It’s the second morning of holiday vacation, and already it’s begun.
“I’m bored,” my middle child fumes, hanging off the furniture in a pile of frustrated girl.
I take a long, bracing sip of my morning coffee.
“Why don’t you all go outside?”
Three heads whip in the direction of the nearest window and then back to me, scanning me from head to toe, looking for obvious signs of illness or mental deficiency.
“Umm… It’s cold out there.”
“There’s nothing to do.”
“I don’t want to.”
I raise an eyebrow, set my cup on the counter, and begin the arduous task of pushing a mass of resistant children’s bodies into outdoor wear that makes them look like miniature human sausages. After the long process of searching and bundling and more complaints than a two-star Amazon review, I watch my daughters milling about outside, making tracks in the snow. My son has disappeared somewhere in the bowels of his room. Two out of three isn’t bad. Now to tackle those dishes.
Five minutes later, I see a tear-streaked face pushed into the window. As I open the door, both girls fall in together, simultaneously shedding clothing that leaves a trail in their wake. They stumble onto the couch, hair mussed from hats and the exertion of getting dressed to spend exactly four-and-a-half minutes outdoors.
“Daddy, there’s nothing to do.”
“I lost my mittens outside. My hands are too cold.”
Great. This is just fantastic. Two more weeks to go. Holed up in this place, we’re all going to kill each other, like a spinoff of The Shining. I shrug and gesture with my hands. “Why don’t you … I don’t know. Play? Don’t you two know how to just play?”
They exchange looks that clearly indicate I’ve gone off the deep end.
“Play what, Dad?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose in frustration. When did parenting become like entertainment operations on a cruise ship, parading a constant stream of organized activities led by an enthusiastic adult? Don’t kids know how to just get down on the floor and play anymore? What the hell have we done wrong?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), unstructured free play is critical for child development. However, research carried out by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates electronics are taking up seven or more hours per day of our children’s time.
Given statistics like that, it’s easy to see why kids aren’t playing. They’re too busy staring at screens of all sorts. Computers, televisions, mobile devices, game consoles all offer an endless stream of effortless entertainment that appeals to both parents and kids. The time our kids do spend outdoors is either an organized sports activity, part of an indoor lesson, or an organized event such as music, art, or dance. All of which are … you got it. Structured. With a side order of heavily supervised.
You can see where I’m headed. My kids, your kids – they all need to play. Even when I take them to the park, I’m pressured by the collective guilt of the helicopter crowd, frowning at my lack of intervention and involvement as my daughter navigates the monkey bars or negotiates turns on the swings. They imply that if I’m not on the floor every moment, wrestling and engaging in horseplay or offering guidance and protection, I’m somehow failing to give my kids what they need and they will suffer from my inattention.
But will they?
“Unstructured play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.”
So what is this unstructured play, you ask? Perhaps you’re as confused as my children.
Unstructured play is a set of activities that children get involved in without adults supervising or guiding them. (Collective gasp from the Mommy and Me bunch.) Seriously. Kids are left to their own devices to figure stuff out and have fun. Without adult intervention. It’s like Lord of the Flies, but, hopefully, nobody dies. Come on. A little parenting humor. Lighten up. This is an article about play. We’re having FUN here. F-U-N. Fun.
When children are left to play on their own, they will naturally take the initiative and create activities and stories about the world around them. Sometimes, especially with children past the toddler stage, the most creative play takes place without direct adult supervision. Unstructured free play can happen in many different environments, including indoors with blocks, Legos, manipulative toys, books, and more. The outdoors, with its sticks, dirt, leaves, and rocks, is also great for unstructured play. If you haven’t learned the beauty of what a stick can do for a kid, you’ve yet to experience life. Lightsaber, sword, Bridge to Terabithia. It’s all there, just waiting to be explored.
According to the AAP, there are lots of reasons to incorporate unstructured play into the daily lives of our children:
Sounds pretty great, right? A modern panacea for what ails today’s children! If only I could convince my kids that play was as awesome as it sounded. Or as I remembered it.
“Come on.” I waved my daughters over to the pantry and pulled out the recycling bin. They squealed with delight as I unexpectedly upended it on the floor.
“Make something.” A plethora of lids, plastic bottles and containers, and an assortment of cardboard and paper had spread across the floor like a tidal wave of trash. Two brows furrowed and raised their faces in an appeal to mine.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what do you see? What could you make with this stuff? Go grab some twist ties under the sink or some tape from the desk and create something. Anything. What do you see?”
My seven-year-old daughter pointed to a two-liter drink container, realization dawning across her face. “I see a boat.”
I beamed. My teenage son came ambling by, pushing a mop of hair off his forehead. “What are we seeing?”
He sounded amused. And maybe interested. Holy cow. I backed away quietly from the scene and hid at the other end of the house with my laptop, barely daring to breathe. I heard rustling and banging and voices. I think there was an argument about the buoyancy of plastic versus cardboard, but I’m not sure. Because for once, I wasn’t involved.
We’ve placed entertainment in the hands of our children and given them the message that play will come to them. Then we’ve loaded their closets with toys so specialized and lifelike that imagination isn’t even a prerequisite.
Forty-five minutes later, they’d hunted me down, stomachs rumbling like a savage war party. After lunch, there was more listlessness followed by suggestions that involved television. Or movies. I was adamantly arguing for reading time but the majority was against me. And then, inspiration struck.
“I got it!” I rubbed my hands together gleefully like a comic book villain. “Wait till you see what I have!”
I emerged from downstairs with a box overflowing with cast-off clothing, and deposited it in the middle of the floor.
“There!” I exclaimed triumphantly.
“Of old clothes?”
Whew. My kids are a tough crowd.
“No, look. Your brother’s old jersey.” I dropped it over my youngest daughter’s head. “Now you just need a soccer ball and you’re the next All-Star.”
They began to dig through the box, unearthing treasures like old ties and hats, suit jackets, and scarfs. While I lounged on the couch nearby, costumes began to take shape: Pirates and railroad conductors, accountants and newspaper reporters. When they lost interest, I quietly referred them to a stack of board games gathering dust in the cupboard.
