It may look like 4-year-old Dori Filppu is just playing house with other children at a preschool class. But she is also learning to cooperate with friends, a skill that will serve her well later on, her mother, Lucy Filppu, said.
"She's learning for later grades. ... [She will show less competition and more cooperation later in high school," she said.
PreSchool Family, the program Dori attends, promotes play as a crucial part of a healthy childhood.
"Children learn through play. ... For them to be successful in school later on they have to have real experiences and we believe you can do that through play," said Sharon Keplinger, director of the program, which is offered through Palo Alto's school district.
Pediatricians agree that freetime plays a vital role in child development.
Play allows kids to learn about their own personalities, make decisions and become more creative, according to a report released this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Yet the question of how to best prepare children for success is leading some parents to deprive children of valuable playtime, said the authors, a group of doctors led by Philadelphia-based Kenneth R. Ginsburg.
Feeling more pressure than ever to prepare kids for high-achievement lives, parents sign kids up for supervised, structured activities they perceive as skill-enhancing and necessary, they said.
By scheduling children and shuttling them to and fro, parents neglect valuable playtime and downtime, noted the report, which was entitled, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds."
The report concluded by calling on pediatricians to promote play to parents.
The advice may be well-heeded in Palo Alto, where the nationwide trend of over-scheduling children is deeply embedded, local experts and parents said.
"I see kids racing into a gymnastics class taking off their shin guards from soccer," said Nancy Brown, a researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
"[Palo Altans want well-rounded, high-achieving children ... starting in preschool," she said.
Packed schedules are a fact of life here, agreed Enoch Choi, a Palo Alto dad raising two children.
"It's pretty different from where I grew up in the Midwest [where there's much less expectation of having so many activities at a young age," said Choi, a doctor who also writes for parenting Web site Silicon Valley Moms Blog.
"Parents really have ... a lot of hopes and dreams. ... And sometimes that leads to going from gym to ballet to judo to karate," he said.
Local entrepreneur Mike Lanza was disturbed by the strangely quiet lull that hung over his Palo Alto neighborhood's backyards.
"I was kind of horrified by the life I saw kids having here. It was so structured and devoid of any play and spontaneous fun," he said.
So last month he launched a pro-play Web site, Playborhood.com, as a place for parents to swap valuable play information and foster informal fun.
The site features blogs, article links and lists of books about parenting, child development and play.
Most recently, Lanza posted a survey about playtime whose results confirmed his suspicions that kids aren't playing like they used to.
Of the 64 parents with local ZIP codes who completed the survey, about a third reported their children do not play with others from the neighborhood.
And 80 percent of parents allow their children no unsupervised playtime at all.
Lanza, who has two young sons, is contemplating developing an index on Playborhood of how kid-friendly different neighborhoods are, a topic about which there is a dearth of data, he said.
He and his wife have been searching for a kid-friendly house and neighborhood for more than a year, he said. Out of that experience, he realized Realtors don't typically collect information about how particular neighborhoods suit kids, aside from data about schools.
For Maria Roschelle, a Palo Alto mom of two sons, over-scheduling her children is a chicken-and-egg problem -- she wouldn't need to sign them up for after-school activities if other kids hung around the neighborhood.
But those children are busy with their own activities.
"It's hard to go out on the street and play. Other kids are so scheduled there's no neighborhood play," she said.
So her 8-year-old son Jake goes to soccer one day a week and flag football another, plus taking cello and piano lessons.
Fears of child abduction make some parents truly uncomfortable with the idea of completely unsupervised play, Lanza said.
But the chances of kidnapping are slim, he said, noting it is statistically more likely a child be injured in a car accident on the way to or from an extracurricular activity than be kidnapped in their neighborhood.
Feedback about Playborhood from local users shows the ranks of pro-play parents are swelling -- they just don't know it, he said.
"They feel isolated. ... Social stigma makes them feel compelled to enroll their kids in extracurriculars and sports," he said.
Menlo Park mom Sarah Granger realized she was pro-play after receiving an e-mail Lanza sent to the Parents' Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, asking for interested parties to help craft Playborhood.
Granger has become an occasional contributor and said parents with whom she discusses play receive the message positively.
Often times, parents said, the drive to do more doesn't come from the parents but from the children.
Roschelle's son, Jake, begged to start learning cello, so she broke her own one-instrument-a-week limit and recently let him start lessons, she said.
Yet she plans to ask him to cut out one instrument to balance out scheduled and unscheduled days, she said.
And try cutting down 8-year-old Tyoma Albrecht's activities and you'll be met with hefty resistance, said his mother, Yana Tkachenko.
Her son asks to be signed up for activities and has trouble entertaining himself on his own in their Palo Alto home, she said.
"I get really bored when I don't have anything to do," Tyoma agreed.
So he has violin three times a week, soccer once and capoeira once, Tkachenko said.
Despite his enjoyment of activities, he sometimes complains he doesn't have time to do his homework, she said.
"But it's time management," she said, adding that keeping busy would teach her son to balance responsibilities.
Yet her kids don't always know what's best for them, she indicated.
