As parents, we take pleasure in providing our children with opportunities to expand their horizons. Whether through karate classes, chess club or tap dancing lessons, most of us look for ways to help our kids develop new skills and abilities.

But children also need unstructured time — and plenty of it. Kids who are constantly occupied with organized activities don’t adequately nurture their creative instincts, and often become dependent on someone or something else to keep them happy and engaged.

Imaginative play is an essential element of childhood. A cardboard box becomes a spaceship; a collection of stuffed animals can play out complex social relationships. In the world of make-believe, a child is allowed to try on different roles — mommy, teacher, horse trainer. She learns to solve problems, figuring out what to use to make a durable roof for a living room fort or wondering how mama bear can help baby bear overcome his fear of the dark. Child’s play, whether solitary, with siblings or friends, is serious business.

In cooperative play, children learn to take turns. They develop empathy as they discover that their playmates’ feelings are just as passionate and important as theirs. They learn give and take, figuring out how to choose a game that is mutually agreeable, negotiating who goes first on the swing, or managing the disappointment that comes from losing. Vital brain development and life skills are nurtured through pretend and cooperative play.

When a youngster says, “I’m bored,” he is simply announcing that he has forgotten that he has the capacity to entertain himself. If he insists that you do something with him because there’s no one else to play with, don’t feel obligated to give in. There’s nothing wrong with letting a child wander the house aimlessly for a while; necessity is the mother of invention.

If you don’t provide diversions, your children will find ways to entertain themselves. Over-scheduled kids often claim there’s “nothing to do” because their muscle of imagination has weakened. Allow your children their frustration. “It doesn’t seem fair that Dad won’t take you to the mall.” Acknowledge their predicament, and put out art supplies or a box of Legos, but don’t worry too much about making the boredom go away.

Downtime is crucial for children, especially in today’s world of never-ending stimulation. Kids who lose the capacity to daydream become restless adults, constantly searching for stimulation and distraction.

Help your children rediscover the enjoyment of unstructured time, which can only exist in the unplanned spaces of their lives. You’ll be helping them know that, regardless of the exciting diversions of their days, they can always enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

 

Written by Susan Stiffleman