“Those are too hard, Dad. We don’t know how to play any of them.”
“Well, they have instructions,” I reminded them. “And you can read. You could ask your brother, too. He’s pretty handy with those kinds of things. Or even better, you could just use the pieces and the cards and make up your own rules.”
Naomi’s eyes widened as if the thought of discarding the rules and developing their own was sacrilegious. For a moment, I hesitated. Thoughts of mismatched game pieces and lost cards falling behind furniture danced through my head. I steeled myself against the impulse. After all, what was a little damage and loss if my kids gained the ability to play and the confidence to understand that they were capable of making up their own rules?
While I still strive to give my kids my full attention, I also recognize that the opportunity for them to engage in unstructured play is valuable, too. And I’ve stopped feeling guilty for waving them off to go play on their own. They need it as much as I do.
Looking to kindle opportunities for unstructured play in your house? Here are some things we’ve done to create kid-supervised, safe fun.
I’ve seen firsthand the value of ditching adult supervision and the long-term benefits my kids have experienced. We’re all in. We’re bringing play back!
As you might have guessed, everyone made it through vacation unscathed. I’m not saying there weren’t accidents. Blanket forts with structural issues can have unexpected consequences. But I think that, for the first time, I was able to watch my kids playing together without feeling guilt over my lack of involvement as I tackled housework or answered emails.
In the last afternoon before school started again, I heard a strange sound rolling across the backyard. Peering out the window, I saw a maze of sticks drawing patterns across the snow. The girls were tiptoeing through it in boots, snickering and whinnying like horses. It was a medieval joust, where the horses lowered their heads and charged one another as the riders attempted to unseat each other. I opened the door and clapped, pleased by their resourcefulness.
“Do you need an audience? A king, perhaps?” I offered.
The girls glanced at each other and then pointed into the distance, to a row of twigs I hadn’t seen before. Stuck in the snow and standing like little soldiers.
“We already have an audience. See, Dad?”
“My mistake.” I smiled. “Carry on.”
I turned back toward the house, chuckling a little to myself. Who needs an adult when you have sticks? Precisely the point.
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”
As the evening light lengthens, my children grow restless. They can feel summer approaching, that long stretch of unfettered relaxation and recreation that beckons with promises of lazy days.
It was late spring, and we were all lounging around after dinner, discussing plans for the best summer. Like ever.
“I can’t wait to sleep in,” groaned my son, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. Teenagers. They’d sleep through the apocalypse if you let them.
My youngest piped up. “I want to go swimming. Every day, Daddy. Pleeeeease?”
She’d been obsessed with getting back into the water ever since she’d cajoled me into buying that new swimsuit the previous week. Last night, she’d slept in the damn thing. Her plans to morph into a mermaid were definitely underway.
Naomi snorted. “I’m sure Dad has other plans.” She rolled her eyes.
“What?!” I spread my arms out in mock humility. “What do you mean? It’s your summer vacation.”
“Yeah, Naomi’s right,” my son joined in. “You always have a project in mind. What’s it gonna be this year?”
It was hard to play innocent because their skepticism was well founded. Like most parents, I feel vaguely guilty about letting my kids spend an entire two months slacking off. That’s an awfully long time to let young brains sit around inactive, gathering up slang, bad habits, and impressive amounts of junk food. A few summers ago, however, I’d begun to find a few projects to sneak learning into the playful joviality of our summers. Nothing too time consuming, most of it masquerading as the best time they’d ever had. It took them a few years to catch on.
Maya’s eyes widened in recognition. “Is that why we did that alphabet garden last year?”
I smiled back sheepishly. Last summer, just as Maya was learning to read, I had announced we’d begin a garden. But not just any garden. An alphabet garden. I’m pretty sure my youngest daughter envisioned letters sprouting up from the soil like a vegetable fairy tale. Everyone pitched in to help. My son and I worked together to build the raised beds, introducing him to basic tools and honing his skills of measurement and engineering. The girls helped pick out the seeds and planted them in neat rows, weeding and watering until up sprouted asparagus, beets, and carrots. It kept them all active and excited about the outdoors, with the added benefit of encouraging Maya to continue practicing her letter sounds.
“Umm… Well, it was fun, wasn’t it?”
“So you learned a few things along the way, right? Nothing very harmful in that!”
“It’s like that time we did the lemonade stand,” Naomi reminded me.
“You loved that!” I responded defensively.
And she had. A few years back, my middle daughter had shown signs of becoming a budding entrepreneur, so I encouraged her to set up a lemonade stand. We worked together to fashion it out of spare wood in the garage. Then we sat down and made up a business plan. With a little assistance, she was able to determine how much her operating costs would be, including supplies for making the lemonade, and how much she would need to charge to achieve a certain profit margin. Naomi even paid her cute little sister to stand on the street and wave a homemade sign at passing vehicles to entice thirsty customers to stop. Naomi made a tidy sum. Much more importantly, she exercised her mind and her entrepreneurial spirit.
Naomi nudged me with her shoulder. “I’m just teasing you, Dad. It was fun. We could do that again.”
“Actually,” I admitted, “I have something else in mind for this summer.”
“Do I have to follow the garbage truck around?” Maya asked. Her voice was tinged with equal parts of awe and trepidation.
Ivan laughed, and we shared a knowing glance. When he was about five, he’d had an intense interest in the garbage collector. He’d sit at the window, patiently waiting for the huge, noisy contraption to come rolling up to the house. After observing his obsession, I encouraged him to go out and talk to the sanitation workers. I helped him draft a series of questions, and we documented the interaction with a few photos. Afterward, Ivan got invited to tour the waste facility and see where the trash ended up. I made him a little scrapbook to document the experience. It was probably still lying in a cupboard somewhere.
“Nope. No rubbish. I’ll give you a riddle. We’ll see if you can guess it.”
I had their attention now. I hesitated for a moment, digging around in my brain for something that might pass muster. Then I hit upon an idea.
