Learning To Love “Free Time”

Yesterday, I walked a group of campers to a martial arts lesson. We arrived a bit early, so the instructor told the children that they could have some “free time.” What?! All I saw was a big open area and lots of items to kick or hit. Someone was going to get hurt. Nobody did though.

Slowly the children started to get into groups.

  • They played tag.
  • They chased each other around the room.
  • They practiced some of their stretches.
  • They punched and kicked the swinging punching bags.
  • They used the row of punching bags almost like a maze, and they weaved themselves in and out of them as the bags slowly swung back and forth: careful not to get hit.
  • They skipped.

It was amazing to watch the children.

  • How did they interact with each other?
  • Who led and who followed?
  • How did they include other students in their games?
  • What risks did they take, and how did they do so safely?
  • How did they add structure to an unstructured environment?
  • How did they create their own fun?

I remember summertime when I was a kid. Usually my sister and I went to camp for a week or two, and then we were at home with my mom. Our days were not highly scheduled.

  • We read books.
  • We played inside (we did love playing school and house) and outside (tag and hide-and-seek were always favourite games).
  • We ran through the sprinkler.
  • We rode our bikes.
  • We went on walks … and even took our dolls with us in their little strollers. 
  • We connected with friends and had fun with family members.
Some Of My "Free Time" As A Child

Some Of My “Free Time” As A Child

In our own ways, we learned how to enjoy unstructured time and get past the “bored” and to the “fun” (even without electronics). I wonder how we give children more opportunities — at home and at school — to work through the “free time” and learn from the experience. Maybe, despite what I initially thought, “free time” isn’t so scary after all. What do you think? 


8 thoughts on “Learning To Love “Free Time”

  1. Times certainly have changed. We were up at the crack of dawn, on our bikes going through town, swimming lessons in the morning, more biking, lunch, swimming in the afternoon, more biking, supper, bike to the baseball diamonds on some days to play, then had to be home before the streetlights came on. All kinds of friends on the journey.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Doug! Times certainly have changed. I think about your own experience and what you would have learned by this type of exploring: from independence to problem solving. What might children be missing out on by not having these experiences? How could we change things? Is this even a reality in today’s society? I need to think more about this. I’m curious to know what others have to say.


  2. My school is trying a new schedule next year: at least one whole free hour per high school student! As a teacher, I’m terrified, but as a parent, I’m delighted! I hope our students are able to figure out how to use their time safely 🙂

    • This sounds amazing, Wendy! Please share how it works and what the students do and learn. I wonder about the impact on other school learning and learning outside of the school. This could be a very interesting change to follow.


  3. Parents some how feel that they need to fill every spare moment of their child’s life with approved activities because they know best. No, they don’t. I actually monitored a meeting between a parent and a child so the child could say that daily activities after school were too much and all she wanted was to be in the Girl Scouts.
    Free play is a necessity and helps kids learn, grow, and figure things out on their own.
    My summers were mine and I’m glad that they were.

    • Thanks JoAnn for sharing your experience. I’m glad that this student spoke up. I’ve actually seen a lot of students that love this “structured” time. They ask for involvement in these activities, and are quick to say that they’re “bored” if this time isn’t planned for them. Maybe all students need a little time to be “bored” and work through this boredom to create their own excitement: be that in or out of the classroom. As adults though, we need to be open to giving them this time and okay with not always rescuing children with prepared activity options or solutions to the problem of what to do during this “free time.” I know that this is hard for me. I’m guessing I’m not alone. This martial arts experience though definitely made me even more aware that this time is valuable, and that I need to let go of my own reservations to provide a little more of this time. I think that Full Day Kindergarten may provide the perfect opportunity to do so.


  4. I would like to believe we are coming full circle, in a roundabout way, of finding balance when it comes to how we spend time outside of a regular school day.

    As a kid I loved summer holidays, time to do whatever I pleased. But I will say I could have used a break from the ‘unstructured’ and been a part of a .camp or activity. Sometimes I was bored, and I would have loved to have something more organized to look forward to for a week in the summer. Don’t get me wrong, we did whatever for hours and it was good fun but….

    This summer is the first time that my kids are taking part in camps… it is a hectic week friends:) Driving, shuttling, planning, etc… has me on my toes. I can’t imagine doing this ALL summer. In fact? I would be a little resentful if that is what my summer were to look like. But they chose this… wanted to take on some new learning, push themselves out of their comfort zone. I am more than happy to accommodate.

    I look at families who are never home. Kids are eating their meals in the car, doing homework late into the night, tired the next morning… only to have to hit repeat. Not enough parents or vehicles to get them to where they need to go that they rely on extended family or car pools… I have to be honest… that isn’t living a full life in my books…

    I think kids, just as adults, know their limits and boundaries.

    Talk to them…

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Jana! I agree with you. I wonder how many times we really ask children about these scheduled times, and what they would think if we did. I’m sure that the summer can seem like a really long time for kids if the whole summer is unstructured time. As Doug Peterson mentioned in a conversation on Twitter, nowadays it’s much harder to just have children take off for the day and explore on their own. That’s true. So maybe a balance of structured and unstructured is the answer. As with other things in life, the pendulum doesn’t always need to swing to extremes (i.e., no structure or all structure): the answer can lie in between.


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