Empty hours

Published by Lori Pickert on June 1, 2009 at 12:10 PM

Kelly’s comment on The Only Thing That Matters:

This echoes something I heard recently … that most parents in this time period want their kids to have as many experiences as possible. In return, children are end up experience rich and relationally poor. The point was not that we should keep our kids from having wonderful experiences. Simply that we should be encouraging them in quality relationships.

Why are kids’ schedules so packed with organized activities and experiences? There have been numerous articles in the media every year for the last decade, at least, about “overscheduled kids,” but I don’t notice any real interest in a return to the lazy childhood days of yore.

In fact, not only do we still pack our kids’ week full of sports, clubs, camps, classes, and etc., but even during family outings, we itch to organize the kids’ experiences.

In our family, we respect that “nothing time” of childhood — time spent dreaming and playing and thinking and discovering. We see the value in empty, unscheduled time, and we prioritize giving it to our children. In fact, we prioritize giving it to ourselves. We feel that it feeds our souls and makes our work and our relationships better.

What do you think?

Parents worry about kids’ boredom, so they schedule their lives to keep them busy. But empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness. — Alvin Rosenfeld, The Over-scheduled Child

The pressure to excel is undermining childhood as never before. Why are we so keen to mold [children] into successful adults, instead of treasuring their genuineness and carefree innocence? — Johann Christoph Arnold

Children need adults in their lives who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity — and are willing to set the stage so that kids can create the play.Richard Louv

[T]here’s more than stress involved in pushing children onto the fast track to success before they even understand the concept. For one thing, children aren’t allowed to discover motivation on their own — and motivation is often more important to success than talent. Pushed children never have the opportunity to discover who they are. And they never learn to be at ease with themselves when alone, with time on their hands. Having experienced life “by the clock” — and almost constantly surrounded by others — these kids have never learned the joy of solitude, of having only oneself for company. Not only does this mean they’re unable to practice self-reflection, but they’re also unable to simply be. — Rae Pica

Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time. She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars. Luckily there was ice in the icebox. She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water. The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color. She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out on the fire-escape. Once out there, she was living in a tree. No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her. But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.

It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the tree made fugitive patterns on the white pillowcase. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. …

Francie breathed the warm air, watched the dancing leaf shadows, ate the candy and took sips of the cooled water in-between reading the book. — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


See also: Protected time


Comment by Sarah on June 1, 2009 at 03:59 PM

I heartily agree with your article, but I am hard pressed amongst my friends to find anyone else that would agree. I find two things with my friends, they either have there kids and themselves scheduled to the hilt or they have them in front of the t.v. watching, watching, watching or the children are so "connected" that they are never really alone. My husband and I feel that alone time, especially as children go through the teenage years is sooooooo important, this is where they can think about who they are, what they believe and what kind of person they will be. This is where they will think about the ideals they've grownup with and challenge them to see if they have substance. My husband and i look back and cherish the alone time that we one had to contemplate and think. I hop that we can do the same for our kids.

Comment by Jen R. (aaron-n... on June 1, 2009 at 05:50 PM

This is so true! When I was making up the tentative schedule for this summer for my in-home childcare center, I made sure to put in several hours of "free play" for the kids to just play together however they want without activities. Immediately upon finishing the schedule I started to panic about how much free play I'd put into it. "What are the parents going to think?!"

I constantly struggle with letting my kids be kids (which I firmly believe in) and guiding them with stimulating activities. How much of either is too much? How much is too little?

Comment by Amy on June 1, 2009 at 05:55 PM

I always worry so-about how the kids will entertain themselves when there is a large chunk of time. And they always surprise me by figuring something out. You think I would have learned by now that they need me to get out of the way and let. them. be. kids.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 1, 2009 at 06:07 PM

sarah, same here. i like to think that i am bravely forging a new road … standing as an example that you can shirk signing up for activities and your kids will thrive. ;^)

jen, argh, yes! i know what you are saying. free play is SO important but parents sometimes think they are paying for activities and crafts! maybe you could make a beautiful bulletin board with copies of some articles lauding unstructured time and photos of the kids playing together. :^)

free play can also lead to great project-based learning!

amy, yes — i think it’s an uncomfortable for us to transition into as the kids. adults have that itchy feeling of wanting to jump up and plan something so the kids are mooning about … but if we’d let them be bored for awhile (i’m a fan of that ;^), they would eventually think up their *own* plans!

Comment by Kerry on June 1, 2009 at 06:20 PM

This is so important, and I think it is one of the biggest paradoxes in the child development and education fields : everyone KNOWS children need a lot of unstructured time, both for cognitive and emotional development, but no one is willing to change what they are doing! When I was visiting my Mom a couple of weeks ago, I was amazed to see a "tots" soccer "league!" These kids were 2 years old and already enrolled in organized sports! My kids sometimes have trouble getting time to "just play" with their friends, because their friends go from one activity to the next, non stop. Parents think getting the kids together to play is "cute" or "fun" but not at all a priority.
By the way, that is one of my favorite parts of my very favorite book (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Thanks for reminding me of it!