Her son and daughter were too tired to get up for school last year when they participated in Palo Alto Children's Theater on top of other activities -- but they loved it anyway, she said.
"I couldn't wake them up for school in the morning. ... But despite the fact that it was so much, they were so happy," she said.
That happiness was not enough to convince her to sign them up again this year, she said.
Despite what kids may want -- or think they want -- parents need to set limits, medical researcher Brown said.
A balanced approach is favored by Choi, who limits his children to one or two lessons a week because "school provides enough structure," he said.
"We recently gave up piano lessons. We told my daughter, 'Do you like piano or do you like ballet more?'" he said.
Brown urges parents to give kids priorities, such as making sure they get at least nine hours of sleep a night, she said.
Fatigue is only one side-effect of over-scheduled kids -- packed schedules also eliminate valuable family time, she said.
"[Kids get tired and cranky and they melt. ... By keeping them so busy, you've really reduced the quality of family time," Brown said.
Roschelle, whose son will have to choose between cello and piano, agreed.
"When my kids are over-scheduled they're tired, grouchy and anxious. And I'm tired and grouchy. The interactions aren't as fun," she said.
Parents and children form deeper bonds through unstructured time together, the American Academy of Pediatrics' report said.
"Some of the best interactions occur during downtime -- just talking, preparing meals together, and working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in child-centered play," the doctors said.
Downtime helps kids develop a sense of parental love that deepens into a feeling of security and self-confidence -- confidence that will help them meet future challenges, they said.
It's a philosophy Roschelle believes in. Last summer she let her kids skip summer camp. Instead, they made their own "sewing camp" at home, which allowed them to have fun and be creative, she said.
The informal, at-home sewing camp was a wonderful experience for the family, Roschelle said.
"It was really enjoyable to be at home with them. I loved slowing down and just having more time with them and having fun."
Yet the idyllic image of parents and children harmoniously sharing the house may waver when held up to the reality of full-time working parents for whom activities double as childcare.
That's one reason why it's important to team up with other parents, play promoter Lanza said.
Parents can form groups where members take turns corralling kids for unstructured playtime, he said.
Aside from the Internet, a more straightforward way to find like-minded parents is walking around the neighborhood and seeing where kids are playing together in backyards or parks, Lanza said.
For now, he is encouraging moms and dads to join his online network of play enthusiasts.
Lanza and other parents aren't completely knocking organized activity, though.
Roschelle seeks out sports for her kids since public schools don't provide much exercise, she said.
"[My kids only have a half hour of physical education a week in school. ... They need to do some physical exercise," she said.
The more important task, said Menlo Park-based educational consultant Jim Lobdell, is find balance between structured and unstructured activities.
A former water polo player and high-school swim coach, Lobdell is no stranger to teams, games and structure.
But he does believe that too many organized sports cheat kids of developmental opportunities.
"They lose out on the byproducts of free unstructured play, which include leadership skills like, 'What are we going to play and what are the teams going to be,' [and like resolving conflict over ... whether there's been a foul," he said.
He suggested parents limit children to one organized sport and otherwise encourage kids to play together informally in the park.
Still, sometimes it
According to the medical center's Brown, the first step to combating societal pressure to groom high-achieving kids is to recognize it.
"Somehow the bar has just gotten out of our grasp, and it's too high," she said.
Parents can't plug their ears, disconnect the television and ignore their fellow parents and friends. But they can avoid comparing themselves to other parents who keep their kids humming with activity, she said.
"It's really easy for us to compare ourselves to others. ... Somehow it's really easy for those messages to get in," she said.
One solution to over-scheduling is recommended by Jeanne Lepper, director of Stanford University's prestigious Bing Nursery School.
Parents should pencil in time for their kids to do absolutely nothing, she said.
Bing runs play-based classrooms where games are center stage and children are rarely told what to do. Ironically, spots at Bing are highly coveted by local parents.
But downtime outside of school may be just as valuable as playtime within, Lepper said.
"We should all try to plan some time when children can just kind of cogitate, or think about things. Children do need some time to process all these experiences they're having," she said.
Parents could also remind themselves doctors and researchers have found that participating in five or six activities at a time won't necessarily create successful adults in the future.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003 reported a high incidence of depression and helplessness across American campuses. It was called "Mounting Student Depression Taxing Campus Mental Health Services."
This depression comes from perfectionist tendencies to achieve, according to studies cited in the pediatricians' report released this year.
And those who did extremely well in school don't do well in the workplace if they never learned to take creative risks, Stanford researcher Denise Pope said.
Pope leads the "Stressed Out Students" initiative in which both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools participate. She spends a lot of time trying to convince students who have likely been over-scheduled since grade-school to simplify their lifestyles.
Silicon Valley's business leaders have told her that recent hires with sparkling resumes don't always do well, she said.
The young employees spent their formative years in structured, regulated achievement efforts and they're afraid to think outside the box, she said.
Lanza is hopeful it's not too late for the kids of Palo Alto to get out and play some stickball. Or invent a stickball field out of a vacant lot, as he did as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, Penn.
"One thing I admire about Palo Alto is people really have their brains turned on. They're open to new things and they will embrace an idea if it's a good idea," he said.