There is a concerning new trend with twenty-first century kids. Perhaps because they've been programmed and scheduled and micromanaged and adult supervised, many seem to have a tough time enjoying their own company and entertaining themselves. So when it comes to free time, they're perplexed. Their solution: plugging into computers, televisions, or video games or saying those dreaded words that every parent hates to hear: "I'm bored!"
Sound familiar? If so, you're not alone. Why not start today and see the rest of the summer as a golden opportunity to teach your munchkin to entertain his or herself and learn to handle that glorious commodity called boredom? After all, your kid is going to be in his own company for the rest of his life and there's no better time than now to help him learn to enjoy his own company. Depending on your child's age and ability, here are some tips to get you started that I shared on the TODAY show:
Help Them Learn to Be Alone
A word to the wise: if your kids come back after two minutes of alone time, you may need to first teach your kids how to enjoy their own company.
The truth is some of our kids actually need to learn how to play alone. So start by thinking of age-appropriate activities that your child could do alone. (For a young child: doing a puzzle; for an older kid: learning to play Solitaire).
The Baby Step Model: Teach your child the solo activity using the baby step model: First show them how to do the game together. Next, watch and guide to ensure he knows the rules. Finally, wean him from you being there until your child is playing alone.
Build It In
The reality is you still have to be the boss of free play. At first your kids aren't going to run off like Tom Sawyer. Put up a calendar where you and your kid mark in regularly scheduled summer activities (like days at summer school, camp, sports or swim lessons). Keep some hours open and point out that those are times when your kid is free and on their own.
Ideally, you want to find the right balance between free play vs. adult supervised play, outdoor play vs. indoor play, structured activities vs. unstructured. Only you will know the right balance for your child, but keep an eye on what your child's current weekend schedule looks like. Only then will you know in which direction to alter that balance.
Set Clear Unplugged Rules.
Set a specific limit for TV or video game viewing.
Keep in mind that the average child ages 8 to 17 is plugged into some kind of electronic device at least 7 ½ hours a day, so wean your kid away from those video games. Your first step is to assess just how often your child is plugged in.
This weekend take a casual assessment (without your kid knowing you're monitoring them). How many minutes is she watching TV or surfing the net or playing video games? Decide a maximum time allotment and then post those rules so your kid is clear on those expectations. If not, you may end up with a coach potato.
Wean From Your Kid Expecting You to Be Chief Entertainer
Of course, a toddler can't occupy his time alone, nor do you want him to. But you will want to gradually start your child weaning away from needing you 24/7, when you see he or she is ready to learn those independent skills–certainly by preschool. Think baby steps: just wean him a little bit at a time by encouraging him to handle life slowly and confidently without you.
You gauge your child's abilities, but remember your parenting goal is to help your child learn to someday live (and play!) without you. Start with, "I'll be back in one minute—I can't wait to see what you drew when I return. Surprise me!" Then keep your word, and keep increasing alone time. (You can still be in the room for a young child – just not always managing his every move).
Related: 10 Apps You Can Trust and Kids Love
Find Activities To Keep Kids Engaged Solo Style
Here are a few solo ideas of activities that will keep your kids engaged. The secret is to tailor the ideas to your child's attention span, abilities and age when you start child-directed free play:
1. Get a library card.
Profound, eh? The greatest solo activity for a kid is a good book. So encourage your child to read! Enroll your kid in the summer library program. Or get your child a magazine subscription.
Check out books on tape to listen to in the car. (And then discuss them. It's a great way to boost vocabulary and auditory recall!) Download a classic onto your tween's iPod. There are fabulous lists of free downloads on Kindle. I just downloaded The Wizard of Oz to pass a very long plane delay.
2. Start a hobby.
Children should have hobbies. The right match with the right kid often turns into a lifelong love. The trick is to find one that incorporates your child's interests and ability and is one that he can do alone. You may have to teach him how to get started or enroll him with a tutor or class, but so be it!
Playing a guitar. Knitting. Drawing. Photography. Cooking. Gardening. Coin or stamp collecting. Hobbies not only nurture a child's talent, but also become a wonderful relaxer, and can last a lifetime!
3. Embrace the great outdoors.
While that sounds simple enough, sometimes kids need a push to get out the door. Keep a basket filled with fun things that keep kids entertained (bubble blowers, rubber balls, sidewalk chalk, scooters, shovels and pails).
Set up a basketball net.
Give your kid a bag and tell him to go collect something (bugs, leaves, flowers, rocks—collections are great).
Give them a kite building kit.
Hand out plastic cups, spoons and bowls and encourage him to go dig (dirt and water and kids just go together).
Fill a can with water and tell your little kids to paint a fence. (I don’t know why that one works, but it kept my three boys busy for hours).
The truth is many of our kids are nature and play deprived which is a tragedy. Thirty years of research proves that outdoor free play is crucial for our kids' social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Open the door and show your child the great outdoors!
4. Think boxes…boxes…boxes (did I say boxes?)
The Smithsonian voted the cardboard box as the absolute best toy – ever. I'm with them! Stock up on them and in every size from small jewelry boxes to refrigerator crates. They're not only free, but also can provide hours of imaginative play.
Give your kids marking pens and masking tape and they can make igloos, forts, villages, castles, garages, storefronts and hotels. Give them flashlights and they can turn them into caves. Put sheets over the top of boxes and chairs and there is a whole new dimension.
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