Comment by Amy on June 1, 2009 at 06:48 PM

Oh, I could come at this from so many angles! I completely agree with you. I'm hard pressed to make plans with other homeschoolers because they're always so scheduled. It blows my mind. When we began Enki in August and I tried to keep to a rhythm as suggested, I quickly found that my kids were constantly looking to me for what to do next. Oooh, I hated that. Away went the "rhythm." I am not the Entertainer-in-Chief. Nope.

Other angles: re: Jen R's comment, when I worked at nature camp I was a big believer in the necessity of time spent just hanging out in the woods. The year I was Nature Director at a day camp run by a private school, I continued scheduling in down time in the woods. The camp director and I butted heads about this more than once. We both knew I wouldn't be returning for another summer. Their "values" (cough choke) were very different from mine. Now I can see how this was probably due to pressure from parents as well, who were paying lots of money for their kids to DO STUFF (and also to be not-at-home, as the parents were all working professionals--doctors, lawyers, and so on). Sadly, nobody thought just exploring the outdoors without an agenda was a valuable use of time. (I'd try to label it as "looking for amphibians" or something like that, and then tell the kids to go explore.)

Another angle: I've known adults who didn't know how to be alone with themselves, who always needed other people around or the TV or stimulation of some sort. I find these people exhausting. I don't want to raise my kids to grow up into these people.

And finally: I could use Francie's fire escape today. It sounds like heaven.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 1, 2009 at 07:51 PM

kerry, me too, on both counts! :^)

the organized sports at a very young age thing makes me particularly curmudgeonly. i understand, at some level, that people don’t interact with their neighbors in the old-fashioned way from my own childhood, but shouldn’t children be playing games together without adult interference occasionally?

an astute wife-of-coach explained to me that tot leagues are all about identifying which children will be talented later on. :^/

amy, yes, yes, yes. homeschoolers are no less over-scheduled than school-attending kids, that’s for sure. if anything, hs’ing parents seem even more addicted (generalize, generalize) to signing their kids up for activities.

i have had a few versions of this conversation:

me: would freddie be able to come over and play some afternoon this week?

other mom: ooh, let me see … [relates schedule worthy of pentagon official] … hmmm … well, what will they be doing?

me: er … mm … hitting things in the yard with sticks? making a fort with my 300-count linen sheet and then getting shouted at? digging for treasure in my herb garden and getting shouted at again?

other mom: …


agree, agree re: providing activities and diversions at home … you just train them to look to you for the next entertaining bit. no, thanks.

as to the adults that are that way as well — we call that “having (or lacking) inner resources”. a person who can’t fill a few empty hours is a sad person indeed.

i do think, as jen said above about daycare and you say about summer programs, parents are looking for evidence their children *did things* and schools/programs fold and provide that, where their role should be to help educate parents about what is developmentally appropriate (and superior) for children and the benefits of unstructured play and exploration.

i really don’t think it is that difficult to frame it for parents in a way that would make them feel *lucky* that their children were in that kind of environment — maybe the problem is deeper and the people running these schools/daycares/programs aren’t educated enough about that fact that it is important and why.

Comment by Samantha on June 1, 2009 at 08:09 PM

For so long now I have been resisting the trend around us to enroll my son in numerous after-school activities, clubs, sports etc. To be honest I didn't really know why, I guess it just didn't feel right to me, that after a full day/week of school where he comes home exhausted, to then expect more from him. I know I personally wouldn't want to do that, so why would my children? I have actually at times felt guilty about my decision; am I denying him opportunities? Will he be missing out on something? One of my best friend's got her son in at least one activity a night sometimes even two - I knew in my heart this was not right, I know I need to trust my own judgement more, but reading this post has given me the confidence to believe that what I am doing will not be to his detriment, but will actually be a real positive.

Comment by Brynn on June 1, 2009 at 10:28 PM

I concur with others here that it is like swimming upstream to step out of the scheduled childhood, especially in the homeschooling world, but it is worth it for the individual members of the family and the family ecosystem ! I question the premise that the over scheduling parent often expresses--the desire for their children to have many experiences so that they can find their calling. Isn't it the parent that does the signing up, or the peers that encourage it? What choice does that leave the child? Is there any room to find passion when someone else dictates how you spend your time? Truth and opportunity lie in the empty hours.

Comment by Katie on June 1, 2009 at 11:07 PM

Oh this is something I struggle with every day - and my children are still VERY small - nearly 4, nearly 2 and one just about to make an appearance. I believe so strongly in children having time to explore, imagine, create by themselves and yet every day feels like a desperate flurry of juggling various different activities that seem to have crept on me unawares!
As a mother, currently at home full time, the thing I crave more than anything else is time to myself. I have always appreciated solitude and quiet reflection - it seems the opposite of 'wasted' time to me. Maybe I need to 'model' this more - better for me, better for them!
My best time this week was when a friend turned up unnanounced. The house was a mess, we scraped together an eccentric but delicious lunch and the older children dressed up as.... not sure what (flowing thrifted silk dress, Koala cap and a backpack?), barricaded themselves in their tent and shouted and screamed with delight for two hours! Heavenly.
I think I have taken from this that doing nothing needs to be as mindful as doing something - I mean I must consciously make space in our days and weeks for 'nothing' as much as for 'something'.

