I am looking forward to a summer with my girls where the three of us will play and explore together every single day.  We will go on hikes, to museums and parks.  We will garden and cook.  We will do art every single day.  And, I will strive to provide just enough structure to keep us engaged and feeling creative.

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