We were four hours into summer when I heard the first “I’m so bored” uttered from my daughter’s mouth. We had been counting down the days to summer, and it was finally here, yet her brain still was wired for the constant stimulation it had grown accustomed to during our busy school year schedule.
The easiest answer was to plug her in. It takes no creativity, no problem-solving and no thought, and with iPads, DVRs and 24-hour Disney programming, it is by far the simplest way to quell the “I’m bored” whining.
Studies show that children today have 50 percent less free time than they did 30 years ago. For many busy families, the summer provides one of the only opportunities for kids to have adequate time to engage in the unstructured play that their brains desperately need, the kind of creative play that emerges on the brink of boredom.
So, why is unstructured time for children so important? Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their world. It is how they learn to solve their own problems and engage with themselves and others, and it’s how they begin to recognize their passions. If we keep them constantly busy with lessons and camps, or they “fill” their time with screen entertainment, we rob them of the opportunity to respond to their interests and desires, which might lead them to build garden houses for elves, construct forts in the basement, direct their own plays or paint murals on sidewalks.
To illustrate the rich cognitive development that unstructured play encourages, we can examine the cognitive effects of a child playing with blocks. Although block play may seem like the simplest of activities, it is incredibly stimulating to the brain. While building castles, bridges and skyscrapers, a child develops spatial skills, motor skills and hand-eye coordination. She engages in creative problem-solving to keep the structure from falling or to design the form she wants. If playing with other kids, she calls on social and language skills to communicate and engage.
A 2011 longitudinal study tracked a group of kids from preschool all the way to high school. Even when controlled for IQ, the study found that kids who played with blocks in complex ways as preschoolers were more likely to do well in high school math and scored higher on standardized tests. All this from a bucket of blocks!
So, how do you encourage your kids to pick up the blocks rather than the iPad this summer? Here are a few ideas:
■ Buy toys endorsed by Waldorf or Montessori that are tactile, simple and practical.
■ Collect puppets, train tracks, LEGOs, toy dishes and cookware.
■ Create an arts and crafts center in your house. Save toilet paper rolls, egg cartons and bubble wrap. Add tape or glue, markers, some yarn and get ready to be amazed.
■ Let your child create magic “potions” out of ordinary kitchen ingredients, including vinegar, baking soda, lemon or almond extracts, spices and fruit juices.
■ Help your child plant a garden in the yard or in pots and keep him involved with the maintenance and the all-important harvesting.
■ Older kids love playing board and card games, telling jokes, doing puzzles and learning (and performing) magic tricks.
■ Build forts or a clubhouse outside.
If the whining gets to be too much, create a chore jar. When they say they are bored, let them know they are welcome to choose a chore out of the jar to keep them occupied. My guess is they might then find something to do.
Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, www.mindfullifetoday.com, an organization dedicated to providing mindful solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions Executive Committee for the past five years.