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Beat Boredom by Utilizing Free Time

How To Help Your Preteen Utilize His Free Time To Beat Boredom

After a week's vacation with their grandparents, I asked my son if he had a good time with his cousin. He shrugged. "If we were on the beach, we had fun," he said. "But the rest of the time he played with his GameBoy. It was like he didn't know how to do anything else."

My nephew, apparently, was overwhelmed by having free time, and he's not alone. Children today tend to be so over-scheduled that when they have free time, they don't know what to do.

Why Free Time Matters

"Free time is really good for kids," says Linda Caldwell, professor of recreation and park management at Penn State University. Learning how to utilize free time, she explains, protects adolescents from future risky behaviors. The time of the day when teenagers are most likely to get into trouble comes between the hours of 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. – after school lets out for the day and before the parents come home.

However, the inclination toward this high school mischief-making actually begins during the preteen years, when children are left unsupervised for the first time.

Most adolescents spent their preschool and elementary school years under constant supervision and in structured activities. Then comes age 10 or 11, and parents decide this is a good age to allow their child some freedom – unfamiliar freedom. After the excitement of being alone sets in (in about five minutes), boredom takes over.

"We want children to learn how to avoid the boredom," says Caldwell, who has helped to develop a program called TimeWise, a curriculum-based leisure education program. "Parents need to help their adolescents learn how to make good choices on how to spend their free time."

Finding Free Time

But first, parents need to give their children more free time. Structure, while good for many things, still has its limits.

"By immersing children in a regimen of excessive organized and scheduled recreation and education, we do a disservice to them in the name of 'good parenting,'" says Todd Reiher, an associate professor of psychology at Wartburg College.

He believes the best way a parent can "manage" a child's free time is to allow them to have free time. If parents don't provide that opportunity, adolescents may be looking for their own ways to "break the routine."

Sherry Tatar of Aurora, Ill., firmly believes in the importance of children having free time. "Outside of school, I'd prefer the bulk of their time to be unstructured," she says. "This gives them a chance to be a kid and do whatever it is they like to do. They can hang out with friends when they want to, play games with their siblings, use their imaginations, do projects, pursue whatever they're interested in and so on."

Stacy DeBroff, author of SIGN ME UP! The Parents' Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes and Other Extracurriculars (Free Press, 2003) and founder of MomCentral.com, agrees. "While your child might have a number of opportunities to pursue after-school activities, she also needs time to relax at home," DeBroff says.

"School takes a lot of energy, and your child needs some downtime to play with friends and siblings and to participate in family activities. She may be interested in music, dance, gymnastics or another sport, but she doesn't need to do all of them at the same time."

Curbing the Boredom

So parents first need to provide their adolescents with free time, but then they need to help their children to learn how to keep from being bored. Every parent has heard their child whine about boredom the moment they have free time (and the parents usually complain that with all the toys, books and electronic gadgets in the house, no child should be bored).

However, most children equate boredom with having no companionship at that particular time. Adolescents will reach out to friends when they are alone to keep from becoming "bored," and when adolescents are together without supervision, they become more likely to experiment with risky behaviors. An adolescent alone is less likely to misbehave.

"At this age, it is important to help kids develop interests and explore different activities," Caldwell says. "Parents can be helpful with that and help them learn to persist with an activity over time."

Gary Delafield of State College, Pa., says his four children have diverse interests: "The kids did a lot of reading [when they were preteens], some writing. My middle daughter worked at French and art, and my son liked computer games – and for a short and really noisy time, the drums." Delafield and his wife encouraged these interests – even the drums – to allow their children the opportunity to discover their interests.

Sherry Tatar follows a similar path. Her one daughter is a writer, so Tatar provides both verbal encouragement and writing supplies. The other daughter is interested in fashion design, so Tatar has the girl enrolled in sewing classes.

Activities that parents support become meaningful to the adolescent. In turn, the adolescent will savor free time to pursue their interests.

Debbie Mandel, host of the Turn on Your Inner Light radio show, suggests other possible activities that adolescents can pursue with the encouragement of their parents:

  • Learning to play a musical instrument. (Encourage them to practice when the house is empty. When I was first learning how to play my flute, I was flustered by the thought someone was listening to me make mistakes. But when the house was empty, I played for hours.)
  • Exercise to get them de-stressed and energized in a positive way.
  • Arts and crafts can help them unwind after an intellectual school day by creatively working with their hands. The possibilities are endless, and your child is learning to express himself outside the box.
  • Volunteer work sparks kindness, self-esteem and redirects antisocial energy toward the community. Your child will see herself benevolently reflected in someone else's eyes.

It may also be helpful to have an idea of just how much free time you do have. Psychologist Nancy Irwin has a simple system for organizing time. "It is called Living in Domains and requires coloring in blocks of time in a date book/calendar and treating each block as if it were vitally important – and it is," she says.

"You have one block for school, home/work, sports/health, spirituality, free time, etc. Whatever is important to you, you set it up and honor it. You'd be shocked and amazed how much time we all waste – it is blindingly obvious."

"Adolescence is the age for autonomy," Caldwell says. "This is the time to do whatever we can to help them learn to make good decisions with their free time."

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