“What has no beginning, no middle, and no end, but touches every continent?”
“An airplane?” Maya guessed, looking puzzled.
I shook my head.
Naomi furrowed her brow, then exclaimed, “I know! A ship. We’re going on a cruise.”
“That’s much closer,” I confirmed. My son was already grinning, and I knew he’d stumbled onto the answer.
“Go pack your swimsuit, Maya. We’re going to the beach,” Ivan said triumphantly. “The answer is ‘An ocean.’”
“The beach!” my youngest daughter squealed, and ran into her room to unearth her suitcase from the closet. I didn’t bother to protest that it was weeks away. It was likely she’d pack that bag fifteen more times in the coming days before she was satisfied.
“So what are we going to do there, Dad?” Naomi asked excitedly, no doubt fishing (pun intended) for details on the fun to be had in that playground of sand and sun.
“Oh, nothing much. Just learning about tides and waves and going on scavenger hunts for shells. And erosion. We’ll have to do some research into erosion before we go.”
There might have been some good-natured grousing about my intentions to pack those days at the seaside with learning adventures, but in the end, I knew my kids would agree. It was the best summer. Like ever.
Want to pack some learning into your play? Try a few of the following suggestions:
Make an Awesome Alphabet Garden
Gardening is a fab way to teach kids the science of how things grow. To make it even more exciting, instead of just planting a bed, make a themed garden. It doesn’t have to be by ABCs. You can also plant by color. Plant your garden in a place where they will be motivated to look after it. Caring for living, growing green things is a good lesson in responsibility.
Go to a garden center or look through some magazines to get some ideas and decide together what plants to get. Get your child to make a tag for each plant or paint the name of the plant on a rock. Kids are naturally impatient; they’ll be scanning the soil daily, looking for evidence of shoots, so try to choose hardy, fast growers.
A word of caution. If your child is going to be planting certain plants he hasn’t been exposed to before, or collecting insects that you and he don’t recognize, there’s always the chance that he’ll turn out to be allergic to one or more of them. Especially if you’re away from home in the woods (or in another country) when undertaking those activities, it’s a good idea to keep an epinephrine pen with you, just in case. (For most of my young childhood, my parents and I never knew that I was allergic to black flies until the day came that one bit me.)
Bonus points: Keep a journal! Your kids can draw how plants grow, log measurements, and even record how the plant changes over time.
Pucker Up and Create a Lemonade Stand
Want to teach your kids math and science skills? Encourage your little entrepreneur to run a lemonade stand. They will be making the lemonade, which involves mixing and measuring. They’ll also exercise social skills as they deal with customers in the neighborhood. Your child can make a sign to advertise the day and date of the lemonade sale and get younger siblings involved helping to catch the attention of potential customers.
Get your kids to think of reasons that people would want to buy the lemonade and how the kids can use their advertising to target potential customers. Is the lemonade ice-cold? Homemade? What price should the kids charge to cover the cost of ingredients? Where should the stand be to maximize passing traffic? Encourage them to think about how to decorate the stand to be eye catching and encourage people to stop. Practice counting out money and make sure your little business owner is well supplied with change.
Need a simple recipe for homemade lemonade that even a young kid can manage? We’ve got you covered.
Place the ingredients in a large plastic pitcher, stir, and chill. Congratulate yourself on parental awesomeness – right up until you realize you forgot to buy cups.
Bonus points: Once the big event is over, talk about what they’re going to do with their money. Here’s another opportunity to teach your kids about the value of money and how to budget wisely. Encourage them to save at least a portion of their earnings or donate it.
Travel the “World”
Everywhere you go is an opportunity to learn. At the beach, in the shops, or even just driving around, you’ll encounter opportunities to encourage development.
Where does mail go? How do donuts get their holes? How do we get milk? Where does bread come from? Go into a shop, a post office, or a farm, and let them “interview” the staff. Your kids might need your assistance with formulating good questions and perhaps some adult intervention to get a behind-the-scenes look at how things work. Before you go, talk to your child about what they want to know and do some research.
Bonus points: You can even take loads of photos and make a scrapbook of their experiences when they get home. They can create an interesting story about what they’ve learned.
Curtain Call! Turn a Book into a Play
Two very important parts of learning are literacy and creative or imaginative play, and this activity includes both. Very young children may need the book read to them, but they are capable and enthusiastic actors, and they can certainly lend a hand with scenery and costumes.
Let your children choose one of their favorite books, reread it, and then work together to write down what they want their play to be about, based on the book. Older kids familiar with plays can do this on their own with minimal guidance. Have them think about which characters to include and what the beginning, middle and end of the play should be. The play doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of the book. Let them think creatively about how they want their production to turn out. Once the plot is complete, they can choose friends or siblings to take part and play different roles.
Help them practice their lines and let them design their “sets” in a room in the house or outside. You may need to help by supplying paint, old clothing, plenty of cardboard, and various pieces of furniture to turn this play into a fairy tale come true.
It doesn’t even need to be a straightforward play. Give your aspiring magicians or singers the stage and watch them shine!
Bonus points: Encourage your kids to make tickets and hand them out to people who would like to come and enjoy the show. On opening day, raise the curtain and watch your young actors at work.
“Double, Double Toil and Trouble”: Brew Some Science Experiments
Does it froth or bubble? Explode or ooze? Science has enormous potential to provide hands-on learning and fun. Try some simple science experiments like the following:
Bonus points: To make experiments an even richer learning experience, get your child to read books, draw pictures, or even write a story about what you’re going to be investigating.
Channel Your Inner Beach Bum: Seaside Collections
Regardless of the weather, there is nothing better than heading for the beach for a seaside learning adventure, filled with fun! Before you go, use the internet or your local library to learn about species that live in your area, waves, boats, and other water-related topics. Read them together to prepare for your trip, or take some reference books along with you.
Encourage your child to look for interesting rocks or shells or other treasures along the shore. This can take a whole afternoon as they scavenge for interesting things. When you get home, classify each treasure by its shape, size, or even colors. Keep adding to the collection by hunting for things in your backyard or other places you visit.
