Homework, football, ballet, catechism… where is the free time for kids?

Can more balanced daily schedules lead to more creative use of digital devices and improved digital skills?

There is a sense of alarm among parents when one mentions ‘free time’ and children
There is a sense of alarm among parents when one mentions ‘free time’ and children

To understand how children appropriate technologies takes more than statistics.

To generalise about large proportion of boys and girls, as psychoanalyst Anna Freud says, is dangerous if it is based on quick survey results. Best to describe how children would turn out only after long-term, direct observation. 

Parents and children live in anticipation of a highly competitive and very unpredictable future. Rushed to keep up with technological innovations and under all sorts of pressure, parents take decisions about their young in the hope that they will one day live a fulfilled and happy life. Like in a torrential whirlpool, parents throw their anchor and hold on tight: Families build structures, plan schedules, and teach their kids how to stick to these no matter what. What with technologies and the even stronger whirlpool of content, overwhelming young and old, there is little room for a pause, a break, for peace and quiet. 

In fact, there is a sense of alarm among parents when one mentions ‘free time’ and children. And Internet-connected devices, free time and children? Sounds even scarier. But it doesn’t have to be.

After speaking to many children, parents and teachers for the past seven years (the last three of which were specifically for a doctoral research) about technologies, school, extra curricular activities, life in general, dreams and goals, problems and uncertainties, common sense among everyone prevailed: children and free time seemed to associate with trouble.

And ‘free’ time and Internet-connected devices sounded even more alarming. In some instances, free time with a digital device had ‘educational’ to it to justify the use. In other, less common cases, tablet time meant ‘downtime’ for parents and, still, some form of educational entertainment for the child. What children use their devices, or free time for that matter, is more complicated than the presumption that they just “look for” or “get into trouble”.

Leaving children with free time on their hands is a dangerous idea to many parents, teachers, too. During a discussion on local private education a school principal said that, in his career, he has learned how loading physical along with mental work “keeps boys out of trouble”. He believes that “the less free time boys have on their hands the less problems they will create”. Why “creation” has led to problems is a conclusion one can struggle to accept to begin with. 

Yes, ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’ makes sense. But there is also another side to allowing a child free time. 

Let’s face the issue first.

Overscheduled lives

Many children say they have at least one after-school activity a day. They do ballet, football, sailing, horse-riding and so on
Many children say they have at least one after-school activity a day. They do ballet, football, sailing, horse-riding and so on

Many children in Malta, coming from more affluent backgrounds, are so engaged with extra-curricular activities that some actually call their Sunday “my only day off”. 

Many children say they have at least one after-school activity a day. They do ballet, football, sailing, horse-riding, volleyball, swimming, basketball, ballroom dancing, golf, tennis, musical instruments, drama, choir, taekwondo, hockey, languages, and so on.

After school comes the private lesson; then the sports activity – sometimes more than one a day; then homework at home when it is already eight, or nine in the evening. Nine- and ten-year-olds’ winter schedules burst at the seams with ‘work’. Test weeks are particularly demanding. Summer schedules – summer school, more activities, more structure, more stuff. There is little or no room for playing; for exploring; for rest; for self-reflection; for simply being a kid. Add to this the need to acquire digital skills, the danger emanating from the Internet, cyber bullying, fake news, modern-day ‘disorders’, golf, French, and all that jazz…

Such schedules are heavy for a nine- or a ten-year-old. Children don’t have energy for much else.

And right there, Internet-connected devices come as such a wonderful escape from reality. Drained, readying themselves for the next day full of things to tick off their busy schedules, children find an outlet of relaxation in watching ‘silly’ YouTube videos like the Pringle challenge or the Annoying Orange; connecting with others they cannot physically spend time with, ‘shaking it up’ a little with Five Nights at Freddy’s, a favourite horror game; watching other children play video games; or following celebrities’ perfectly edited lives on Instagram. 

On the other spectrum, children from less privileged backgrounds have less extra curricular activities. Football for boys; ballet for girls. Catechism takes all Catholics to out-of-school lessons that, too, tax from youngsters’ mental and physical energies. While these children would often go home earlier than those who are meanwhile being taxied from tennis court to golf course, the common denominator between both worlds is that neither has the privilege of tasting free time. 