Comment by Theresa on June 1, 2009 at 11:09 PM

I honestly don't think their is any substitute for unscheduled free time. I consider it to be vital to my kids emotional and cognitive development. And my own.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 1, 2009 at 11:59 PM

samantha, i felt the same. and *i* have a low tolerance for a crowded schedule. i just think it benefits our whole family to keep our pace unhurried and our time free. we are more relaxed and enjoy each other — and the things we *do* participate in — so much more.

i’m glad you feel validated by this discussion!

brynn, that cracks me up — like the exact same soccer+little league+dance+tumbling+tae kwon do that every single *other* kid is doing is somehow going to enlighten your child or put them ahead. it’s just a way of living, just like the way i lived when i was a kid — playing outdoors until bedtime, running all over the neighborhood, playing pick-up baseball in the empty lot, etc. — was the way to live in 1975. so why not choose a different way that suits you more? as you say — it is like swimming upstream. but i so much prefer my chosen, fits-just-right life!

“Is there any room to find passion when someone else dictates how you spend your time?” — beautifully said!

katie, so true! they do seem to creep up and add up so quietly, and suddenly you’re swamped!

and — reducing one’s schedule requires saying “no” to people, which always feels awkward, if not downright rude. i’m used to it by now, though. ;^)

what a lovely interlude with your friend — friends who you can have over without tidying the house are the best!

i agree that you need your own quiet time (if you can get it with three small children ;^) — and i do think it is something you can model. you can work peacefully together in the same room, each on your own project, quietly — it’s a wonderful thing!

“I must consciously make space in our days and weeks for 'nothing' as much as for 'something'.” — absolutely. :^)

theresa, my thoughts exactly!

Comment by Jessica on June 2, 2009 at 02:48 AM

You know, we basically do nothing. The only activity in which we've ever enrolled Ben is: library Story Time. LOL!

We recently joined a homeschool group and as a result, we've experienced quite a few field trips--activity we are not used to--but they are more like FREE family outings.

We've gone to the symphony and experienced "behind-the-scenes" at the airport. But as far as classes or sports or any other scheduled activities...nope. Nuthin'! We love our relaxed lifestyle. I wish other families could be so...unhurried. :)

Comment by greenchickadee on June 2, 2009 at 02:59 AM

As always, I feel that there is an echo in the room. OH, wait. That's me, saying "sing it sistah!"
So, here is my dilemma that I have been to chicken to blog about for fear that one of these friends will read it:

I help my children make time for friends. They're homeschooled, so it is a priority for us. I want them to learn loyalty, so we write letters (snail mail kind) to friends who are far away, I encourage them to call and chat with friends every few weeks (to keep the friendship real), and I make every effort to set up times when the kids can get together. Now, mind you, most of our closest friends have been that way for years, so their children are our children's friends. Often, we live in different towns, but we try to get together. Sadly, I have found that when it comes to others "out of sight, out of mind" is the theme. Our letters are rarely returned, phonecalls are returned days/weeks later with "I'm so sorry, we've been busy with softball season . . . etc" excuses, and trying to set up a weekend get together of camping or otherwise is a nightmare.
I WANT my children to value relationships with a handful of precious friends, but we need to get something back, if you know what I mean! What has your experience been, homeschooling, wanting to teach them the qualities of a true friend (loyalty, trust, joy, humor, forgiveness, etc) ?

Sometimes I just feel that my parenting theology is so different and so far from "the norm" that we're just doomed to be a little lonely on this planet.

Comment by melissa s. on June 2, 2009 at 04:49 AM

thank you for this -- it's very helpful in my homeschooling/unschooling/project learning research. The funny (and, a little bit scary) realization that I'm beginning to come to is that if we just do the opposite of what most of mainstream society does, we'll be just fine :-)
Loved the quotes, too: I'm halfway through Last Child in the Woods (and loving it) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a fave!

Comment by Kellyi on June 2, 2009 at 12:00 PM

Thankyou for this post, it has justified some of the things we already do, but were made in the past to feel weird about.

I took my children out of school and home educate them now for a number of reasons, but one key factor was the constant pressure from the school to "sign up and join in".

My children do clubs, but only the older two (I have four) and only one each. In the Summer we down tools completely and devote a large amount of time simply being together and faffing about (faf is not the best word, but it describes us so well :)

I defend our choice to do nothing with examples of how these periods of inactivity help their imaginations develop. I do have to defend it from time to time, as I have friends who visit with their own children, who want to know what we will be doing, and the answer "playing in the garden" doesn't seem to be adequate.