Bonus points: Depending on the age of your child, you can also talk about how waves are formed, what causes tides, and even erosion in a child-friendly way. Look for fish or other sea creatures and talk about everything that you’ve found. If you don’t know what something is, take a picture and try to find out at your local library or online.
“Dad, I want to start my own business.”
I felt equal parts of pride and terror as I gazed at my fourteen-year-old son, who had approached me after dinner. His arms were hugging a notebook, and his face was alit with earnestness.
“What kind of business?” I responded warily.
I’d been encouraging entrepreneurial skills in my children from an early age, embarking on projects that would hone their interest in risk-taking and financial literacy and increase their tolerance for failure. We grew vegetables in our garden and allowed Maya, my youngest daughter, to sell them to neighbors and friends. She took such joy in artfully arranging baskets and delivering them, struggling to add up figures, and finding new customers with adorable enthusiasm. Naomi, who has the enviable skills of an excellent marketer, often runs a lemonade stand in the summer. Her advertising campaigns are a marvel, and she creates compelling artwork to draw in thirsty people. Posters emblazoned with big, tall glasses with ice, drops of condensation flicking off their frosty rims.
However, my eldest hadn’t expressed interest in projects like these in some time. I’d assumed he’d simply gotten too busy with sports and school and a suspicious, growing interest in spending time at the shops.
“You know how I like dogs, right? And we’ve been talking about me picking up a part-time job if I wanted. Something just after the summer. But I thought I should start now to get customers on the hook before vacation season starts. And…”
“Whoa,” I chuckled, and held up my hands. “What exactly are we doing with dogs in this business of yours? Washing them? Feeding them?”
Ivan grinned. “Oh, all of that. Pet sitting. I want to start a pet-sitting business.”
Developing a Plan
That evening, I helped channel all that excited enthusiasm into developing a plan. While it may seem complicated to involve kids in the detailed nuisances of creating a business plan, a simplified version of that process is extremely helpful. My son and I chatted about the need that his business was designed to meet, the services that he would provide, and his approach to targeting a customer base. I was shocked by how smoothly this conversation went, how thoroughly he’d thought out most of his proposal before he’d even come to me. When I complimented him, Ivan grinned.
“I know how things work around here. You’ve been having me do this stuff for years.”
I wiggled my eyebrows in mock derision. “I had no idea you were paying attention. It must have been the constant use of earbuds that fooled me.”
Ready, Set, Go
In the following weeks, Ivan worked hard to drum up customers. I lent assistance, mostly in the form of my wallet, to secure some business cards. He was great at building a rapport with both animals and kids. A natural. After pet sitting once or twice for some friends on an overnight trip, he landed a significant gig. Ivan would be taking care of a high-maintenance sheepdog, whose penchant for chewing holes through walls had left the owners wary of leaving the house even to get groceries. They’d be gone a whole week. A long, long week, during which that dog could dig a hole straight to China if he felt so inclined.
Ivan was nervous. I was nervous. But I couldn’t let anything undermine his confidence. Successful entrepreneurs take risks and make hard decisions. Even when their dads can’t stop envisioning the costs of drywall and plaster and hours of labor.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison
Surely you must have guessed by now that there was a disaster? Isn’t there always? But it was a minor one. A couple of bite marks on a kitchen chair and a shredded roll of toilet paper were the only causalities. And Ivan learned a lot from that experience that allowed him to approach other jobs with confidence and develop his business idea into a successful endeavor.
These days, if you want a dog sitter, I know a great one. But he’ll have to check his calendar. His skills are in serious demand.
Here are eight tips on how to raise a successful entrepreneur and set them up for a lifetime of success.
Things happen. Often. The ability to anticipate what those problems might be and solve them before they happen is crucial to success. You can teach your kids to practice effective problem-solving by helping them to verbalize problems and then work out solutions. Get out the chalkboard and white board, scratch out a list, and watch your kids diagramming their way to improved critical-thinking skills.
One of the entrepreneur’s most essential traits is the ability to learn from failure and turn it to advantage. Sometimes, initial mistakes can feel crushing and threaten to squeeze the hope out of your kid’s budding business venture. To help your child learn from failure, I suggest using the infamous Sandwich Method, employed by managers the world over. Start with something positive to provide encouragement in the face of failure. Then follow that with criticism framed as a suggestion for improvement. Sandwich it at the end with another piece of praise, not only about what went right but also about your child’s positive attitude when faced with adversity.
Sometimes we don’t give our kids enough credit. We second-guess their capabilities and unintentionally undermine their confidence. To foster independence, offer more choices. If they’re toddlers, you can give them more control such as choosing what they’re going to wear or which vegetable they want with dinner. Exposing them to what it feels like to make decisions is vital in helping kids feel more empowered. But be careful not to overwhelm them with a myriad of choices. Keep it simple and age-appropriate. As they get older, you’ll have lots of opportunities to trust them to make bigger decisions.
Entrepreneurs often take huge risks, but they didn’t become comfortable with uncertainty overnight. While kids are young, give them the freedom to test their boundaries and master their fears. Offer assistance at first, stretching out a hand to bolster an unsteady one. But then, as their steps grow firmer, let go. They may fall, but each step they take will be toward greater confidence in the face of failure.
Society requires adherence to rules, especially from children. This is actually a trait that inhibits entrepreneurship. I’m not saying they should constantly buck the system, but you can teach ways to challenge the norms constructively by voicing their rationale. What do they think needs to change and why? What would they suggest instead? Teach them to advocate for themselves in an acceptable and diplomatic way.
I know. Having to answer why the sky is blue or if bugs have feet is not easy when you’re driving in traffic or trying to deal with a migraine. But it’s essential that children be encouraged to puzzle out things for themselves. Rather than supplying an answer, turn the question around. Ask them to follow their own logic to a conclusion. And if it’s an incorrect one, perhaps provide some guidance along the way.
