They made a Book Store. That was the answer to my question, “What are your kids up do these days?” ‘Wait…what?” I asked. My client’s 12 and 9 year old kids were out of school with no plans for the week. Left to their own devices—no classes, no team practices, no playdates— they built a book store. First, they wrote the books… a lot of them, pages stapled together. Then they put the store together. Shelves were made out of their building blocks, complete with fiction and non fiction sections. An old toy cash register stored the cash and accepted credit cards at check out.
What a creative use of time—three whole days’ worth! It reminded me of the summer my own children invented “dirt skiing” on the hill in our backyard. With time on their hands, kids come up with amazing things to do. And there is tremendous learning that happens along the way.
Today’s parents have the idea that kids need to be kept busy, that their time out of school, on weekends, during vacation periods needs to be filled. What ever happened to free time, play time, unstructured time? And why isn’t this kind of unplanned time a regular part of the child’s week?
I am sure you have heard your parents and grandparents reminisce about their having left their house in the morning and roaming the neighborhood with their neighbor friends until sun down, playing ball in empty lots, riding bikes in the streets…all without parents watching. Older kids were in charge. Life was full and good. Those days are gone. There are no empty lots anywhere, and fear has changed the rules. Our kids don’t roam anywhere unsupervised. Free time? What’s that? And how do you use it?
Today the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction. Unstructured time is gone. Kids don’t even have time in their fully packed schedules for hanging out with neighbors. We are left with kids who not only don’t know how to entertain themselves but who are missing out on the benefits of boredom. They are dependent upon adults to plan their time. Despite the fact that they have playrooms that compete with Toys R Us, they rely on the parent to provide the plan and the entertainment. “What are we doing today?” “Come play with me.” and “I’m bored.”
Parents feel pressured to fix this situation, this boredom. They see boredom as an absence of something…something that they should be providing. But children whose parents swoop in and fix it are given the message that you don’t have faith in their being able to think of something to do and that it is a parent’s job to provide the entertainment.
Boredom is not a problem. It is an opportunity. There is tremendous importance in being bored, in not knowing what to do, in figuring out how to use your time. Boredom challenges the child to tap into his own interests. Unstructured time allows the child to sit with himself; it allows the world to quiet down. When a child is surrounded by nothing, his inner and outer worlds become alive. Nothingness is not nothing at all. It is a catalyst to creativity. When parents are the ones to fill his time (to keep him busy), he won’t learn to recognize or respond to his own interests and stirrings…the ones would lead to building a fort, putting on a show, creating an obstacle course in the garden or building a book store! Boredom ignites the fires of creativity, of motivation, of ambition.
Part of growing up, of becoming an independent and self-reliant adult, includes being able to manage your time. Children need experience figuring out how to use periods of unstructured time doing something other than watching screens. Mind numbing screens are everywhere. They actually drown out the inner voices that we are trying to hear; they blur the outer world that fuels imaginations. The good news is that having firm, clear boundaries and limits for screen usage is the antidote to children’s defaulting to screens.
Summer is here. The sun is setting later. The time is ripe for growing some boredom. Erase your weekend plans and get started!