These same friends have children who have no idea what to do with themselves when they are left to their own devices. They have become addicted to planning and being planned for.

I think there is a place for planning and even frenzied activity, but I also think there is a place, especially in childhood, for just being yourself, by yourself.

Thanks for making me feel normal :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 2, 2009 at 03:01 PM

jessica, same here! :^)

g.c., this is such a good point — how *do* we encourage the kind of deep, meaningful relationships/friendships we want them to have, when everyone else is so busy and maybe not in the same frame of mind?

i’m not sure what the solution is. i know that my sons have close relationships with a wide variety of people, from kids their own age to kids younger and all the way up to adults they are close to. i want to think of myself as prioritizing our friendships, and i do make an effort to be in regular contact with friends who live far away, but i’m much worse at keeping in contact with people nearby. i may think about them a lot, but i don’t make enough effort to actually get together.

for sure, i’ve had multiple conversations with my boys about how their friends lead very different, busier lives and don’t have a lot of time, but they are blessed with having a few close friends who they see and talk to often. and i think those other relationships with family and friends who aren’t peers strengthen their feeling of belonging and connectedness. kwim?

“What has your experience been, homeschooling, wanting to teach them the qualities of a true friend (loyalty, trust, joy, humor, forgiveness, etc)?” oh, this is going to sound so corny :^) but i think we try to treat each other as friends. we talk about it often — being kind to one another, forgiving, accepting differences, etc. :^)

i do think striking off and following a different path really defines your life, and it can be lonely unless/until you find some like-minded friends to share the journey. but i suppose the way we’ve dealt with that is to try to accept that most people live a different lifestyle and we meet them in the middle when we can. that’s our goal anyway!

thank you, melissa! :^) (it’s a childhood fave of mine. :^)

kelly, that is so funny — i started to write before on an earlier comment that a mom once asked me what the boys would be doing and i said “um .. hitting things with sticks, probably”. that wasn’t well received. ;^)

i don’t have to defend myself very often; usually i’m just looked at askance. ;^)

i do hear a lot of “what do they DO all day?!” and it’s not that i can’t give a long list of their various hobbies and activities around home — but it’s harder to convey that our *pace* is very unhurried and enjoyable. yes, they might be working on a stop-motion movie one day, but that involves a lot of rummaging through the recycled materials for backgrounds, sounds of laughter from the studio, long conversations over breakfast and lunch, heads together over the laptop checking out someone else’s work on youtube…

“These same friends have children who have no idea what to do with themselves when they are left to their own devices. They have become addicted to planning and being planned for.” i am not sure what happens to make children this way … i know many who attend school and various after-school activities and are still chomping at the bit for some unscheduled play. yet i worked with students who would literally lay their head on the table in frustration if they had 10 free minutes to fill. they simply had *zero* resources — no imagination, no creativity, no comfort in simply playing. strange, and very worrisome.

thank you for your thoughtful comments, everyone! :^)

Comment by Cordelia on June 2, 2009 at 03:36 PM

"The point was not that we should keep our kids from having wonderful experiences. Simply that we should be encouraging them in quality relationships"
I love that. Yes,I don't think of it as missing experiences, but of having experiences that are better for us. For us, relationships are the most important of all "wonderful experiences."

Lori and G.C.- I so appreciate the two of you spending some time thoughtfully discussing the difficulties of connecting locally when most folks are so dang busy. Not just busy, but also on different trajectories. Can you really just go kick it around with kids whose only experience with any kind of round flying object is league play? Is it really fun to make homemade instruments and catch frogs with neighbors who take "enrichment" biology camps and study violin and piano before they can walk? We have a few frog finder, dirt digger friends, but the free ranging, mixed age herds I like to imagine really don't exist where we are. There are days, many, when our neighborhood is as lifeless as something out of an "after the bomb/invasion, etc". sci fi movie. No kids at all in the area until late in the day.

I have to admit to some laziness with local contacts, too. I think some of it is resistance to the need to schedule to see them, when it is so antithetical to my way of being. I've still got this south Texas, "door is always open," thing going on, and it is very, very odd and off-putting to me when people treat each other like dentis appointments. We like just being and being with people we ike. it's what we do, It's all we do...(film reference?)

Comment by melissa s. on June 2, 2009 at 04:13 PM

I wanted to add one more thing (I fell asleep with this on my mind last night and woke up still thinking about it!). My son attends a play-based co-op preschool a couple mornings a week (which we love). At the last meeting, one of the teachers gave a presentation on the importance of unstructured play on brain development. It was a great presentation and discussion...until we moved onto the next topic of Kindergarten Preparedness. Sigh. I just wanted to stand up and scream, "Why can't the unstructured, play-based learning continue into kindergarten, high school, college, and even beyond?"

