The world that children grow up in seems to be getting more structured as time progresses. Lives get more and more concrete and organized—play dates, team sports, after school activities, tutoring—filling the schedule of the modern child in America.
One thing all this scheduling does is reduce or eliminate free play and exploration from children’s lives. Free play and exploration used to be accomplished in the outdoors—in a park, backyard, or other natural area around where the child lives.
This outdoor play often is the first casualty of modern family life. It can be hard to find free time with two parents employed full-time, or one single income parent, or just a lack of natural areas surrounding the family’s home.
Our emphasis on technology—computers for work and school, phones and tablets to occupy our time when we’re bored, and television shows “on demand”—all cut into the time children spend in the outdoors. The time children are outside is often time children spend using their imagination, exploring, and gaining confidence in their abilities.
A few years ago, I was out on our sailboat with a friend’s kid. We were spending the night on the boat, and we fished from the boat while the sun was setting. It was a calm summer night, and the boat was barely moving as it sat at its mooring. We stopped fishing a little after dark, and were silent for a minute or two as we looked out over the bay. “I don’t know what to do now.” I turned and looked at him, a bit surprised. What did he mean? He seemed uncomfortable without a plan or an activity to do. “Well,” I said, “There’s nothing to do. We don’t need to do anything.”
That brief experience made me think a lot about how children fill their time with activities. I thought about how the structure of children’s lives affects their ability to entertain themselves when there’s nothing planned. I wondered if children have more difficulty with free, unstructured idle time than I did as a child—is it hard to find happiness and joy in doing activities that aren’t well-defined like sports or video games?