A few weeks ago, I found my daughter on an early morning hunt through the craft/recycle bin. She told me she had the perfect idea for a fairy house and wondered if I had an extra garden pot she could use. She asked her father for a piece of scrap wood, and her brother gave her the rest of his nails (as long as she promised to have a Nerf battle that afternoon). Around 9 am I was called out to the yard. So pleased with herself, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had tried to intervene or told her it was too early; if we told her no, she couldn’t use our supplies, or she didn’t have time to play.
I know exactly what would have happened. She would have lost interest and wanted to watch TV. Instead, she woke up knowing there was nothing she had to do that morning and all she needed was a craft box, a couple of Yes, you can from her family members, and the inspiration free play offers.
It took a while for my children to get used to free time. When we started homeschooling my son told me he was bored a lot. He didn’t know what to do with the uncomfortable feeling or the extra hours he had to spend his way. The words “I’m bored” can trigger all sorts feelings in a parent. Maybe it feels annoying because there’s a house full of toys or upsetting because in the mind bored equates to not happy. Maybe classes, camps, and constant activities are not possible, and guilt is present. The first thing we have to do when our children say they are bored is check in with ourselves. How does the word BORED make you feel?
The truth is, a child saying they’re bored is a child saying I don’t know how to spend my time, and it’s nothing that needs a quick fix.
Summer break can be jarring for children. Used to schedules, summer is a big transition, and no matter how wonderful, change can feel hard. As children tap back into what free-time looks like, they might feel off. They may choose to lie on the couch and moan they’re bored or pick fights with their siblings. Kids need time to muddle around a bit and figure out how they want to spend their days. Boredom isn’t something parents need to fix. Instead, offer space to help children settle into a new summer rhythm.
How to Create Space for Free Play
1. Be okay when kids say they’re bored– children need unscheduled, unstructured time to play. Anytime my children go from a lot of structure to free time, at first it’s hard for them to figure out how to spend their time. Once they get used to the freedom, they enjoy it (a lot) and creativity and curiosity bloom.
2. Create a Summer Wish List– brainstorm with your family all the things you might like to do this summer. These can be activities like go to the pool or out for ice cream, but encourage free play ideas as well. Think about the toys and materials already on hand. Maybe add things like, get out the easel, build a fort, make jewelry, rewatch a movie series from start to finish, or take a bike ride. Aim for a full list of ideas that include what each family member would like to do.
My family creates a list like this for each seasonal transition. It gets us thinking about how we want to spend our time and serves as a gentle reminder when we’re looking for something to do. We hang it up somewhere we can see it and use it. At the end of the season, we’ve rarely done everything on the list. That’s not our goal. But we’ve done many of the things we hoped we would, often multiple times.
3. Make sure kids have places to play. Organized spaces, inside and out, invite imaginations into free play. It’s hard to paint if the brushes are missing, build if tools are only for adults, and play games if the pieces aren’t in the same box. If a space needs tender loving care, spend the first week of summer working together to get a table cleared, games sorted, and find craft materials one home. It will remind everyone of all the cool things already on hand and maybe spark some inspiration.
Tip- Start small, don’t worry about having the perfect containers or shelving. Put like things together. Ziplock bags and boxes work fine. This is not the time to reorganize an entire house or if it is and doing so is on your summer wish list, do the kids’ area first, so they have things to do and play with while kitchen cabinets and closets get emptied.
4. Strew – a popular term in unschooling communities, strewing means to leave toys, materials, books- items your children might find interesting or enjoy- where they can find them. There is no assignment or project attached, no pressure. By leaving things out, (and changing them up) a child might get curious about something and begin to explore or play.
Things to Strew-
- Microscope and slides, magnifying glass, things from outdoors left out on a nature table
- Blocks, K-nex, Legos, bins of toys your child once loved but forget to pull out moved to where they can see it or left on a table.
- Craft supplies- a watercolor with paper and brushes, clay and cookie cutters, magazines, scissors, glue, and paper. I often put art supplies on the kitchen table for them to find when they get up.
- A book they might like left on their night table or the coffee table.
5. Tend to Spaces Regularly and Make Clean Up a Family Effort– Free play and creativity can be messy, which is great, as long as it’s tended to afterward. Inspiration heads the other way when a space is too messy or materials are lost or broken. Everyone in our family helps keep our home clean, safe, and makes sure our tools are put away where they belong (most days- it’s a practice).
- Have a designated clean-up time
- Remind kids dried up paintbrushes mean you can’t paint later and nails left in the garage equal a flat tire. Be concrete. If we leave this out, this can happen.
- Encourage one project at a time.
- Have a project box or area for kids who must have multiple projects happening at the same time.
- Set aside hammers, wood, nails, cooking utensils, art supplies, etc. that are for anyone to use. Let kids know if there is something that is off limits or needs adult supervision.
6. Collect Trash and Recycling– A large box in my children’s playroom holds recycled materials they might one day use. Inside the box- toilet paper rolls, bits of string left over from packages, corks, and wire are jumbled among little containers, bits of fabric, and other odds and ends. The box is my attempt to organize all the things they pull out of the recycle bin or find wherever they go and are sure they might one day use. It’s a mess, really, but only to me. To my builders, it’s a box of treasure.
So many wonderful projects have come out of their box. Trash to treasure, for sure. This type of play does not require kits or instructions, only an imagination, some good glue, and maybe some tools from the garage.
7. Encourage Curiosity and Creativity– I’ve found the more time my children have to play, the more plays I’m invited to watch, questions I’m asked, designs I’m shown, homemade gifts I’m given. My children are excited to share what they are doing and learning and want to share it with me. When I stop what I’m doing and get excited with them, I encourage their play, and we build connections even if we are not playing together.
Organized activities and projects are wonderful, but as busy days turn into summer, relax when a child says they are bored. Create space and time for free play. When children have “nothing” to do they have time to relax, explore, and imagine- all things that make for a wonderful summer!
Looking for more ideas- check out Weekly Wrap-Up.