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 2, 2009 at 08:53 PM

cordelia, i agree! what are experiences worth, after all, without the important people to share them with? :^)

r o f l re: the bombed-out neighborhood. it’s a little spooky, isn’t it? life is different.

as to whether the kids are jaded by their souped-up organized experiences, i don’t think they are. we had kids in our after-school program who absolutely *loved* to play soccer at our school — crazy, laughing-till-you-fall-down, switching-up-teams, helping the 3yo’s make goals, mixed-age, not-keeping-score soccer. very different from their suited-up league play, i think. in the same way, even those kids taking violin since they were 3 would go crazy in the art studio making a violin out of a kleenex box. it’s just a whole other experience, and they get that!

i really think kids are flinching, expecting to be told what to do and how to do it and lectured about the educational value of all they are doing, and when they finally relax and realize that it’s not coming, they throw themselves into, say, finding frogs and making frog houses and all that great free exploration. it’s just all about letting the motivation grow naturally and *then* providing resources when they are *requested* — so, so different from the way the “educational” programs usually progress. (imho) (ha!)

one thing i have noticed with friends coming over is that they are sometimes so *tired*, so very tired, and they seem to want to flop in front of a screen, whereas my boys are raring to go and have a million ideas about things to do. mine want to build and make and plan and start huge, crazy projects; their friends often want to reclne limply in front of the tv or computer. but i don’t think it’s because they don’t like to do things; i think they’re just pooped out from their busy busy schedule of doing other people’s projects. kwim?

i know what you are saying about scheduling appointments to see people — i’ve noticed that you can’t just leave it open! it needs to go on the other person’s calendar or in their blackberry! lol. we don’t have a calendar. or an alarm clock. or a watch…

i don’t know your film reference, so fill me in!

mel, that is so sad and so rip-your-hair-out frustrating. kindergarten used to *be* the thing that prepared children for school — it was the gentle transition and included lots and lots of play. what happened? now K is first grade and preK is that transition — unless they are all about achievement, in which case preK is *also* first grade. argh.

i agree completely re: unstructured play continuing forever — these adults, both parents and educators, don’t grasp the fact that someone in the flow is “playing” with ideas and problems and creating something new. if we make it all about tasks, tasks, tasks, that kind of learning isn’t experienced until … ?

Comment by Amy on June 2, 2009 at 09:03 PM

Oh, I love this conversation. It's making me feel less guilty, for one thing! I didn't want to live in a neighborhood. (In my ideal world, I wouldn't be able to see a house from mine, but that didn't happen.) And this was shocking to some people--who will the kids play with? Who will I go to if I need help? Well the truth is, there is a boy my son's age who lives right next door and NEVER ONCE HAVE WE PLAYED WITH HIM. I've offered. Whenever I see the mom (not often; they're very busy) I offer again. As far as I can tell, that kid doesn't play outside. And from reading these comments it sounds like even if we lived in a neighborhood full of kids, there still wouldn't be kids around to play with.

So. I feel better now.

(And yeah. I don't know who I go to if I need help.)

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 2, 2009 at 10:01 PM

amy, so true! i much prefer living in the country to living in town, that’s for sure. we have our own little oasis and friends come and go. ;^)

i could go on and on about neighborhood issues, but will refrain…

it does seem like in the olden days (my days — they are now olden), you made friends •organically• by playing with them in the neighborhood and finding pals. (and they didn’t need to be your •exact same age• or, gasp, your same gender!) but now parents set up playdates as a way of creating blind dates for their kids. and when it doesn’t work out? a~w~k~w~a~r~d…

Comment by Cordelia on June 2, 2009 at 10:44 PM

Um, , so Kyle Reese says it about the terminator in the first Terminator movie: You still don't get it, do you? He'll find her! That's what he does! It's *all* he does!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 2, 2009 at 10:54 PM

see, i think i would have gotten it if it said *he*!!! (huge terminator fan here) ;^D

Comment by Lynn on June 2, 2009 at 10:56 PM

What a soul-nourishing and wonderfully affirming post, gal pal! You are singin' my tune, loud and clear. I find that one of the (many) great things about home schooling is that because we have so very much free time built into our daily round, then when we DO choose to do soccer or weaving or a field trip, it's not frantic or hurried or exhausting. I practically weep for some of our out-schooled friends who seem to meet themselves coming and going. Just as their parents do...

Comment by Lynn on June 2, 2009 at 10:59 PM

P.S. Thank you for reminding me how much I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Must re-read!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 2, 2009 at 11:20 PM

lynn, thank you! :^)

and yes, when your normal pace of life is relaxed and unhurried, you can enjoy your activities so much more!

Comment by Thimbleina on June 3, 2009 at 06:18 AM

I too am pressed to find any friends that like me would agree with the comments about letting children have free time to use their imaginations and motivate theirselves in activities. Another mother at school to me said about the summer holidays coming up that hers needed to have lots of organised activities because they couldn't play independantly without her input.
I have reduced the after school activities that my daughter now does as she was far too tired to do them and that didn't make for a good relationship, we now have a far more relaxed week.

