The Mindful Life™ Blog

One of the Best Gift for Kids: Unstructured Free Time

Life today often feels like a frantic race in which we are forever a few steps behind. Chances are, if you are feeling the stress of living in our 24/7 world, yours kids and students are feeling it too. My mother often comments on how different life is for families today, and it’s not just her perception, life is different.

According to a national study released by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, kids today have half as much free time as they did 30 years ago.

While some may conclude that this lack of free time leads to a more productive child, from a brain development standpoint it is quite the opposite. When kids engage in unstructured play they stimulate the areas of their brain responsible for problem-solving, critical thinking, decision-making, and creative thinking. It is during empty hours that kids learn to become self-reliant and responsible–critical life skills.

What’s more, over-scheduled kids tend to be anxious, angry and burn out on their favorite organized activities before the age of 13. They often display a range of symptoms from headaches and stomachaches to temper tantrums, an inability to concentrate in school, and sleeping problems.  

More importantly, by cramming activities into a child’s schedule, we deprive them of something very special: The gift of just being a kid.

In this multi-tasking world, in which the push to do more and do it faster is always on our minds, it is no surprise that the effects have trickled down to childrearing. We get caught up in the belief that if we want our kids to be successful, learning sooner is better. In fact, there is a wealth of information that proves exactly the opposite.

Children need time to recharge their batteries and process what they’ve learned. Free time allows them to explore, to be scientists, discoverers, creators, and innovators. They do that when they build snowforts, turn stairwells into cardboard slides, or find the remarkable in the mundane.

As parents we do have a choice. We can help them be creative problem-solvers, to be energized by their own imaginations and curiosity, and to be happy kids. That’s where doing nothing, sometimes even to the point of being bored, comes in.

The holiday break from school is a great opportunity to recalibrate your schedule and your priorities, slow down and set aside time for kids to just be kids in 2016.

Here are 6 ways to inspire you to have an unscheduled 2016.

  1. Stop the Frenzy. This media-savvy generation is being raised to believe that life is a non-stop rollercoaster of activities – and if every moment isn’t filled, then something’s wrong. This is a great time of year to reflect on your family priorities, and determine if they are aligned with the life you want to create.
  2. Be a role model. You are your child’s best teacher. If your kids see that you value unstructured time, they will, too. Carve out time to turn off your cell phone, stop checking your email, and just hang out, without lamenting that you “should” be doing something.
  3. Un-plan.  If your child seems tired, unable to concentrate in school or on homework, has frequent meltdowns or difficulty sleeping, they may be on overload. In a blank calendar, fill in a typical week in your child’s life, listing each activity and when it’s scheduled. If your child is under the age of 10, I recommend 2 afternoons a week and one weekend day for unstructured activities.
  4. Schedule unstructured family time. Keep it sacred. Try to have one day a week that has nothing on the calendar. Make a big dinner, take care of the house, or rent a movie and eat popcorn. Give the entire family a day to recharge.
  5. Tune out “I’m bored!” cries. Despite your efforts, it will happen. And it doesn’t mean you’re not being a good-enough parent. Instead of jumping in to offer entertainment, make a few suggestions, be strong, and let them figure it out on their own! 
  6. Not in our house. It is easy to get sucked in to your child’s argument that everyone else in his or her class has an iPhone. Be intentional about the gifts you give this holiday season. Do they inspire creativity, problem solving, and unstructured play? If they require a cord or a charger chances are they do not.

Do you have suggestions for activities and gifts that inspire creativity and free play?  Please share them with me on Facebook , I’d love to hear from you!

Kristen Race, Ph.D.
Founder, Mindful Life

P.S. For more ways to practice mindfulness in 2016, join our Weekly Wellness Program.  Created for classrooms, enjoyed by students, teachers, school counselors, principals, camp counselors, camp directors, parents, youth coaches and more.  It’s on sale for just $79 for 38 mindfulness modules that will transform your 2016.  Use code: amazingteacher for the discount.  Valid until December 11, 2015.  Sign up for yourself here.  Give it as a gift to your favorite teacher, colleague, coach or friend here


back to top