Encourage your kids to earn money by hiring them during their holiday breaks. You can have them do some research, produce an invoice, take notes, or even organize files. Such activities exercise their minds, help them develop a work ethic, and encourage financial management. Keep it age appropriate, though. Your preschooler probably isn’t ready to design PowerPoint slides. Not yet.
Have I not extolled the virtues of reading enough? I probably have, but I’m going to do it one more time.
Create voracious readers. Once they’re virtuosos of the written word, they’ll be able to use it to open windows to all sorts of careers. Between the sacred covers of a book or the overflowing miracle of information that is the internet, they can learn everything from car maintenance to accounting.
Giving your child the gift of a successful career is invaluable, so start sowing the seeds of entrepreneurship early and watch your kids flower into prosperous adults.
It was bedtime and a tentative quiet had settled on the house. My son was in the living room, headphones firmly in place, finishing some last-minute math homework to a tune I was certain I’d loathe. Naomi had scuttled off to her room and put her pajama-clad self behind the covers of a book, her reading light shining a soft beacon under the door into the hallway. I was tucking Maya in, searching for a book on her shelf that she’d been enjoying reading to me. For the hundredth time. I was stifling a yawn just thinking about it.
“Never mind, Daddy. Let’s skip it. I don’t want to read tonight.”
I straightened up, surprised and alarmed. I scanned her face for clues. She looked calm and unruffled as she crawled beneath the covers.
“Why don’t you want to read, Maya? Are you tired?” I extended a hand to feel her forehead. “You’re not getting sick, are you?”
She giggled a little and shrugged off my concern. “No. I’m just tired of reading. It’s no fun. I’m going to draw a little. Then I’ll go to sleep, okay?”
If I haven’t made it clear already, let me stop right here and say that I am an avid worshipper of books. As an author, I have to be. I’m pretty sure it’s in the job description. So, hearing one of my kids say reading is no fun made me hyperventilate with worry. My brain got busy immediately, reviewing everything I might have done to get my youngest daughter uninterested in the most marvelous invention of imagination the world had to offer. Before I got too far down the road to recrimination, however, Maya roused me.
“Can you keep the door open? Just a crack? The way I like it?”
“Uh … yep. Goodnight, sweetie.”
I tiptoed away from the door and sank into the nearest chair, perplexed. My kid, not interested in reading? Well, that was going to have to change.
Research suggests that children are reading far less as their lives become crowded with structured activities. In 2005, only 40 percent of kids were reading in their free time outside school. In 2011, the National Literacy Trust released a report that indicated that number had fallen to 30 percent.
As an adult, I relish the magic of a book. It enables me to immerse myself in other worlds, to experience places I’ll never travel to and people I’ll never know. It was a pivotal experience for me as a child, and the knowledge I gained from books was as valuable to my well-being as some of my personal relationships have been. But kids aren’t born readers, and their enthusiasm for the written word has everything to do with their access to books, the way they were raised, and their learning environment.
The 2011 report from the National Literacy Trust indicated the following:
Want some good news? Me too. The report also found that the percentage of kids who enjoy reading has remained rather stable, at 51 percent in 2005 versus 50 percent today. That means we haven’t lost our kids to the tantalizing glow of the screen and the ease of passive entertainment. Not yet.
Reading. It’s Fundamental (as RIF, Inc., has said).
Maybe you’re not convinced. So kids read a little less these days? Meh. Makes sense. With ballet and piano and soccer and piles and piles of homework, who has time to read? But as it turns out, research shows that reading is incredibly important.
Studies have clearly established a strong link between enthusiastic readers and academic achievement. Kids who read outside the classroom were thirteen times more likely to read well above their peer average. That’s significant. There’s also plenty of evidence that the more kids enjoy reading, the better their writing skills are. A study published in Social Forces in 2014 suggests that children’s performance on standardized tests was closely linked to the size of their home libraries. For each additional book in the home library, researchers found a corresponding and consistent rise in academic performance.
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” — Emilie Buchwald
The next evening, I came home prepared. As twilight deepened, I called Maya into the living room, and we snuggled under a blanket on the couch. Warm and content, we chatted about her day and my work. How she had just managed to cross all the monkey bars without falling. She showed me her calloused hands proudly.
“Maya, you remember when you were little and I used to read to you?”
She nodded solemnly.
“I loved doing that. We kind of stopped when you started working so hard to learn to read for yourself. Remember that book about the farmer you used to like? And all the animals?” I questioned her, watching recognition dawn on her face.
“Oh, yeah! I do remember that book, Daddy. I liked the part when the rooster crowed, because you made funny noises.”
I returned her smile. “What would you think if I started reading to you again? Not picture books but chapter books that you might like listening to but can’t really read just yet. They don’t have pictures but I could make them fun.” I waggled my eyebrows dramatically, enticing her with my goofiness.
Maya looked wary. “No pictures? That sounds … boring.”
“Well, there are one or two pictures. Just simple ones. But I think you’ll really like the story. It’s about a farmer.” I dangled the carrot in front of her and watched her rise to it.
“And animals?” She looked hopeful.
“Absolutely. Actually, the farmer is a little girl. Her name is Fern. I think you’ll like her. She’s very spunky. Just like someone else I know.” I tapped Maya’s nose playfully and reached for Charlotte’s Web, which was waiting on the table. “Should we give it a try?”
Maya nodded eagerly. I cracked the spine and cleared my throat.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “One of the pigs is a runt…”
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass
Over the next few days, Maya met me at the couch each evening, eager to discover what Wilbur and Charlotte were up to in the next chapter. By the end of the week, we’d finished the book and moved on to Stuart Little. I’d at least managed to rekindle her interest in literature. But I needed to get her hooked on reading again and convince her that books could be more than just the drudgery of struggling through page after page of words. After dinner one night, I approached Naomi.
“Naomi, I’m trying to get Maya into reading again. She’s bored with her books and she’s probably ready for some easy chapter books. Do you remember what you really liked that you think she’d be into?”
Naomi’s eyes lit up and she ran out of the room. I waited there, confused, until she returned from her room, arms overflowing with books.