My kids so enjoy just pottering around the garden and creating their own games, our slide has been a good prop for no end of games. I also think that fewer toys also makes for good imaginations and encourages creativity. With both activities and toys, the more is less theory works extremely well in this home, it also helps them appreciate things so much more. Off now to make some motorbike glasses out of card now for the three year old so he can play his game.

Comment by Christie on June 3, 2009 at 10:18 AM

As an Early Childhood Teacher working with families of 2-8 year olds I have struggled to educate parents about the value of time to play. It does not help that our educational systems continue to push down the curriculum and expect a formalised education at a younger and yonger age!

Play is so important that its significance in children’s lives is recognised by the UN as a specific right in addition to, and distinct from, a child’s right to recreation and leisure.

How do we reach the wider parent community with this message?

Comment by Ellen on June 3, 2009 at 12:02 PM

I haven't commented before, so I first want to say I love reading your provocative quotes and thoughts and check in regularly for a little inspiration. But one thing that occurred to me as I read the comments on this thread was that somewhere down the line there seemed to be a subtle and totally unintentional shift from "doing nothing is important" to "doing nothing is better." All in fun, of course, but as I read a little fun-poking at people who are too busy for play-dates, it occurred to me it would be just as easy to become dogmatic about not signing up for things as it is to become dogmatic about anything else. I think what it should come down to is who chooses the organized activity, the parent or the child? If the child has an interest and wants to pursue it, it makes sense to me to help them follow their dream. Taking classes is one way to gain knowledge and ability. I hope I'm not being defensive, as I'm thinking of my daughter who takes lots of dance and music classes! She loves dance, she's getting lots of exercise, and she has a great relationship with her teachers. Doesn't that make sense, too?

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 3, 2009 at 01:49 PM

thimbleina, mm, yes, i’m familiar with that construct — children who can’t play by themselves because they’re conditioned to having an adult provide entertainment/activities for them. and those parents would come to our school and earnestly ask about the activity schedule, because they wanted to make sure their child was happy and busy. but all children can learn to develop their inner resources — if we encourage it. ;^)

“With both activities and toys, the more is less theory works extremely well in this home” — yes, i’ve found with toys that the key at our house is to dole them out extremely slowly. then each one gets its full appreciation and excitement and use; when it starts to bore, it gets put away and by the time it comes out again, its excitement potential has been renewed! ;^)

christie, we did a lot of different things at our school to try to put this message forward — from hanging articles on the parent information board to providing handouts and copies of news articles to making large, attractive displays of photos of children playing, pointing out the important work that was happening simultaneously. i think it’s a never-ending battle, as the parents you’ve managed to convince keep leaving and new ones keep coming in!

ellen, thank you. :^)

but i *do* think doing nothing is better. lol. just kidding! it’s all about balance. i wrote about it a little here:


but it’s all about what you choose to be dogmatic *about*, right? ;^) so i choose free play and long, lazy, unfilled days. ;^)

but seriously, it’s not like i think activities are bad in general, or sports, or clubs, or anything at all — it’s the packed schedule that doesn’t leave that “white space” for kids to fill on their own, maybe with just dreaming or thinking, that unscheduled time for them to do their own thing, have their own ideas, make their own plans, build their own worlds.

an interesting point about who chooses the activity. when children are young, especially, it’s hard to avoid choosing activities for them. after all, you’re trying to expose them to different things and they may have no idea yet of what they like.

but don’t worry about defending your choices — we’re not bashing kids having *lives* here, just overscheduling kids to the point where they don’t have that all-important (dogma! ;^) free time. balance! it’s all about balance. you just can’t leave out that vital ingredient.

Comment by Amy on June 3, 2009 at 04:53 PM

If I may reply to Ellen's concern as well? First, we go through cycles sort of, with more busy times and less busy times. It all depends upon what is working. Even when my children were very young, I'd check first to see if they *wanted* to do something. Especially when they're young, it can be all too easy to slip into doing things "for the kids" that are really for the parents. Sometimes I like being busy, too, especially if my husband is traveling. It helps all of us. But I won't force my kids to do something, either. What happens to the child who really wants to take XYZ classes and then realizes she hates it? Where is that line between responsibility--you chose this--and choice--but you don't like it anymore. Especially if the child wouldn't have been able to tell ahead of time? (I'm just rambling out loud here, by the way, with no specific answers in mind.) I suppose as a parent I started on the side of hey, you chose it, but am heading more towards the latter. We just allowed my son to stop going to recorder classes. He used to love it. Now he doesn't. I can't get to the bottom of it, if there's even a bottom to get to, but I'm not going to fight with him over it, either.

On the other hand? I've decided my kids really need to learn how to swim. It's a safety issue at this point, given how often we go to the beach. So I'm trying to sell it well, but the fact is, that's maybe not exactly their choice. They wouldn't have come up with it on their own.

I agree with the person who said having a more relaxed life means the activities you choose are not rushed and frantic. That's how I feel.

