Why Kids Need Empty Time

We’re going to take a minute here to hawk the creative power of boredom. Not the boredom that some children experience when they’re stuck doing repetitive and pointless worksheets about a topic they already understand well. That kind of boredom, most of us can agree, is pretty soul-crushing stuff. We mean the kind of boredom that comes with free, wide-open, empty time.

Try a little old-fashioned boredom for your kids to enrich them. For gifted kids, especially, it can be a door into their own minds, to independence and self-sufficiency. Boredom can initially be upsetting and whine-inducing for kids who aren’t used to it. Hang in there.

We’ve been trying to give our kids less easy entertainment and more “what do I do now?” time, and the results have been lovely. They play together more nicely, they treat their toys with greater care, and they have been much more inventive and resourceful in their games. Of course, being children, there is still plenty of arguing and whining sprinkled into our days. But overall, they seem happier and life is noticeably better. Here are a few things we’ve tried:

Less library visits.

Sacrilege! But each time we go, the kids pick out a bunch of vapid series paperbacks (you know the ones, with obnoxious cartoon kids and sparkly fairy bunny type stuff) and, when they’re done, read them again. Then, back to the library next week for more. Instead, I now tell the kids they can each get five series books. Nothing wrong with SOME silly pleasure reading. Then we get a ton of other books – novels, biographies, science, what-have-you books they pick and I agree are worth reading or books that I choose and toss into the bag. Then, I wait. After a week of series books bingeing, the kids… get bored and start to explore the other books in the library bag. By the end of the three weeks, they’ve read far more interesting and varied books than they would if it had been easy to gobble up another lightweight series novel. And of course, as they realize how interesting the other books are, they want to read them (and choose them) more often. Also, by the way, while there do exist many worthy series for children, a lot of the series books celebrate particularly shallow, selfish and unkind characters. I want my kids to hang out with more complex souls.

Less toys.

Really, we all know this. Not NO toys. Toys can be a force of amazing good. But buy them only occasionally and deliberately. Hint to generous friends and family that your kids love an experience like a visit to a museum, seeing a play, or their own special time with Aunt Awesome. We give our children a small allowance and (usually) ask them to buy their own treats and toys. We get rid of anything that no one plays with and is cluttering up our home. As a parent, you might find it best to throw or give stuff away when the kids are away without any discussion. I try to do that, but usually feel mean and guilty, so I now stick things into a bag in the back of a closet and then wait a month or two to see if they even notice the offending toy is gone. Interestingly, they almost never miss the big stuff, but there have been times when some insignificant-looking piece of cardboard or sparkly bottle cap was a crucial and beloved belonging. I then furtively dig it out again. When we go to the beach, we now bring a pail and shovel or one other thing and leave it at that. The kids spend less time bickering amongst themselves and more time investigating the natural world. The first time we went to the beach without a giant basket of gear, I felt very afraid. It was a revelation! The kids played happily, they explored, they were full of joy. With less toys around, kids won’t feel like dropping one thing and flitting to the next as soon as they lose interest. They have to make one toy work for lots of different games and ideas. They cherish the toys they do have. And they invent their own games and make their own fun in delightful and inventive ways.

No TV. Less Screens. No TV.

The ads are poison to a child’s free will. I really hate advertising to kids. No TV! Download movies or shows for occasional sick days or treats, but we find once a week is more than enough. For the mobile devices, we allow a little bit of timed play. We set the timer and, after chores, let the kids have about 10-20 minutes with their favorite app or game, and then shut off the devices. For elementary-aged kids, digital games are catnip as soon as they feel even the slightest twinge of boredom. If they understand that it is not an option they’ll soon drift off to go do something they come up with on their own – I guarantee it will be better than any educational app you can think of!

There are many other ways to help children embrace free time as an opportunity and not a frightening chasm of boredom.

Sometimes the best enrichment you can give your children is none at all.

It can be hard to just get through a busy day, but if you can, give kids time after school and during the summers to just sit around and come up with their own agenda. As much fun as they are, leave them to play on their own sometimes, without adults involved. They’ll bloom.

Peace into the New Year, friends.

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