Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Where Did Free Time Go?

Free Time Is Important

Free time has become a rare experience in our children's lives. For the older ones among us, do you 
remember the vultures in The Jungle Book movie? They shake themselves awake from a nap on the limbs of a tree, and one turns to another and says, "Hey Flaps, what we gonna do?" Flaps answers, "I dunno. What cha wanna do?" And the exchange repeats with ideas offered along the way. Do kids have time to ask each other, "Hey, what do you want to do for the next few hours?" Do they have enough time to do nothing long enough to ask?

From a healthy amount of boredom comes imagination, creativity and exploration. Unstructured free time without set drills, chores, lessons, the Internet or adult direction offers beneficial opportunities for fun, play, reflection and, yes, mischief, because coloring outside of the lines is important.

Perhaps one of the most significant products of a good dose of unstructured time in childhood is a robust development of self-directed executive functioning*. That means a better capacity to work toward goals, make decisions, regulate behavior, switch between tasks, and manipulate information. These capacities definitely contribute to a happier, healthier life. 

Data gathered in creativity tests of young children in the United States by William and Mary psychologist Kyung-Hee Kim and referenced in an article called "The Creativity Crises" notes a significant drop in abstract, creative thinking and problem-solving skills. The culprit? One is a lack of free time for exploration and another is our constant connection to the Internet with its quick and seemingly definitive answers. Quick does not mean creative or deep.

What can we do? As educators at a school with a mission of providing "the foundation for students to be powerful agents of change," we are going to continue our research and implementation of best educational practices to foster creativity, reflection and patient decision-making. Students will want to exercise those three skills (creativity, reflection and patient decision-making) as often as possible and advocate with adults for the unstructured, free-of-Internet time to be bored enough to experience spontaneous play. Parents will want to be aware of how their children's days are filled and what motivates them to fill them. 

One motivator is a fear for children's safety - emotional and physical. Kids today are accustomed to being watched at all times. They are accustomed to having situations smoothed out for them. We do that with good intention but not such good results. Also, there is this huge club sport and dance business, which is mostly fun for kids, yet also stressful, expensive and time consuming. And, there is a sense of being in a race to build a résumé for the next level of schooling or to make it to the professional league or stage.  

I'm a proponent of free time though not always a loyal practitioner. For those reasons, I'm writing this blog to remind and perhaps inspire us to be sure and allow time for play without structure and with spontaneity. Summer is coming. Let's remember to leave a good amount of space and time for our children to create, imagine and explore offline and directly in space and moment.  

*Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning (Front. Psychol., 17 June 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593)