And finally, on the subject of friendship, raised up above, and how hard it is: I feel guilty that my kids don't have buddies. I've tried. And tried. And what it comes down to, mostly, is that parents with schooled kids don't want to make the effort once our paths diverge. I get the feeling they'd make the effort for another schooled kid, or maybe it's just the effort would be less, but even families where the kids AND moms got along, the "friendship" fell by the wayside once the other child started school and mine did not. I'm not sure if it's the busy-ness factor, or the fact that non-homeschoolers feel we have nothing in common, or the knee-jerk defensiveness some people have if you're doing the nonstandard thing? It's disheartening. So I will sign my kids up for things they want to do so at least they're around other kids sometimes.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 3, 2009 at 06:45 PM

i think the friendship issue looms large for schooling parents, too — i know my own friends whose children attend school talk about it all the time: mean girls, friends that are suddenly not friends, friends whose parents don’t like you, or adult friends whose kids don’t like your kids, freeze-outs at boy scouts or soccer, etc. etc. etc.

that common attitude that hs’ers will have a tough time with socialization seems to grow out of the mass of socialization issues that school-attending kids have.

i have *three* friends who changed their daughters’ schools due to bullying and/or no-friend issues. i know one family who moved to another town so their daughter could have a fresh start!

Comment by jen on June 3, 2009 at 07:59 PM

Mmm - Just love that quote from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In particular I enjoyed reading about her preparations to be alone. She was purposeful in setting up her alone time and saving the best bits for her time in the "treehouse." As a homeschooling mom of four and a closet chocaholic, I totally get that!

But I also see her preparations as part of how we can train our children to enjoy being alone. While it is SO good for children to have nothing to do and create their own fun, I feel it is also good for children to be equipped for alone time. Knowing how to read or knit or do a puzzle (or any of a billion other things) enables a child to enter into "alone time" confidently.

Trouble is so many of these things are going along the wayside as children pick up electronic games and spend all of their days running from one activity to another. As I planned for this summer, I tried really hard to keep reminding myself that for each activity one of my children was signed up for there was an activity (or skill or enjoyed moment or chunk of play time) that all the children were going to miss out on. That was a powerful reminder to me...just wish I could convey that to some of our friends w/o offending them!

Thanks for this post - always good to feel like what I am striving to do is being validated!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 3, 2009 at 09:18 PM

lol, jen, yes, we need to make those alone moments count! :^)

those skills you mention — reading, knitting, working a puzzle — are part those “inner resources” i was alluding to earlier. you are so right — it’s not just the ability to find something to do, it’s having an arsenal of hobbies and interests and confidence in filling empty time.

i like your point about how making one choice means you are eliminating other choices. i just wish all parents would realize that empty, unscheduled time counts as an important choice!

thank *you* — it’s good to validate each other, especially when we may not have like-minded people in our immediate area! ;^)

Comment by Ellen on June 3, 2009 at 09:38 PM

Gosh, thank you for emailing me Lori - it was so nice to forward your comments to me. I don't want to imply that I don't think you're right about kids, or anyone for that matter, needing time to just think, rest, play, whatever. I need it every morning before anybody else gets up!

On looking for friends: I had hopes for a side effect of any classes to be friendships, but it really has turned out that my daughters' friendships have come about by accident and not from that. She likes the kids in her dance classes, but doesn't see them anywhere but the class.

Amy, I'm so with you. If my daughter tries a class and hates it, we're out of there. It has happened.


Comment by Lori Pickert on June 3, 2009 at 11:49 PM

we haven’t formed many lasting friendships from class-type activities, either — i think because kids are busy during the activity and then immediately picked up! we do try to peg people who seem like they’d be good outside of class, but then you’re back into the conflicting schedules area. ;^)

Comment by Jill on June 6, 2009 at 03:32 PM

I'm a little late for this discussion, but I wanted to add my words of praise to all you moms who think like this. I think the pressure around us is so great. We are made to feel that maybe we aren't doing the best for our kids. It's wonderful to know we aren't the only ones who don't fill our kids' lives up with structured activities (even though we are spread across the globe). Would be fun to get all these like-minded moms together (physically) for one day and let the kids do what they will. Thanks, Lori, for providing the support we need.

I've been thinking about why these changes have come. I would say one of the reasons is security. In a world where we can't just let our kids roam the neighborhood unsupervised, our options are limited. And it's more reassuring to have the kids in some "program" where their are adult eyes all around. That's one of the reasons that we love Quebec so much. I can let my older boys (12 and 8) go to the park and play pick-up hockey or soccer (or whatever else they choose) for a few hours and not worry about someone trying to hurt them. I think our environment has so much to do with whether we can allow our kids this kind of freedom.

Thanks, again, Lori!

Comment by Deirdre on June 8, 2009 at 04:59 AM

You had me at "nothing time" but ending with a favorite passage from one of my fav books has sent me over the edge. I'm going to have to print and post this in my kitchen as I already feel it is an uphill battle to protect our 'nothing time.'

