As a child, I remember reading a story about a little boy who was given a magical toy which contained a string that he could pull out, bit by bit, to make time go by faster. He was warned, however, to exercise caution and wisdom in how much and how often he pulled at the string. Delighted at his new ability to skip past the boring, mundane, and unpleasant parts of life, the little boy gave in to temptation and began to pull at the string more and more often. Anything that he considered less than interesting — schoolwork, chores, errands — he could easily fly through to get to the “fun” parts of life.

Before he knew it, he was an old man and life had completely passed him by. Time had flown and he could not recall having experienced much at all. The lesson in this story has stuck with me to this day, and I think about how important it is to teach children, from a young age, to be present in the moment and to appreciate all the seemingly mundane, but precious moments which life has to offer.

Long before “mindfulness” was a trendy and popular term, I remember my sixth grade teacher encouraging us to stop and enjoy the little things in life, rather than hurrying through our day. For instance, he said that instead of rushing to school with quick steps and our heads bent down, we should stop to admire the flowers along the way.

My peers and I grew up in a much simpler time, without cellphones and countless other gadgets to distract us from the wonder and beauty around us. It was virtually unheard of at the time, for children to be enrolled in a thousand and one extracurricular activities and to require calendars to keep track of their hectic schedules. We had time to play, to dream, and to let our imaginations soar.

Today, as an educator, I can see that this natural creativity is stifled in children from much too young an age. From their earliest years, they are engaged in so many different organized activities that they have little, if any time, left for play and relaxation.

Much is to be said for extracurricular activities. In many ways, they prepare children for life by instilling in them important values such as cooperation, teamwork, perseverance, and determination. Even a good thing, however, if taken to excess, can be harmful. Children who are pushed too hard and stretched too thin, can grow up to become anxiety-ridden adults who are too hard on themselves and others, who lack creativity and don’t know how to take pleasure in anything, or who are simply bitter about the fact that all their childhood memories consist of tight schedules, responsibilities, and obligations, and that the most magical time of their lives was, in a sense, stolen by forcing them to grow up too fast.

Like the little boy in the story, they may suddenly find that they are old and tired, and that all the deadlines they have met, and the records they have set have not brought any true joy to their hearts, or any real meaning to their lives. To teach the young to strive for excellence is a wonderful thing but, rather than encourage constant competition, let us help to create lasting joyful memories and meaningful experiences that they will look back on in wonder and appreciation, for that is the real stuff of life. In short, as my sixth grade teacher, the wise Mr. Howard did, let us encourage them to stop, once in a while, and smell the flowers.

Originally published at