When my girls were little I felt it was an important skill for them to learn how to entertain, or play by, themselves. It mostly started as a need for myself to get some downtime, but I soon saw the many other reasons why this would be an important skill for them to master.
Why is it important for children to have unscheduled time to just play?
"Play has another important role in development: it helps expand a child's ability to learn. As they play, children learn how to solve problems intuitively rather than according to set rules. Because they enjoy the experience, they are motivated to use these problem-solving skills to process any later knowledge they acquire. That's a good thing. After all, we don't want our children to simply gain some sort of database of knowledge through education, and we don't want to simply indoctrinate them with our platitudes. We want them to understand the information they've taken-- to actively engage in it, not just compile the information. Enjoyment is a catalyst for owning what one is learning."- Sally Clarkson.
Learning how to entertain yourself, to be content when there's "nothing to do" builds important skills such as leadership, independence, and creativity. To be able to think for oneself, problem solve, build confidence and self motivation. To learn HOW to learn.
But it does take work on our part to make sure we find those empty afternoons with "nothing to do". Here's a list of Do's and Don'ts when it comes to intentional free time:
1. DO intentionally schedule time where the kids have "nothing to do".
2. Don't give in to their cries of boredom! This is part of the process. Often, when the word bored is uttered, or the phrase "there's nothing to do" , I will respond with some ideas for them, and those ideas are usually in the form of chores. It's amazing how quickly my girls find something else do to!
3. DO provide materials and space for whatever catches the child's heart at the moment.
4. Don't help them through problems or obstacles more than necessary. Part of the beauty of free play is for them to exercise their own freedom, creativity and problem solving skills.
5. DO let them see you "play". Being able to set the chores aside and enjoy some time just for yourself to explore whatever it is that puts a smile on your face does more than just fill your own soul. It is healthy role modeling mamas! Let them see you reading a book just for fun, knitting a scarf, drawing in your sketchbook, trying out a new recipe, tending your garden....
6. DO be patient. If we have been going from one busy afternoon to the next with non stop obligations and activities, my girls can easily get out of the practice of knowing how to find their own things to do with an unscheduled afternoon. It can take a few days or even up to a week before they start craving those empty hours rather than expecting for some external entertaining force to show up. Give it some time, and make it a priority, and soon your children will be masters at play.
Being entertained from outside sources (i.e. organized sports, music lessons, art lessons, etc) can be highly profitable pursuits. And they can be stepping stones and skill builders to use during unscheduled time. For example, the child who is taking violin lessons can now, in his free time, play around with the new chords he has learned and create a new song! Or the girl who's Grandma spent some precious bonding time teaching her to crochet, can, in her free unscheduled time, create a new dress for her doll.
But don't let these "lessons" and other time obligations take over your days! Being careful to not over schedule your calendar is a very important part to insure that "free" time happens. It's a balance, and it's a lesson in recognizing your priorities, and learning to not say yes to ALL those great opportunities that come your way, just the ones that fit in with your priorities during that season.
I'm noticing that "play" starts to look different as my girls get older. What once was playing baby dolls, has turned into miniature doll house homemaking and spinning wool. What once was scribbling, has turned into beautiful works of art. What once was running in the grass, has turned into being able to identify all the native wildflowers. What once was organizing her things, has now become running her own business. I would love to hear what kind of play your child likes best right now!
I am writing this post as a stay at home mom who also homeschools my children. I spend ALOT of one on one, special time bonding with and educating my girls and am assuming that your scheduled free time is in balance with building a personal relationship with your children.