Love all the comments as well. My favorite bit: "it is like swimming upstream. but i so much prefer my chosen, fits-just-right life!" And the awkward "Blind date" play dates---hilarious and spot-on!

I understand Ellen's comment, because I feel the need to justify a bit (at least to myself), which is why I love that "fits just right" quote because the fit is different for everyone and every family---it's just about the courage to not buy off the rack but tailor your life to your specific needs/values. I signed up our 4 yr old Sean for Tball this year, much to the horror of some "anti-organized sports" friends, because it was torture for him to watch his brother play last summer and not get to play "on a real team" too (and because I'm a baseball nut and want my sons to suffer with me as Cub fans too...).

I have new appreciation for the friends here who all meet at the local creek, at a spot we call the Teacup, with kids of both genders and ages newborn to 10 or so, and the kids play in the water or dig in the mud or do what kids do while we chat on blankets and make a hodgepodge picnic. I have to believe there are more like-minded women in every community, but we're usually the ones who love being home, aren't we, so we're hard to find.

Love Lori's point about learning how to treat friends as being learned best within a family---ie: how do you treat people you love. It is a real life lesson to learn that finding a true friend is rare, home-schooled or public schooled or at almost 40 yrs old. You learn to really appreciate them when you find them.

I wanted to add one thought about the "boredom" complaint. I know some parents whose fear is facing a child that complains of boredom, and that is their rational for all the scheduling. We always joke that "boredom is in the eye of the beholder" but I've also discovered that saying, "I'm bored" can be a less vulnerable way for a child to say, "I want your attention---I want time with you."

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 8, 2009 at 03:46 PM

“it's just about the courage to not buy off the rack but tailor your life to your specific needs/values” — exactly how i feel!

such a good point about like-minded women, the ones who — oops — like to stay home. ;^)

and another good point about how “i’m bored” might just be a request to do something together. i really think boredom is both necessary and a good thing. children need the chance to figure things out on their own — make their own fun. i have had children here who are so used to indoor fun (computers, tv) that they look around outside and just don’t *recognize* anything fun, kwim? but other kids who are used to outside play just dive right in.

if we are too quick to supply them with “something to do”, they won’t get the chance to slowly come ‘round to having their own ideas.

(“tree grows in brooklyn” is one of my all-time favorites, too! :^)

Comment by annie on June 10, 2009 at 08:32 PM

hear hear hear! in our family we value the empty hours too. I am constantly surprised anew by the amount of "stuff" parents here in UK seem to feel it necessary to shoehorn into their children's lives...we often stay in our pajamas all day at the weekend (in winter months particularly) and just amble about, making stuff, chatting, dancing, sewing...whatever-ing. It sometimes inludes some TV time, but generally we choose together a film to watch, take time making some homemade tickets for the show, make popcorn and sell it to each other, and all snuggle together for the film...

thanks for this, glad to now we are not alone (as it sometimes feels here!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 12, 2009 at 12:58 PM

annie, yes, yes — the phrase “sound and fury, signifying nothing” comes to mind. what, after all, is all that “stuff” for? if the reward of a well-lived life is relaxing with family and friends, interesting work, enjoyable play … these are rather simple things, after all, and rather simply achieved, if we can only push the chaos aside.

your days sound like our days. :^)

you are not alone, even if we have to stretch over the pond to find each other. ;^)


Comment by kirsten on June 12, 2009 at 01:13 PM

Joining the party a little late here, but I've thought a LOT about this. Last year at my daughter's dance I had conversations with another mom whose daughter was enrolled in 3 dance classes + gymnastics (which was twice a week). She felt her daughter 'needed' this - and she was only 6. Her own mother had taught her kids that 'if kids aren't kept busy, they get into trouble' so they were all forced to do as many activities as they possibly could. And she's done the same to her children - but I think she has a hard time swallowing it now. I don't see how her kids have time to PLAY. Ever.

I've also thought a lot about this because my daughter is involved in dance and piano. And has a real passion for both, so we call it good. But if she couldn't walk to piano and we had to drive + wait for her - I think she would have to choose one over the other. BUT I also like the idea (provided that there is time for free play for sure) as far as activities of doing a physical thing (sports/dance) and a creative thing (art/music, etc.). And as homeschoolers it's more chance for her to interact with different instructors, which I feel is important as well.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 12, 2009 at 01:21 PM

kirsten, ohhh, i have heard that same thing — keep kids busy and/or in sports and they’ll stay out of trouble. i hate the message that sends to the kids!

i don’t think there‘s a magic number of activities — it has to vary, depending on the child and their interests/situation/etc. — what i am sure about is that children need that down time, that time to fill on their own in their own way. without that, it’s just running on the hamster wheel — no time for reflection, for growing a self.

thank you for your comment!

Comment by abbie on June 30, 2009 at 06:13 PM


this is such a great post. amen!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 30, 2009 at 09:50 PM

thank you, abbie! :^)

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