Teachers have shared their experience with poorer parents complaining that their children don’t have enough homework. It is understandable that parents cannot always dedicate their uninterrupted attention to their offspring. Legally, parents can’t leave their underage kids unattended either. But the motivation behind requests for more homework would not be so much that the child doesn’t learn enough but that the parent is afraid of leaving him or her unengaged, free. 

One teacher explains it this way: “they [some parents] want them [their children] to do something at home. They worry leaving their kids doing nothing while there is the housework to be done. Instead of leaving them in front of TV for too long they need the homework to keep them occupied.”

After conversations with children from all walks of life, one is left with the same feeling: the negative notion of ‘free’ time and the lack of it to begin with. Children don’t enjoy any unstructured time. There is no unpredictability. No surprises. Nothing that doesn’t involve planning or instruction. Nothing that allows messing around and experimentation. No quiet, self-reflection time either. 

In praise of boredom

Internet-connected devices come as such a wonderful escape from reality
Internet-connected devices come as such a wonderful escape from reality

‘Free time’ carries negative meaning because time in today’s terms has been translated to mean money. Indeed, time implies something linear, sequential, and distributable – a commodity that needs to be respected, used, organised, applied, followed. Time implies the meaning of filling up and emptying, of a beginning and of an ending; the necessity to start and finish; the framework of a factory mind, which must complete a task and a target. The failure to do so means total failure, wasted time, wasted life.

As Marshal McLuhan points out, “money is a specialist technology like writing; and as writing intensifies the visual aspect of speech and order, and as the clock visually separates time from space, so money separates work from the other social functions”. This is to say that free time implies wasted money, or, in a child’s life – a wasted opportunity to acquire necessary skills that one day will translate into money. 

Two precarious dimensions stem from this allusion. 

The first one has to do with the technological lives children live today. Technologies, as Sherry Turkle says, drives life… it should be “drive life” or else, technology…drives life. One follows. Worse – one tries to keep up with the pace technologies dictate. This affects everyone, not just children. To overcome this, one should try and find one’s own pace – children, too. Take moments to pause, to reflect, and to recuperate. 

Back-to-back activities, homework, and a mountain of task-lists, don’t guarantee future success. To begin with, one needs to define success. Curiously, children often suggest two versions - their own and that of their parents! One might want to make time to hear their version!

The second dimension has to do with ‘free time’ itself – that sort of free time that borders with boredom. As any athlete would acknowledge, to perform well, rest is just as important as training. Free time is exactly that: time to rest and reboot. 

More than that, however, free time – time to get bored – can lead to creativity. “An idle mind will seek a toy”, David Burkus writes in the Harvard Business Review. Boredom can take the mind to the cognitive tasks of generating an idea and exploring it as a need to escape boredom.

Boredom allows one to take time for reflection; to see; to hear, and to feel the surroundings; to pause, and consider different options; to change the rules, and the meanings of the things that, mechanically, due to lack of time, one tends to take for granted, and often follows blindly. 

Children are masters in finding new meanings to things, of being creative. Children will see the broom turn into a horse, the bed sheet – into a tepee, the folded white socks – into snowflakes. Adults must acknowledge such qualities, never disregard their necessity, and allow children more time to practise. 

Free time allows children to take charge of their own lives, even if it only means that they design their own Sunday afternoon. They become empowered to take decisions – what to play with, how to organise their time, how to distribute tasks among their friends or siblings. They learn social skills. They experiment with identities. In such moments, children become acquainted with their surroundings. They learn to apply their own capabilities, qualities, and strengths. They connect with their own emotions; identify their drives. They also learn to deal with their own frustrations and weaknesses, too.

This is not to say that children must be left unattended or neglected. This is to raise the thought of what might happen to children when they are overscheduled, when instruction pours constantly. This is to argue that the overscheduled child can only take so much from the tools available to him. The digital device simply becomes an escape from reality, a place to collapse and surrender, not a place to explore, experiment and learn. 

The tightly structured lives they are wrapped in stop children from discovering their innate capacities; obstruct hearing their inner voices. Free time allows them to stop to think, to imagine, and also to recharge. With free time, they can also find their own pace: A pace for how and what they learn; a pace in which they can figure out why they do whatever they do in the first place. In a way this will give them a little leeway to take charge of their own lives. Then they will begin to use the tools available to them differently, too.

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