“What are we going to do today?” pleads the child as he climbs into the car after a full day of school. What is that about? Is it that the child has come to expect that every day brings a new form of parent-organized, post school entertainment – music lessons, sports lessons, art classes, dance classes, “enrichment” classes, and playdates? And I wonder if maybe, in our mission to make sure our children don’t miss one minute of mind and body improvement, we are forgetting the importance of doing nothing.
“Doing nothing” is not that at all. Experts tell us that unstructured time is vital for children’s development cognitively, emotionally, physically, and even socially. Peter Sheras, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, says “Children need [unstructured time] to recuperate from the more structured part of their day and to just veg out.” The chance to recharge their batteries that unstructured time allows is a crucial part of child development. “When children amuse themselves, they’re actually exercising a different part of their brain than when they’re engaged in an organized activity, “ says Dan Rees, PhD at Western Maryland College. “They grow emotionally and intellectually; kids who have ample opportunity to make up their own rules and fantasies are cognitively way ahead of those whose time is always structured.”
Children need time to process and practice what they learn during the structured times, formal activities, even the socializing of their day. They need time to use creatively the new skills they learn from teachers, coaches, and friends. They need space and time to try out that which they simply observe others doing. It’s kind of like microwave cooking. After something cooks in the microwave, it has a “standing time.” The learning goes on and on, long after the direct instruction time. When we have our children’s days completely programmed, either with extracurricular classes or with parent-generated activities, when is the standing time?
Children’s days need “unplanning.” Our children have become so reliant on others for stimulation, they don’t know how to entertain themselves. Doing nothing encourages children to be resourceful. Some parents fear that children, left to their own devices, will become bored. Some parents feel that any activity that doesn’t seem to lead in some measurable way to advancement or direct results is not a good use of time. So, in their zeal to give their child every opportunity to learn, they are robbing them of something much more valuable, the growth that comes from doing nothing.
Maybe it’s time to get busy doing nothing.