You’ve probably seen articles, blog posts, and books talk about how kids don’t have enough free time, and why they need it. I’ve written on the topic more than a few times myself. And you’ll keep seeing these pleas because kids really don’t have enough free time, and they really do need it.
This is especially the case in summer. Sure, it’s great to set up activities that are fun for kids, like day or sleepaway camps. Some kids will have special interests that can be pursued with greater dedication. But free time is something that should be available every day, especially during the summer when there are potentially fewer competing demands.
Why are we making such a big deal about free time? There are lots of reasons.
Kids need to unwind. Even if you think of childhood as a stress-free time of life, the reality is that there are all kinds of stress that impact kids at essentially every age. I’ve done research with 7-year-olds who could endorse family and school stressors – and their perceptions were predictive of future emotional and behavioral problems. Having free time gives kids a chance to simply get away from pressures, stressors, problems, both daily ones and more overarching concerns. Like adults, having some time to just hang out and do whatever you want is therapeutic.
Free time is also a time for kids to find things that interest them. Many parents have told me that kids complain about being bored even though they have so many more activities and devices than we did growing up. The thing is, they get bored because they don’t have enough experience figuring out what to do with their free time, in part because they don’t get enough of it, and because they are flooded with so many choices. When we were kids, we learned to do whatever to amuse ourselves because life could be quite boring. Give kids a good amount of free time, and when they tell you they are bored with everything, simply tell them to figure out something to do that will not be boring. They will. Along the way, they’ll be exercising the cognitive muscles that support creative thinking.
One advantage of free time for kids is that they are not being watched, judged, critiqued, and coached by adults. Kids spend an inordinate amount of time performing for an adult. Of course, there are reasons for this, but when you think about it, a kid goes to school for 8 hours (where he or she is being tested, graded, etc.), goes to a piano lesson (where he or she is critiqued and mentored), shows up for a soccer game (where there is an audience of adults responding to every move on the field), and then heads home to do homework (in preparation for another round of critiques). There has to be some time when a kid can do what they want without getting feedback from an adult – again, that’s where they’ll cultivate their innovation and freedom to think, experiment, or even just muck around without prescriptive advice and assessment.
Finally, kids are social creatures. Free time is a time to hang out with other kids, doing things that kids do.
Kids need free time. Overscheduling and excessive adult oversight can not only wear down kids but it can diminish their motivation to make use of their own time in their own way, which is a platform for developing their own interests and their internal motivations. And some times they just need to chill out. Summer is a great time to get in the habit of giving kids the free time they deserve.