They'll need to learn how to be alone some day.
There's a concerning new trend with twenty-first century kids. Perhaps because they've been programmed and scheduled and micro-managed 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 use this 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.
1. 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. 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.
Or, 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.
2. Make time for activities.
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 activities (like days at school, after 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 versus adult supervised play, outdoor play versus indoor play, structured activities versus 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.
3. Set clear limits on unplugging from technology.
Meaning, set a specific limit for TV or video games. Keep in mind that the average child ages 8 to 17 is plugged into some kind of electronic device at least 7.5 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.
4. Teach your child that you aren't their sole 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. 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 that 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.
5. Find activities to keep your kids engaged while alone.
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:
- Get a library card: Profound, eh? The greatest solo activity for a kid is a good book. So encourage your child to read! Take your child to the library, or get them 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.
- 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. Play the 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.
- 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 them a kite building kit.
- Think boxes, boxes, boxes (did I say boxes?): Stock up on them and in every size, from small jewelry boxes to refrigerator crates. 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.
- Teach unplugged games: I love Bobbi Conner's great book, Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. It's a parent and teacher must-have because it's chock full of fabulous outdoor ideas. It also has dozens of great childhood games like Mother May I, Duck, Duck, Goose, and Round Robin that you can teach your child. Just teach it once and your kid can teach the rest of the neighborhood.
Now, the absolute last thing I'm suggesting you do is all this stuff. But why not just trying one new thing? Stick to a realistic plan that works for your family.
And then if one of your kids just dares to say, "I'm bored!" tell them you have the perfect solution: a list of household chores that you just happen to have posted on the fridge. I bet you anything he'll find something to do.
Isn't it ironic that we have to teach kids how to play and occupy alone time? I'm a big one for kids and lemonade stands, cloud gazing, daisy chains and ball bouncing. I’m also convinced just a little more time in the dirt and water would reduce a lot of kid stress. Hopefully I'm not the only one!
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational psychologist, former teacher, and mom. She is recognized for offering research-driven advice culled from a career of working with over one million parents, educators, and children. A Today show contributor and recipient of the National Educator Award, Michele is the author of 23 books.
This article was originally published at GalTime. Reprinted with permission from the author.