Shortly after we returned from our vacation in the Bahamas, I was aware of the shift in my boys’ daily lives. They had a free week ahead of them before starting summer camp (I signed them up for the time Andrew will be in Finland and Iceland for some time to myself), and after such a big vacation, they didn’t want to go anywhere. We were also going through screen withdrawal from TV shows, movies, and playing games on our friend’s phone, back to our regular dose: once or twice a week for a couple of hours. I’m aware that we are in the minority with the way we are parenting; the average American kid under twelve spends 4 hours a day looking at screens. Which begs the question, when do children play?
It seems that so many of the current online parenting articles I see delve into the importance of play. I think many parents, educators, and people who work with children agree that especially in their early lives, children need to play as much as they need nourishment and clean water, as much as they need love and support from the adults in their lives; yet, I have come across very little on what that play actually looks like on a day-to-day basis. As a result, the issue is obscure and easily overlooked. Something obscure can be easy to ignore, hard to make time for.
A child’s day can be so rich, so fulfilling, so much fun without screens. I decided to document what my boys did on a screen-free day with nothing else planned to show what a child’s day can look like when he chooses what to do with his own time. While we typically go to the pool or playground at least once a day, on this particular day we hung out primarily at home. There was still plenty to do, and they were very happy. I did nothing to structure their time (and refrained from making suggestions about how they should spend their time) and instead allowed them to play all day. Here’s how it went.
6:30am: All three wake up. Emil crawls into Oliver’s bed and they snuggle and play pretend with Oliver’s stuffed animals and Emil’s Baby Tommy.
7:00am: They wander down for breakfast, pour themselves cereal and milk and eat together. They also sort seashells from our trip, then dump them all into a glass vase.
7:15 – 9:00am: Oliver and Emil build forts in our living room. Emil builds a firetruck with chairs, pillows and blankets. Oliver builds a “bear cave.” Emil and Oliver then play bear cubs for an hour while Milo reads. Their play involves pretend scenarios with complex issues: protection, role-reversal, negotiation, reassurance. They also wrestle around and laugh a lot.
9:00am – 10:00am: All three dress up in capes, hats, and rainbow colored socks and play some elaborate pretend game in the living room that ends in tears and some violence. I force them to take a break from each other. They are back together playing well after about 5 minutes. It is hard to keep them from each other most days, as having someone to play with is more fun than playing alone!
10:00am – 11:00am: All three decide to put on a circus show on the trampoline while I’m working in the garden and weeding. Milo joins me for awhile, tasting mint and parsley while he talks to me about various things and asking me questions about plants and seeds. He picks some sweet peas and shells them, offering me the peas (of course). He returns to his brothers and their show-planning. They practice, come up with routines, and then put on a show for me while I take a quick water break. The show involves cooperation and timing, as they take turns doing front-handsprings, front and back flips, and partner acrobatics!
11:00am: Lunch inside.
11:30: Costumes off, all three are back outside to run around screaming in their underwear while squirting each other with spray bottles.
12:00: They decide to add dish soap to the sprayers and “clean” the back door. They use a squeegee and towels to do the job right. They find their bubble gun and try to make a solution from dish soap, water, and who knows what else since they have run out of bubble juice. They experiment with different amounts and discuss what went wrong. They get frustrated, then they pour the soapy liquid into their spray bottles.
12:40: Milo decides to come inside and paint with watercolors on the kitchen floor. Oliver and Emil stay outdoors and walk around the yard talking and spraying different things: bugs, cracks in the sidewalk, things in the garage. They turn over stones and begin to look for insects. Milo cleans up his paint and moves on to drawing. He is working on a book of plant characters that have special powers (Killer Kale and Grapefruit Cannon are two examples). He writes descriptions next to each drawing. He hums while he works and occasionally comes into the kitchen (where I’m prepping dinner and doing dishes) to talk to me about his drawings.
1:00: Emil and Oliver are still outside spraying things. They wander around to the garden, then the compost area, start to dig around in the dirt, shout excitedly when they find baby toads, run away from a wasp dramatically. They return to the compost area and dig for worms, collecting them in a bucket. Milo is using the North American Wildlife Guide book for inspiration for his drawings. He exclaims loudly when he comes across something interesting (like skunk cabbage and worm root). He tells me he is going to make his drawings into a book.
1:30pm: All three boys inspect the collection of centipedes and earthworms. Milo and Oliver pair off and jump on the trampoline while Emil makes “black stew” with mud and water.
2:00pm: Mud stew has turned to bubble stew and the boys have observed that the bubbles must have needed something to bind to, because now their mixture has become successful. We talk about what may have caused this, and they take turns blowing bubbles.
2:15pm: Massive clean-up ensues (toys, art supplies, forts, and scrubbing of hands and feet). The boys are responsible for everything they got out and messed up in order to go to the library (which they had requested earlier in the day). This takes awhile, with plenty of whining. The boys get dressed (finally!), have apples and peanut butter as a snack, and gather up library books that need to be returned. We drive today because it is so hot, but usually they bring their backpacks and we walk to the library (sometimes stopping for a cookie on the way).
2:45 – 4:00pm: Library. Milo and Oliver pair off to find a Pokémon reference book, then I read out loud to Emil and Oliver while Milo reads to himself in a separate area of the library. He has been increasingly seeking out alone time, which he seems to need in order to feel refreshed. We head home.
4:00 – 6:00pm: Reading/listening to audiobooks while I make dinner and unload the dishwasher. Usually they spend massive amounts of time looking at/reading books, which makes me so happy, of course. They are quiet and content and I can get stuff done.
6:00pm – 6:30pm: Dinner
6:30 – 7:00: More trampoline jumping
7:15pm: Get ready for bed. Andrew reads out loud to them until 7:45pm
8:00pm: Lights out
If you have kids, do you ever observe them doing “nothing” on days like these? I had so much fun documenting this day, I think I’ll do it again soon. It was refreshing to see them self-regulate so well, as well as use their imaginations to come up with activities and projects that bring them so much joy. And ultimately, to realize that the nothing days are actually not nothing days at all — they can be the days that are the most fulfilling.