“Give her these, Dad. She’ll love these,” she suggested confidently, thrusting the pile at me.
I looked at the familiar titles. “Hey, I thought we put these in storage years ago. I forgot about them.”
Naomi smiled. “I got them back out. I know I’m a little old for them, but I liked them so much that I wanted to see them again. They’re kind of like old friends, you know?”
I nodded. “I know exactly what you mean.”
When I presented Maya with an armload of book booty, she nearly whooped with excitement. “What are these, Dad?!”
“You sister loved them when she was your age, and I thought it was time we passed them along. They might be a bit difficult for you to read, but we’ll start together.” I picked up the first book, which sported a picture of a boy riding a pterodactyl as a girl gave chase, her face lifted to the sky in amazement. “If I remember right, these are pretty cool. There’s a treehouse and these two kids and they go on all sorts of adventures.”
We settled under the blanket and Maya cracked the spine and began.
“Help! A monster!” said Annie.
“Yeah, sure,” said Jack. “A real monster in Frog Creek, Penn … Pencil … Penny…”
Maya blew out her breath in frustration.
“That’s a hard one. Want some help?” I asked tentatively, peering over her shoulder.
She nodded, chewing on her lip nervously.
“Pennsylvania. It’s a place.”
“Run, Jack!” said Annie. She ran up the road.
How to Build a Bookworm in Ten Easy Steps
There is nothing that your child wants more than your attention. Set aside some time for just the two of you to get cozy with a book. It doesn’t have to be bedtime; any time will do. Make it a daily ritual and part of their routine, as essential as brushing teeth or eating lunch.
Even babies can see pictures, hear your voice, and turn cardboard pages. A little chewing on the pages of cardboard books won’t hurt either. Older kids will enjoy more complex stories, but it’s enough for babies to just hear the rhythm of your voice. Surround your children with books in the same way that you surround them with toys.
You’ve had a rough day. The last thing you want to do is read Goodnight Moon for the tenth time. Take a deep breath and try to stick with it. You want your kids to see reading as something engaging and fun, not as something worth only cursory attention. As you read, ask questions. Let them engage with the story and make connections to the world beyond the pages. Turn a bedtime favorite into a game; use goofy faces and voices to bring the characters to life. Whatever works to keep your kids interested and involved.
Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you need an extension on your home. Just set up a shelf or two of great books that your baby, toddler, or young child might be interested in. You can buy cheap books secondhand at thrift stores, at garage sales, or even online. Need new material? You can head to the library for a bigger selection and some recommendations. Find titles that align with your little readers’ interests to keep them coming back for more.
Even after your kids get to the point that they can read independently, don’t abandon reading with them aloud. You can still use that time as a way to challenge them with new, more complex stories, plots, and ideas. They should experience reading not just as something they do for themselves but as an experience they can share with others.
If you can find a series of books with a theme that your child is already interested in, you’ve struck gold. Point your children toward a particular genre you think they might love such as fantasy, science fiction, comics, or pet care. If you can find engaging subject matter, kids are more likely to stick with reading even when it gets challenging.
For six months, they’ve read nothing but Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew. And now they’ve lost interest. Figure out what they loved about the last obsession. Was it the strong female heroine that intrigued them or a good, nail-biting mystery? If you can figure out what they enjoyed most about the books, you can find something new that shares the same elements and will spark their interest.
Test out a few authors. Different authors have different styles or voices that may or may not resonate with your young readers. Get recommendations from other parents or siblings about what they enjoyed. Then hit the library. Grab eight or ten books. Don’t be shy; that’s what the library is for. And don’t compel your kids to finish them all. It’s okay to put one author aside who just isn’t holding their interest and move on to another author who will.
Some parents may be concerned that such books are not as worthwhile as other books, but that’s nonsense. Comics and graphic novels can be humorous and draw kids in while at the same time exploring complex ideas and challenging vocabulary. If other genres have failed with your reader, try to tickle their funny bone.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids’ reading in digital format. Whether it’s a Kindle, a tablet or an iPad, if this is the way they like to read, embrace it. There were some recent studies done that more than half of US kids are reading digital books at least once a week. Boys are generally more reluctant readers, and studies have found eBooks are far more engaging. Just make sure that your children know the proper distance to keep the screen from their faces to ensure they won’t damage their vision. The rule is arm’s length. Reading on electronic devices held too close to the face has been proven to induce myopia (nearsightedness).
Remember that actions speak louder than words. If you show an interest in books then so will your kids. It doesn’t matter what titles you bury your head in, as long as you make it part of your daily experience together. Create a wonderful family ritual of lazy Saturday mornings spent in the company of a warm blanket, a cup of tea, and a good book. You’ll be instilling a lifelong love of reading that’ll inspire your kids and create bookworms for life.
We were under siege. A deluge of rain had stranded our little family indoors like a shipwreck. To make matters worse, I was sick. A miserable, sniffling kind of sick that felt as if I were wading through fog. Ivan was in his room, sneezing and coughing his way through the same illness. I bent my head over a steaming mug of tea, attempting to breathe deeply and clear the congestion.
“No. I am not playing that again. Dad!”
“Hmm…” I wondered if my voice sounded as muffled as it felt, as if I were swimming to the surface from beneath a sea of blankets.
“Dad!” Naomi came tearing into the kitchen, her sister close behind.
“I am right here.” I said it slowly, my eyes closed. Every word of it was an effort.
“I will not play Go Fish one more time, Dad. No way.” Naomi folded her arms over her chest and glared at Maya.
Maya’s lower lip began to quiver. “But I like Go Fish.” It was a whine, long and petulant and just on the edge of tears. It was obvious that if I didn’t intervene quickly, this was headed somewhere I didn’t want to go. Not today.
“Why don’t you two play something different? What about doing a watercolor painting?” I suggested.
Naomi’s response was swift. “Did that yesterday. And we drew stuff this morning, too.”
“Blocks? Paper dolls? Play-Doh?”
