So what happens if you leave the kids to their own devices – a healthy dollop of good old neglect? Well, to be perfectly frank, this happens a fair bit in our household. I run by the maxim that if there is peace and quiet and everybody’s happily engaged in something then jolly well Let Them Be and enjoy the peace. In the week we have a happy little rhythm that we flow through but at weekends my parenting is even more hands-off and, um, neglectful. I usually have a vast list of jobs to work my way through and the girls understand that I need to crack through them, so they disappear off to occupy themselves – I am of course happy to drop a task to help them if needed but basically, if I was to give it a technical term (this often helps) I could call it “entirely self -directed learning time” or “completely child-initiated creative space” or what you will…
This weekend was no exception – there seemed to be a momentous amount of housework and gardening to be got through and Mr S was working on some worky-crisis-thing, so with both parents beavering away the girls just got busy. This time I thought I’d just record the various activities they got up to in one day – I didn’t manage to photograph it all, I was too busy and not quick enough off the mark for some of it.
Breakfast came first, eaten in the garden, while we had a long conversation about linguistics and the origin of words – it was Bod10 who started it with a pretty unanswerable question on how certain words came into being. We decided that some are easy to explain such as onomatopoeic words, or compound words built of lots of little parts (such as antidisestablishmentarianism – ha ha my American spellchecker just spontaneously combusted!!!!), but it’s impossible to say why certain combinations of phonemes became associated with objects or actions or became used to link parts of thought together. On the way through this conversation we covered some Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon (all being roots of the English language) and chatted about different indigenous languages, vowing, as my knowledge is extremely rudimentary to look into this further someday…
It was then discovered that the rope on the swing had broken so the girls set about, working together to fix it, exploring various options on the way, of varying success rates, until they hit upon a temporary solution involving a skipping rope.
In the meantime a newly fledged baby blackbird popped out of a flower pot – it couldn’t quite fly yet, so we had a looooong debate about what we should do for it, trying to balance the desires of the children to ‘rescue’ the bird against what would actually be best for it. Wildlife ethics were explored in depth and people got quite emotional.
Our decision to leave the baby bird in peace for a bit and observe it drew everyone indoors where they found this book and got very inspired. The lovely Beans gave it to Bod7 last week when she was poorly and as both the older Bods are rather keen on penknives it was an instant hit. Both embarked on projects to give to others as gifts – in the process an incredible amount of wood shavings flew all over the place and someone left the glue gun on which almost burnt the house down, but no-one cut a finger off (I did count, just to check) so that activity was a winner.
Things went quiet and I started charging around with the hoover. When I hoovered my way into the living room I found Bods10 and 7 deep in a game of chess and Bod3 immersed in a game of Famous Five in the adjoining garden room where she had constructed Kirrin Island using a wooden clothes horse and some scarves. There was some huffing and puffing coming from the chess game – I resolutely kept on hoovering. An unusual butterfly flew into the room which Bod10 managed to catch and, as it wasn’t a species we could immediately identify she looked it up in a book. Shortly after this photo was taken some chess pieces were flung across the room. I kept hoovering. By the time I’d finished, the elder Bods had regrouped and were well into their second game of draughts. Nice one 😉
That completed to everyone’s satisfaction, Bods 7&3 now decided to do some beading and they each made me a beautiful bracelet (so sweet!) and Bod10 buried herself in a new book. Our lovely neighbour popped over yesterday with a book written by an author friend of hers – Melody’s Unicorn by Richard Swan. Well we lost Bod 10 into that within 5 minutes of our neighbour leaving and she’s been emerging at intervals, I have not yet heard her review but judging by how engrossed she is, it must be good.
After lunch, during which we had a fascinating discussion about nuclear power plants, reactors, nuclear waste and radiation, and chemical reactions in general, we parted ways once more – Bod3 has become rather keen on snails and built a lovely habitat in a colander for a family she collected around the garden, and spent a loooooong time studying them. After a while they managed to escape. And we couldn’t find them (who knew snails had invisibility cloaks???). Which caused some tears and drama because, she wailed, “I loved them sooooo much!!!!”.
