What classes are your kids doing?” is a question I receive regularly from fellow moms. Our school WhatsApp group pings away day after day with information about the wide range of classes and workshops available to kids: robotics, music, phonics, handwriting, crafts, chess, and Rubix cube coaching to name a few. The parents who ask me what I’ve chosen for my kids do so because they find their children have “too much” free time after school, and classes seem like the ideal way to fill that time.
Last academic year, I felt this way myself, and made the switch from keeping a relaxed schedule for my kids to having something for them to attend six days a week. By the end of the year, I felt as harried as the executive assistant of a high-flying CEO, spending a great deal of mental energy managing their timetables, setting alarms on my phone to remind them to log into online sessions, fielding messages from teachers who needed to cancel and reschedule, and finding time slots for these make-up classes.
But this column is not about the parent’s burden (I have already written one called “Dear Mom, Do Less” that addresses this matter!). It is about what we are depriving children of by scheduling them down to the minute: free play, boredom, and the wonderful things that can develop out of both.
Think of the image of childhood painted by authors like Enid Blyton and movies like The Sandlot and Now and Then. Gangs of children racing around the neighborhood on bicycles, exploring the woods, engaging in both friendship and conflict with zero adult intervention. Now compare that to the children you know and love today. Some are lucky to live in joint families or apartment buildings where parents feel comfortable letting their kids go down and play together without supervision. But for the most part, even play dates are highly choreographed events, with the host parent keeping a close eye on them, ready to swoop in at any sign of disagreement or danger.
To put it simply, intensive parenting is making us sign our children up for more enrichment activities than ever. This on top of school and homework means this generation has the least amount of free time than any before them. A study found that children’s play time had decreased by 25% between 1980 and 1997, and the U.S. national parks and recreation association found that today, the average child spends less than 10 minutes outside doing something unstructured –”unstructured” being the key word here! Please do not be tempted to equate outdoor sports classes with outside play. The absence of adult oversight is essential to the concept of free play, and you will learn why as we get into the benefits.
Boredom leads to creativity
It is a perfectly logical response to think your child needs more organised activities if he is complaining of boredom: a 2019 study of more than 3,000 parents found that the most common response to a question about how to address a child’s boredom was to enroll them in an extracurricular activity (source: Emily Kelleher at fatherly.com). What is less obvious to most of us is that boredom actually leads to more creative ideas and problem solving; this has been confirmed by various studies that measured participants’ performance after engaging in an unstimulating task vs. an engaging one. When presented with the same problem to solve, those in the “boring” task group showed more creativity and productivity in their solutions.
I’m sure you can recall an instance in your childhood when being bored led to some of the most fun you ever had: creating a new game with your sibling, building a blanket fort, making prank calls. If we never give our kids the opportunity to get bored, they may never get to experience the joy of such spontaneous bursts of creativity.
Unsupervised play teaches kids lessons that classes cannot
This one will be difficult for most modern parents to accept, because we’ve all been bombarded with scary stories of what can happen to children when a responsible caregiver isn’t present. Still, Norwegian early childhood education professor Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter conducted research that showed that risky play can teach children how to manage better in dangerous situations. Playing at heights, at high speeds, with dangerous tools, with risky elements like fire and water, and getting lost are all situations which Sandseter believed taught young ones how to master these scenarios when they inevitably happen later in life. Getting lost can be terribly frightful, but once the child has been through it once, she will be less fearful of it in the future and have the confidence that she can face it. On the flip side, being so protected from any such risky situation can lead to increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society as this generation ages. This is already plainly seen in the high levels of anxiety and depression amongst today’s youth.
Giving them more independence can also help them develop an internal locus of control rather than external, meaning they feel that they are in control of their life instead of circumstances controlling them. A long running survey study found that in 2002, the average college student felt less control over their life than 80% of students in the1960s. As for children, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide increased by more than five fold in this same period. Many experts agree that intensive parenting is partially to blame: this is the most micromanaged children have ever been in history, and also the unhappiest.
Boredom allows them experience a full range of emotions
Emotional granularity is the ability to distinguish between specific emotions. Assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida Erin Westgate believes that working with young children on identifying and defining their emotions at a more specific level helps them manage boredom (source: Catherine Pearson at www.nytimes.com). A claim of boredom may actually be feeling lonely or wanting attention. Asking them if they are looking for comfort or companionship can help them recognise that emotion and distinguish it from feeling bored. Allowing them to spend time in that uncomfortable feeling rather than immediately redirecting them to an engaging activity can help grow their emotional maturity, and develop a healthy understanding of these feelings rather than be trained to repress them.
Free play outside fosters an innate love of nature
It’s already difficult to spend time in nature when we live in an urban environment. Between homework and shuttling around to extracurriculars, where is the chance for your child to get at least a little daily exposure? You don’t have to plan a holiday to jam a bunch of nature immersion into a few days. Simply having some time every day to jump in puddles after a summer rainshower, to observe how a colony of ants descends upon a dead fly, or to pad around barefoot in the garden is enough to awaken the primal affinity for nature all humans share. Again, minimal adult supervision is a must, because our fastidiousness and germaphobia will prevent kids from interacting with the environment as they please and experiencing all those wonderful sensory pleasures.
Ultimately, we are all under immense pressure to keep up with the rat race. Lists like “30 under 30” teach us that it’s not just about accomplishing things, but doing so younger and faster than the rest. To set up our children for success, parents are spending more money and energy than ever before on filling up their schedule with instructional pastimes. As is the case with almost everything, the answer lies in balance. Take a look at your child’s schedule and pick one scheduled activity that you are willing to replace with quiet downtime. Younger children can spend this downtime in a space with things to do like puzzles or Lego, and you can help them choose something to play by listing what is available. For older children, give them free reign to figure out how they want to spend this time, or offer a helpful nudge by asking them to walk through the house and come back with 3 ideas for what they can do. The goal is for both parents and children to relax more and fear boredom less, and maybe eventually childhood can once again resemble an Enid Blyton novel.