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Making a List

One of the things I’ve written about in this space before (and that I also talk about with parents all the time), is not just scheduling every minute of your kids’ summer, but allowing them unstructured time to hang out with their friends, play imaginatively, and figure out what they like to do (as opposed to what their parents think they should do).

The response I get to this idea often goes something like this – “That might work for your kids, but mine don’t cope well with unstructured time. They do way better when they have a schedule. Otherwise they’re always pestering me about being bored.”

At this point I assure them (and I can assure you too), that my kids aren’t naturally any better at unstructured play than yours are. Especially at the start of the summer, when they’re still accustomed to having their school schedule running their lives, I get just as much pestering about being bored as you do. And that’s kind of the point. They spend most of their lives so scheduled – by school, sports, music, dance, tutors babysitters, and whatever else you have them doing – and the rest of their lives so distracted by technology, that they need to learn how to be bored, how to fill unstructured time.

It’s a difficult transition, both for them and for you. Waking up in the morning without a definite plan might seem scary to them. Anticipating a whole day of unoccupied children will almost certainly seem scary to you. Most of us, young or old, child or parent, are so trained into our structured lives that we don’t really know where to start when it comes to real play and relaxation.

So, rather than start cold turkey, I’ve settled on a simple technique to give my kids ideas about what they can do. On our dry erase calendar, I lay out all the things that we still actually need to get done in a week – doctor’s appointments, soccer games, or whatever. Then, in the Notes section that runs down the one side, I list a whole bunch of things that we can do on any given day – go to the library, play at the park, shoot hoops at the school, make a craft, read a book, play with toys, write a story, go to the splashpad, invite a friend over, and so on.

I also give the kids permission to add things to the list as they discover activities that they enjoy. Additions so far this year include catching bugs (we got a huge beetle the other day), planting flowers, building a base for tabletop miniatures, playing board games (which I’d somehow forgotten), and building a tree fort (which has progressed about as far as you’d expect from an eight year old with a shockingly limited attention span).

The only rules I have for an addition to the list is that it has to be free (or at least super cheap), that it can’t involve screen time (though we have broken this once or twice), that it can’t hurt people, and that it can’t break things. Beyond that my ids are free to let their imaginations run.

And by this point, halfway through the summer, they’re starting to get the hang of it. They know by know that if they complain about being bored, I’ll just point at the list. They know by now that if they keep complaining, I’ll just give them chores to do (there’s always weeding that needs to done). They also know by now that they can in fact entertain themselves, that it’s okay just to sit on the porch with a book or wander down to a friend’s house or go hunting for salamanders at the river.

So, go ahead and make a list. It probably won’t look exactly the same as ours, but that’s the idea. I’m not going to tell you what you should be doing. You and your kids need to figure that out on your own.