Naomi was unimpressed. “Play-Doh, Dad. Really?”
Maya interrupted. “We did dolls and blocks yesterday too. Nothing to do.” She gestured at the windowpane and the wet, windy world outside.
“Well, what about the puppet game?”
The girls looked puzzled. “We don’t have puppets, Dad.”
I nodded. “That’s why you have to use your imagination. You know, that thing that you don’t exercise much.”
Naomi snorted. “I am not playing invisible puppets, Dad.”
“Not invisible,” I responded defensively, looking injured. “It’s a game. I’ll show you.”
Imaginative play stimulates children’s senses and allows them to explore and think creatively. It is also important for developing key skills that are essential for emotional and social growth and success.
Sometimes, our memories of being children are a little hazy. But we all recall being masters of imagination. Whether it was crawling through the grass as a stalking tiger or jumping from cushion to cushion to escape an invisible lava flow, we learned to give our minds free rein to explore and create a fantasy. Exercising imagination is a crucial component of childhood for several reasons. Imaginative play:
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” — Dr. Seuss
I returned a few minutes later, box in hand, and extended it to the girls.
“Here you go,” I exclaimed cheerfully.
Naomi and Maya began riffling through the contents, giggling a little.
“What the heck, Dad!” Naomi looked up at me with laughter in her eyes. “A box of raisins? Plastic sea animals?”
Maya pulled a piece of green felt from the box. “What are we going to do with this?”
I shrugged. “Who knows? You’ll have to use your imagination. That’s the challenge. You take a box of completely random things and see if you can make a puppet show out of it. Create a story around this stuff and then act it out.”
As I exited the room, I heard the murmur of voices behind me as the girls dug further into the box, rummaging around at the bottom to discover the rest of the treasures I had deposited there. I grinned to myself. I couldn’t wait to see what they would come up with.
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” — Albert Einstein
Looking for a few ways to fire up your kid’s imagination? Try one of these tips.
“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” — Carl Sagan
I was lying in bed, pretending to nap, a book open on my chest. Two little faces peered over the edge of the covers.
“Daddy,” Maya whispered. “Are you sleeping?”
I opened one eye. “Nope.”
“We have something all figured out.” Naomi looked ready to burst from excitement. “But we need a stage. Otherwise, it’s not really a puppet show. ’Cause you can see our heads and everything.”
I gingerly eased myself out of bed. “I believe we have an enormous box from when we bought that new television. I’m pretty sure I’ve been saving it for just such an occasion.”
There was cheering. I hobbled toward the door and then paused.
“How about this? I’ll go get the box and help you cut it up. You two work to fancy it up and then give me a call when the show is ready. We can even record it on my phone.”
A half hour later, I poked my head around Ivan’s door.
“Puppet show. Living room. Five minutes. I’ll make popcorn.”
It was a rainy afternoon. And I felt pretty terrible. But there was dancing and singing and a lot of laughter. And popcorn. I’m not sure I could have imagined a better time.
Want a few of your own imagination games to play? Check out these suggestions.
Print out a list or even just a few clip art pictures of items to look for. Then hit the park, the woods, or even just the backyard. When your little scavengers have crossed off all the items on the list, ask them to take each item and tell a story about it. You’ll be surprised at what they come up with!
Forts, houses, tunnels, ships, castles, planes, and more! Find a big box from a local appliance store or save one from a recent purchase. Set it up in an open area and let your children decide what this magical bit of cardboard will be. Give them some things to decorate it with, and if they want to cut out windows or other things, lend some help with the scissors. Watch the cardboard transformation unfold.
Cooperate to create an imaginary creature! Ask one of your kids to draw a head; the wackier, the better. Then he or she passes it to another family member, and so on. Each person gets a chance to draw a different part of the creature. First comes the head, then the neck, the body, arms, legs, and even tails. Use crayons and give these body parts unusual colors too. A creative creature you’d never imagine will emerge.
Round up some old magazines or photos, a pair of scissors, and some glue. No, you’re not teaching a workshop on how to create a ransom letter. Encourage kids to cut and paste their way to something unusual. They can follow a theme or simply go for unusual juxtapositions and piece together some imaginative art.
Print out an intriguing image of artwork from your computer. Have your children create a story around that picture. They can either tell it verbally or write it down. Then find another, unrelated image and encourage them to create another story and connect it somehow to the first one. This sparks some significant activity when it comes to logic and problem-solving skills.
Kids love digging through drawers and cupboards, banging and bashing along the way. Go on the hunt around your house and let your child pick out some strange-looking object that they don’t recognize. The less they know about it, the better. Ask them to invent a description of what the object does and what it is used for. This is how inventors are born!
Encourage your kid to make a mess. Seriously. The more splotches and weird shapes, the more opportunity for creativity. To make it even more exciting, your child should try to use various materials to create art. How about some foil dipped in paint, fingers and hands, sponges, potatoes, toys, rubber bands, or anything else you can find? Get crafty and clever. You might stumble upon the next major impressionist.
This is similar to “Find the Junk” but with a storyteller’s twist. Gather items that your children may not know much about. Rather than strange devices, focus on mementos, knickknacks, or personal items like clothing. Sit down together and have your children pull each item out of the box and develop a story about its origin. Later, if they’re curious, you can explain the real story behind the item. Although to be fair, it’s likely to be less awesome than the imaginary one.
Read a book together that is age-appropriate. Once you’re read it, ask your child to tell you who his or her favorite characters were and why. Also, ask your child to think about a story that would follow the book: what will happen next, who the characters will be, and what they’ll be doing. Let them create their own magical sequels to their favorite stories.
Fire up your children’s imagination and watch their fancy for fantasy take flight. You’ll be ensuring inventive, creative little brains geared for success.
We were having the meltdown of the century. Maya, my seven-year-old daughter, was sitting on the rug, tears of frustration streaming down her face, a wasteland of papers and articles of clothing scattered around her. I was eyeing the clock and taking deep breaths, trying to reassure myself that it was going to be okay. We were already late for school. My instinct was to step in, shove this horrendous mess into her backpack, and bundle her out the door. Couldn’t we just deal with all this later? Sometime in the future when we were both feeling calm and sensible? Some time that was decidedly not right now?
