Unstructured Time

One of the best parts of my day is the ability to get up slowly and simply be in the day or the moment. I always allow myself time where there are no deadlines and nothing that must be done immediately. This unstructured time is a critical part of my day. And as important as it is for me to have unstructured time, it’s critical for kids.

Today’s kids live in a world where almost every moment is scheduled and planned, where time to be alone in one’s thoughts, make up games or, yes, even be bored are at a premium. Recently, in response to increased stress levels among kids, there have been several studies from universities over the past few years that tell us something we’ve known for a long time: it’s really good for kids to have time that’s not scheduled. More importantly, it’s essential to have activities where there isn’t an “adult expert” guiding and controlling the experience. When I was a kid, the worst thing you could say to my mom was, “I’m bored.” Her response was a rather mordant, “No, you’re not. You have your books, your games, your brothers and all of outdoors. Figure it out.”

So we did, and it was amazing. Though we didn’t know it then, the ability to make choices, manage our own time, create a social network and figure out something to do that would be fun and (by our definition) productive and worthwhile, set us up for a lifetime of being self-motivated and confident. Simply put, when you’re not looking for someone to make things happen for you, you make them happen for yourself. When someone isn’t telling you what to do or the “right way” to do something, you increase what psychologists call “executive function.”

I realize that in 2019 it’s not the same as when I was growing up when long summer days had no planned activities, and I lived in a neighborhood overrun with kids. My mom would give us breakfast and turn us out of the house where we would find something to do, whether that was physical such as climbing trees or jumping between garage roofs (not recommended), simply “riding bikes,” or going to the library and getting a pile of books to read later under a tree. We were expected to be self-reliant and live within certain rules for safety in our town. We did, and I’ll always be grateful that my parents, and in fact all the parents in the neighborhood, were in agreement about that. We like to say we were raised with “benign neglect.” It may have come from our parents having a lot to do and the prevailing attitude at the time that they were not required to create fun and entertainment for us all the time, but it worked nonetheless.

So, it may sound dichotomous to say that you might considering planning unstructured time, but think about the benefits. (By the way, it’s also good to make this time away from screens.) Allowing kids to be self-directed, be creative, explore and discover themselves is as critical to their development and well-being as mastering skills.

To this day, some of my happiest moments are still spent in unstructured time, whether it’s gazing at the wonderful city outside my window, taking a walk with a friend or just being quiet in the park or out in the country. Having the freedom to go where life takes you, being open to possibility and having the confidence you can get there is a wonderful gift to give kids. And it may relieve some pressure on you as well to be in control all the time. As Sid says in ToyStory: “Double prizes!”

What are you doing for yourself and your kids to unplug, unstructured and just experience the world?

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