The world is moving at a much faster pace than any of us could have ever imagined. Even the most technologically savvy among us are running at an ever-faster pace just to keep up. This crazy pace has dramatic and far-reaching ramifications on the childhood experience of today's kids. Parents feel incredible pressure to get their kids "ahead" and proficient in as many areas as possible at as early an age as possible. This almost manic desire has led to the phenomenon of extreme overscheduling. Children move quickly from one activity to another, with little time to decompress, put their young minds at ease, and just be kids. The lack of free, open-ended playtime is having dramatic consequences on their ability to be creative, and I fear that unless we can change this trend, our kids will lose their potential to become the free thinkers and innovators we need tomorrow!
Why They Need to Be Bored
We want our children to be able to use their minds creatively. Yet creative thinking isn't something that can be jammed into a weekly schedule and driven to by carpool. Imagination is creating something out of nothing. It is about filling the void of emptiness, or, as kids often call it, boredom.
And yet the boredom necessary for creativity to flourish is absent these days. With the constant bombardment of stimuli and the treadmill of activity, there's little time left for it. Even if children do find a minute of free time, they have so much technology at their fingertips that they immediately start texting friends, playing video or computer games, or using their iPods. They no longer have the opportunity to actually ever be bored. And I call it an opportunity, because boredom is a gift!
Parents today are petrified of hearing the phrase "I am bored!" from their children, because they equate "I am bored!" with "You're a bad parent! You haven't done a good enough job of filling the void and keeping me busy!" But the truth is that only when children are bored do they truly have the opprtunity to use their minds and dig deep for creative ways to fill the space. This is how imagination is born. Imagination is how we fill the void of boredom with something captivating and enjoyable.
Building Mental Muscle Memory
The brain is a muscle like any other, and training the brain to be creative is akin to building muscles for athletic prowess. Developing a perfect swing in baseball, for example, involves, initially, teaching the proper technical form but then practicing over and over until muscle memory develops. This happens when a child has swung the bat in so many multiple situations and occasions that he is not thinking about form any longer. The swing becomes so natural that it is virtually flawless in nearly every situation.
The baseball analogy applies to building imagination and creativity. These skills need to be developed early, and practiced repeatedly, so that they become second nature. Just as a child with a well-developed swing doesn't fear facing an ace pitcher, the child who has the skills to build creativity embraces free time and relishes coming up with unique ways to fill it.
Just Leave Them Be
However, conquering the lure of technology is daunting. Adults are working harder than ever, and are tired when they come home each day. So when their kids become edgy and bored, their only goal is short-term: to solve the "problem" and maintain peace. And with technology as an option, the "fix" is simple. If given the choice, children and parents will always fill the void with technology, because it is easy to execute and offers immediate stimulation. But as difficult as it is, adults must force themselves to resist succumbing to technology.
Children will struggle as they fight to find the path to creativity — it's frustrating when their minds are unable to fill the void. And when kids are agitated, adults want to step in! However, if they can just leave the scene, magic will ultimately follow. If they wait 15 minutes and then quietly return to peek into the room, what they witness will amaze them. Left on their own with their young and fertile imaginations, children will inevitably devise some brilliant game or activity, and become entirely engrossed in their own imaginative world. And adults will feel confident knowing that through such exercises, they are preparing children to develop necessary life skills.
A Message to Grandparents.com Readers from Melissa Bernstein
For 23 years I have joyfully designed children's playthings while raising 6 offspring of my own. My goal in developing these creations is to "improve upon the past," by taking timeless toy concepts from yesteryear, injecting them with a freshness and pizzazz, and offering them to consumers at superior quality and incredible value. Both I and our products are inherently simple, and I take great pleasure in watching children derive tremendous play value from such basic items. Our goal at Melissa & Doug is to develop toys that help children tap into the well of creativity, and stimulate their minds and bodies through simple, engaging fun!
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