Maya had been dragging her feet all morning, sleepy-eyed and reluctant. I had been nudging her into one task at a time since she’d tumbled out of bed. Nagging her to the breakfast table and then to the bathroom to brush her teeth, trying to ensure she’d get dressed in appropriate clothes for the weather and pack her lunchbox. And somehow, we’d arrived here. With Maya half-dressed on the living room rug, surrounded by the contents of her backpack, frustrated to tears by my raised voice and urgency. It would have been easier to simply do it for her. But I recognized an opportunity not only to address Maya’s engagement with responsibility but also to encourage her confidence and independence. However, I would need to back up. And exercise more patience than I usually do before I’ve reached my second cup of coffee.
I bent at the knees and lowered my face to Maya’s eye level. Instead of reaching for her stuff, I reached for her.
“You can do this,” I murmured into her hair, holding her close. “I’m sorry I yelled. Let’s slow down and help each other, okay?”
“Habitually doing things for your child that she’s capable of doing herself sends an inadvertent message that you don’t have confidence in her abilities.” — Jeanne Williams
Jeanne Williams, a child psychologist in Edmonton, Canada, sees many busy parents employing a “parenting to get through the day” approach. They constantly focus on what needs to be done right now, not about the long-term effects of the choices they make daily. She says, “I’d go so far as to say that all parents do this at some point.”
Even though we’re all guilty of it from time to time, parents are doing more harm than good when they rush in without consideration. The negative effect on the child is called “learned helplessness.” Whether your children believe they are capable of completing certain tasks is deeply rooted in their own confidence in their abilities. And that perception may be skewed by the well-intentioned actions and words of their parents. Unfortunately, if you’re doing too much for your kids, you’re fueling the fire of helplessness and possibly telegraphing that you don’t believe they are capable of managing for themselves.
You end up wallowing in parental guilt, letting that enormous elephant of misgiving sit squarely on your chest. Don’t. Our lives are hectic, made more so by those tiny, beautiful faces that look to us for comfort and stability. It’s natural to want to provide for them. But there’s a line between caring for children and teaching them to care for themselves. We all cross it at times, but awareness of the need to foster independence in your children will hopefully enable you to recognize those teachable moments when they occur. That way you can sit back and allow learning to happen.
I want to stop doing so much for my kids. It’s exhausting. But I’m not sure where to start. Or where to stop.
Here are a few ways to begin fostering independence in your kids on a daily basis.
Ask for Help
Not the kids, silly. You! Ask them for help. Have a little sit-down and explain that you were in a hurry so you rushed, taking away opportunities for them to learn to do new things on their own. Promise them that you’ll slow down and ask for their help in identifying things they are capable of doing for themselves.
Make a List
You can use a chore chart or a good old-fashioned piece of paper, but do it together. Sit down and make a list of things that your child can start to do right now, along with a few items they can learn how to do in the future.
If you start off with a list a mile long, little ones will be quickly overwhelmed. Pick one or two things to start with, and add more as they grow. If you’re looking to increase independence in older children, start with something that will be challenging but employs some skills they’ve already exhibited.
Resist the urge to follow your kids around, looking over their shoulders and jumping in before disaster. They need to fail sometimes to learn from their mistakes. You can set clear expectations for what to do and show them how the first time, but then walk away. And watch the magic unfold.
It’s All about Compromise
There is going to be some reluctance. After all, if you’ve been doing most of the work for a while, kids will probably want you to continue. Who wouldn’t?! Try breaking larger jobs down into smaller tasks. Agree to work together to accomplish something until your kids get the hang of it. Realize that not only are they capable but they also enjoy doing things for themselves.
Throw Perfection Out the Window
Sure, it’s easier to do it yourself. Faster, too. Your kids are going to make a mess of it, leaving a trail of chaos in their wake. But that’s part of the learning process, so take a deep breath and learn to live with a little imperfection for a while. It’ll be worth it in the end.
Even if their execution is a little flawed, find something to praise. Shirt on backwards? That’s okay! At least they got it on. Shoes on the wrong feet? Hey, as long as they’re comfortable, let’s not complain. But if there’s lots of room for improvement, do provide feedback along with the praise. And suggestions for how to do it better next time.
It’s All about Timing
It’s not always the right time to introduce new responsibilities. If your child is already adjusting to some changes, like moving to a new home or changing schools, his or her plate is already rather full emotionally. Or if the kid is tired and sick, you’re not going to get a heck of a lot of cooperation. Share the load for a while until things settle down again. It’s normal to experience some regression during times of crisis. By offering to help, you demonstrate that everyone needs a hand sometimes. They’ll bounce back quicker than you think without you scolding or criticizing them.
“It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” — Ann Landers
In the end, Maya was late for school. But we both took the time to do something important that morning. I offered to gather her papers while she dressed and brushed her teeth. On the way to school, we made an agreement to sit down that night and figure out what she should be doing each morning and when she should be doing it, to ensure she wouldn’t be rushed. I suggested we make a schedule that she could follow herself, and I reassured her that I believed she could shoulder the responsibility of getting ready for school without my nagging interference.
“But what happens if I forget to do something?” Maya’s voice was almost a whisper from the back seat as she looked out the window and chewed her lip nervously. “Will you be mad?”
Her question clogged my throat with emotion. “No, honey. We’ll just try again. We have plenty of time to get it right.”
The next morning, an excited seven-year-old reported to the living room, fully dressed, backpack in hand, grinning.
“I’m ready, Dad!”
“Wow. I’m impressed, Maya.” I paused — then I couldn’t resist. “Did you brush your teeth and everything?”
Her face fell a bit, then brightened as she shrugged off her backpack and went running down the hall.
“Nope. But I still have plenty of time to do it. See? Five more minutes.”
“Okay. No hurry. Take your time. I’ll be right here.” And I smiled as I took another sip of coffee.