In Praise of Idle Time With Your Child

byJoshua Metz, LCSW

“You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count.” – Winnie the Pooh.

Here’s a young child’s week. On Monday afternoons, it’s ballet and soccer practice. Wednesdays and Thursdays it’s gymnastics and Tai Kwon Do. Fridays are art class. The weekends are even busier with games, recitals and chores. When there are a few minutes, sitting down to do some workbook activities to strengthen math and reading skills is often the first choice. TV time includes a healthy dose of educational videos filled with bright colors, shapes, numbers, and artists whose names even we adults are challenged to spell.

Sound familiar? In the no-holds barred, get ahead attitude of Northern Virginia, finding ways to structure the time of your young child can be a daunting task. Conventional and folk wisdom are filled with metaphors of the young mind being an empty vessel or sponge, eager to soak up knowledge and experience. The more you put in now, the better the outcome later. But what to put in? What really helps children learn? The answer is complicated, for sure. We know from research that there are some key ingredients to learning, not the least of which is opportunities to engage in learning about the world through experiences that have some level of instruction. After all, knowing that two is more than one comes in real handy when cookies are being offered at snack time!

I’d like to add an additional ingredient that I believe gets lost in translating the best intentions of parents into the practical challenge of filling the 90+ hours of awake time the typical young child has available: Idle Time spent with your child.

What is it? Before I answer that, let’s take a look at what Idle Time isn’t. Idle Time has no agenda or curriculum. Idle time has no pre-set time limit or specific setting. Idle time isn’t about explicit teaching. Idle time needs no preparation. And best of all, idle time costs nothing more than the time spent idling.

So what is Idle Time? Idle Time is spending time together with your child without any pre-conceived notion about what is going to happen, or where it might lead. Idle Time means following the lead of the child to harness his/her motivation to explore, connect, or share an experience. Idle Time is all about implicit learning that comes from a bottom up approach to experiencing the world around. You learn about flowers not from a book or lesson or video, but from stopping during a lazy walk around the neighborhood to examine a flower that bursts with color and smells nice. You spend time together on the couch, laughing, talking, giggling and doing nothing in particular other than creating the time and space to turn “you” and “me” into a “we”. You stop at the bank of a creek or lake and toss stones into the water to watch the ripples or listen for the ker-plunk. Idle Time is about being together and open to the possibilities of togetherness, learning simply for the sake of wonder and “why not”. In Idle Time, you throw away the rules of the board game and just see what happens when you look at all the pieces and see what strikes the fancy. Idle Time is what is so often recalled when an adult is asked the question “What was your summer break like when you were a kid?” You stop worrying about spelling TUESDAY, and instead see what Tuesday has to offer.

But how can Idle Time help your child? Well, it has many of the ingredients important to healthy child development, including: Shared time with a loved one that strengthens the parent-child attachment bond; harnessing what can be motivating to the child (and the more motivated you are the more focused and attentive to learning you become); supports focus and concentration that comes from engaging in an activity that is reinforcing and enjoyable; provides opportunities for hands-on experiential learning about the world and how it works; and it’s fun, and having fun means the absence of stress and anxiety. Idle Time together can strengthen imagination and creativity, by freeing the parent and child alike from the constraints of a curriculum or structured activity, allowing new perspectives and uncharted territories to be explored (what do clouds really look like when you look at them upside down?).

If you’re not sure how to spend Idle Time or whether you can do it, don’t worry. Kids are experts at Idle Time. All you need to do is put down the workbook and calendar, sit down with your child and ask “What do you wanna do?” They’re sure to have an answer.

So, as summer approaches and thoughts are filled with “what to do all summer?” that turn into schedules and registrations for camps, clubs and classes, why not pick a day and pencil in some Idle Time. Maybe Tuesdays.