Doing Nothing: The Importance of Free Time for Kids

Originally published in Children magazine.

What I Like Doing Best is Nothing! 

"What I like doing best," said Christopher Robin, "is doing nothing"
"How do you do nothing?" asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
"Well, it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, 'What are you going to do Christopher Robin?' and you say "Oh nothing' and then you go and do it"
"Oh, I see," said Pooh.
"This is a nothing sort of thing that we're doing now."
"Oh, I see," said Pooh again.
"It means just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering."
"Oh!" said Pooh.

So that's what doing nothing is.

Even back in 1928, when this Pooh story was written, the notion of letting children do nothing didn't last. When Christopher Robin prepares to go off to school he tells Pooh, "I'm not going to do nothing anymore." Pooh says 'Never?' and he answers, 'Well, not so much. They don't let you.'

These days we don't let them do nothing before they can even walk. Before we know it, we're arranging regular playdates and signing our children up for a dizzying array of Kiddy Klay, Swim and Gym, Pre-Tap and Toddler Tumbling classes.

Suddenly it's time for preschool and we think, well maybe that's enough scheduled activity for now until we hear that Jimmy is taking piano because it's great for math skills and we don't want our children to miss out on that. Then Katy's mom says that there's this wonderful program where your kid gets to dress up in costumes and let their imaginations go wild. At the end of the ten weeks, there's a performance and you can bring your video camera and your entire family.

So, instead of throwing a sheet over the clothesline for a curtain and tying that eighties reject scarf around his neck for a king's cape, you plonk down your $300 for ten weeks. You pick him up from preschool and explain to Sam's mother that he can't come and play today, maybe next week, maybe on Monday. But Sam has basketball on Mondays and T-ball on Wednesdays and your son has classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Before you catch your breath, he's heading off to kindergarten and even if you've been one of the lucky ones who got to stay home for those early years, you're saying to yourself, "Wait a minute! Just where do you think you're going with my little boy?"

Everything happened so fast. Wasn't it yesterday they stuck that silly pale blue cotton beanie on his head and laid him on your chest, all eight pounds of him, your very own beanie baby to love forever? Now he's opening the car door and putting on his own seat belt and ordering you around. "Mom! Don't start the car yet. I'm not buckled in." (Okay, he's a little bossy but talk about safety conscious!)

They were a whirlwind, those five years. And whirlwinds don't need any help in the speeding up department. That's what they do -- move too fast. But we do hurry those five years along with all the classes and activities and play dates. Sure they're all good ways to build esteem, develop skill and make friends, but what about daydreaming and doing nothing? Can you remember the last time you looked out in the backyard and saw your child staring at the clouds? Can you remember your kid just sitting and dreaming and, like Christopher Robin, 'looking at the world with his chin in his hand'?

These days it's mostly "Come on, come on! You're going to be late for class." Who has time to lay on the grass and listen to a wind chime tinkling in the breeze?

My son just turned five*. He'll be going off to kindergarten in the fall, and believe me, I wonder where the lazy, do-nothing days went. And I believe a child's need to do nothing is as vital as his need to attend that Cooking for Kids class. Okay, maybe even more vital.

Last week we were at the park with a group of playmates and the kids were running wild, playing chase. Suddenly my son left the game and burrowed into the bottom of the tube slide. He lay there with his arms behind his head, his legs curled above him, the tips of his tennies tapping against the red plastic. Nothing was wrong, he was simply taking a break from all the hubbub for a little think. Taking a little time out to look at the world. You can't do that when you're running around, you know.

I thought to myself, thank goodness you know how to carve out your own space to dream in. Heaven knows I didn't teach you that. I was so concerned with you being happy and encouraged and stimulated and developed, I forgot to just let you be.

Five years. That's all they get. Let's help our kids find their way back to the Hundred Acre Wood. When you see your child staring out the window, face pressed to the glass, don't worry that he's bored and try not to think about the smudges he's making. If you ask him what he's doing and he says, "Oh nothing," smile and say, "Good job, honey," and then go happily on your way, knowing that doing nothing is a most important thing to do."

* My little boy is twenty five now and he can still be caught staring at the sky. As can I.

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