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Why do children need unstructured time? Making the case for a ‘do nothing’ summer vacation that still leaves kids with plenty.
“Look at the window, ma.” A sleepy voice croaked from under the blanket.
“What about it?” I tried to figure out what had held his attention the moment he opened his eyes.
“The dust motes seem to be dancing to the Sun’s music.”
We spent the next couple of minutes watching them perform. The elder one joined in and before we knew it, we gave names to the motes, created their worlds, and also helped them wage a war against the Vaccumosaur.
The final exams had ended, leaving us in the in-between world for fifteen days. The elder one is neither in grade seven nor in eighth, and the younger one never really cared for grades anyway. Life has slowed down. The last minute revisions, maths practice, and studying at unearthly hours have all faded into a fairly distant memory.
“So? What are you planning to do today?”
Both of them rattled off their elaborate plans to complete the tasks that they had put on a list they made a month before the exams – a list of absurdities like repairing strings with magic, farming worms, perfecting skateboard tricks and more – enough stuff to give any mother a full blown panic attack. At the end of the day, they failed at most of them, ended with a few bruises, and mud on clothes from all the digging they did to find worms but they slept, thinking of alternate strategies for the next day.
I smiled as I scrunched up another leaflet advertising a short fifteen-day course for kids to improve their sketching abilities before the new session started. The boys were at peace in the in-between world mostly doing nothing. They read when they wanted to, woke up late, went to sleep a bit past the curfew hour and they were happy.
The boys were at peace in the in-between world mostly doing nothing. They read when they wanted to, woke up late, went to sleep a bit past the curfew hour and they were happy.
It translates as freedom to them though the television hours are still restricted and the sport hour still mandatory. They were floating in the blissful nothingness of the ‘best days of their lives’ as they put it every night after the goodnight hug.
A lot of people scoff at this. Some give me the ‘What an irresponsible parent!’ look and some just sigh, ‘you have the luxury thanks to your hours of work. We do not.’ True. A lot of us are working full time, and keeping the kids occupied is more of a need for us rather than for them to ensure development.
Whatever the case, we need to figure out ways to give the children some time to do nothing. Unstructured time has benefits worth considering:
1. Doing nothing encourages resourcefulness in children. We have to remember that children never get bored. They might whine about it to get an easy way out and get hold of the television remote but if denied, they will find ways to entertain themselves. The younger one built some of the most complicated catapults using ice cream sticks, rubber bands and cello tape while he was getting ‘bored.’
2. Creativity finds its roots in autonomy. If we have the entire day planned for them right down to the last second, it leaves little scope for them to think freely, to discover what inspires them and to ultimately discover their passion.
3. Unstructured time gives them an opportunity to practice their social-emotional skills. When there are no rules, they devise their own guidelines, indulge in negotiations, and in the process learn to coexist with the peers or siblings – whoever their partner in crime maybe.
4. When faced with choices that are for them to create, children fine tune their decision-making skills, discover things that interest them and may even engage in activities that they might want to pursue later. The elder one has taken to creating comic books, and plans to learn sketching now. He had started doodling to simply kill time.
5. Ultimately, it is the best stress buster. When scholar badges get missed by 0.2 percent, even sports teacher gives graded evaluations, and there are reports of children not getting through in colleges despite having scored brilliantly well, stress is bound to seep in. Giving them freedom takes care of that to a certain extent. It gives them room to stretch, breathe and cope.
When there are no rules, they devise their own guidelines, indulge in negotiations, and in the process learn to coexist with the peers or siblings…
We need to unplan a little, let go some more, and set them free. When we structure their day, we have good intentions at heart – we want them to maximize their learning, hone a wider set of skills, and ultimately have a secure future. But somewhere, these good intentions backfire, and in our devotion to ensure a bright future we let the present fade which in turn does effect what we had set out to ensure in the first place – a secure, happy life.
Unplanning their day gives the children time to unwind, regroup, and re-energize. It gives them an opportunity to prepare for the academic challenges thrown at them after the break. So, even when we plan the long summer break, we need to ensure some hours of nothingness in the day.
It was late afternoon and I had just returned from college. “How was your day?” I asked as I stepped into their room. It was more of a war front. One corner had been turned into a tented battlement area with armies of action figures lined up, and the other had the two boys and their friend huddled up with a book each. The room seemed to be carpeted with Lego pieces, pencil colours, shredded paper, books and more.
“Mumma!” That was about the only word that I could make out, since after that both launched into their excited narration of their day, together. They were happy. They had managed to catch an earthworm but had decided to let it goafter a while, the younger one has figured out he wants to be a ‘proper’ origami artist, and the elder one a cartoonist – for now. Tomorrow, as another day gets struck off from their ‘nothing calendar,’ the story might change completely.
In this in-between world, they are flourishing, discovering themselves, and taking a fresh look at the world around. They are growing by leaps and bounds while doing nothing.
Pic credit: AnlexB (Used under a Creative Commons license)
Dr. Tanu Shree Singh is a parent to two preteen boys, a lecturer in Psychology,
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