Bod7 (wisely) took herself off to listen to her Narnia audiobook in her bedroom whilst standing on her head in her bed (don’t ask, but it makes her happy) and Bod10 split herself between her book and the new chickens we are baby-sitting for a while. They are only babies, not yet laying and have been raised by hand so are very cuddly and sweet.
When Bod7 had trickled back downstairs again, fresh from her Narnia fix, she whipped Bod3 into an elaborate imaginary game of Narnia at the bottom of the garden – a lot of it seemed to happen in the tree house, and involved little bottles of “Lucy Potion”.
With all the housework and gardening as complete as it was ever going to be, I decided it might be time to hit the beach. So I set off with the Bods, identifying flora and fauna, and cloud formations en route to our favourite spot where we enjoyed our first proper dips in the sea so far this year (well, Bod 7 and I took the plunge whereas the other two paddled – it was pretty cold, in the bone-aching kind of way). We also took the kite just in case there was a breeze – which there wasn’t.
On the way home, happy and salty, we met a lovely nun on her way back to the convent who regaled us with stories of her adventures teaching English in Spain and the corporal punishment employed in schools during her youth. I resisted the urge to make a comment like “yeah – see how lucky you are, I might be incompetent enough to inadvertently ‘break’ the odd banana but at least I don’t hit you with a stick!!!”
Back home Mr S had got the fire pit going so we set to making dinner and burning things in the flames. There was time for a story around the fire and a good long frolic in the evening before turning in, tired and smokey – back to audio-books and books, this time in bed. I’m not going to analyse in great detail all that the girls got up to and all the learning that took place, but it was a busy day. And a creative one. With very little input at all they had a lot of fun, resolved a few issues, and probably learnt quite a lot without even noticing.
You see, I think it is very important to give children (actually everybody, regardless of their age) the chance to have complete control over their own unstructured time. Someone wisely said that boredom was the best gift you could give a child, and I’d have to agree. It is through having the opportunity to taste a morsel of boredom that they become creative and find out so much about themselves, what makes them tick, what sparks them, what drives them. It’s crucial to build that inner compass – and how can they do this if they are constantly being directed by forces outside them and their control? They need the space that boredom and freedom provides to just Be.
It feels that currently the world is a constant frenetic whirl of busy-ness – everybody is busy and the pace of life is fast. Many children spend their days in institutions being told what to do and are then shunted to various after-school activities, before completing their homework and trotting off to bed – they simply aren’t used to filling any available unstructured time with their own ideas, or simply given the chance to spend time being comfortable in their own presence. In the UK families aren’t even allowed to snatch a week of grace in term-time to take a holiday break – the argument is that they aren’t DOING anything whilst on holiday. But why should children be DOING something all the time – why is DOING the only valuable use of time? How about just BEING? Or what if the child is doing something but the adult doesn’t deem it a worthwhile use of their time? Why are we constantly measuring children by some external yardstick of productivity? The truth is, we’ll never ever be able to measure whether somebody’s time is spent in a valuable way – we can try – but how are we going to define “valuable” and why should we make that judgement call? We simply need to trust that for them, that was the most perfect way to spend that time.
We need to give our kids (and probably ourselves) the space and grace to be bored and see what emerges from it. In fact we really should neglect them a bit – we’ll actually be doing them a favour because it turns out that adults who tend to get bored are more at risk of developing mental health issues such as addiction, ADHD and depression (Editorial: Boredom and developmental psychopathology. Stringaris, A, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2016). If we know that boredom is the place where creativity flourishes then it follows that perhaps a constant series of external stimuli, either through organised activities or screen time, is actually preventing children from fully developing their imagination. Now isn’t that a terrible thought!
So Let Them Be Bored! In the words of D. H. Lawrence:
“How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.”
And if this resonates with you then I can thoroughly recommend reading “The Idle Parent” by Tom Hodgkinson, and anything else written by him, for further inspiration and reassurance that a bit of idleness is essential in life 🙂