From books, arts and sports classes to iPads and television, many parents do everything in their power to entertain and educate their children. But what would happen if children were just left to be bored from time to time?
Sporting, musical and other organised activities can certainly benefit a child’s physical, cognitive, cultural and social development. But children also need time to themselves – to switch off from the bombardment of the outside world, to daydream, pursue their own thoughts and occupations, and discover personal interests and gifts. However, unstructured time is critical in child development as it gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity. This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create.
Unstructured time also challenges children to explore their own passions. If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or fill their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the interests of their own, which might include making a monster from clay, write a short story, or simply study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein did for hours). These calls from our heart are what lead us to those passions that make life meaningful, and they are available to us beginning in childhood -- but only when children are given free rein to explore and pursue where their interests lead them.
It's also essential for children to have the experience of deciding for themselves how to use periods of free time, or they'll never learn to manage it. One of our biggest challenges as adults, and even as teenagers, is learning to manage our time well.
Do remember, children are always happiest in self-directed play. That's because play is children's work. It is how they learn to work out emotions and experiences they've had. Watch any group of children playing and they will organize themselves into an activity of some sort, whether that's making a human train, pretending to be a dinosaur or seeing who can jump farthest.