JENI O’DOWD: Letting kids entertain themselves fosters creativity & resilience

Jeni O’Dowd
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Is this innate competitiveness in some of us breeding a generation of kids who lack creativity and the capacity for mindfulness?
Is this innate competitiveness in some of us breeding a generation of kids who lack creativity and the capacity for mindfulness? Credit: Supplied/The Nightly

I’ve always thought women can be their own worst enemies. In the workplace, intense competition often undermines mutual support, and in parenting, raising kids can feel like a gladiator sport.

“Is your baby sleeping through the night? Mine did from six weeks of age.”

“Your daughter hasn’t spoken yet? How unusual! All of my kids were chattering at 10 months!”

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I still remember the mother at the primary school swimming carnival snidely saying: “All those expensive swimming lessons paid off!” when my young daughters won all their races (no lessons, just a lot of enthusiasm and natural talent). Another mother proudly declared her child a “little genius” after excelling in a test — at just five years old.

Of course, this competitiveness is not true of all women. I asked my friend if the first line of this column was too harsh, and she replied: “It’s true of some women, but female friendships can also be the best type — like us.”

So true.

But is this innate competitiveness in some of us breeding a generation of kids who lack creativity and the capacity for mindfulness?

Most of us remember our childhood as relatively activity-free, perhaps with a game of football or netball on the weekend. Nowadays, there seems to be an activity for everything, starting as young as six weeks.

A quick look at listings in Sydney’s east reveals the usual — dance, drama, art classes — but also ballet starting at 18 months, soccer from three years, kids’ fitness from six weeks, and my personal favourite, Brain Thrive, a “music-based educational class for children aged from nine months to five years”.

Seriously, has anyone heard of sitting your child in a room so they make up their own game?

Or just giving them some paper and crayons?

I understand that parents sometimes need to get out of the house and socialise, and keeping your child entertained at an activity while chatting to like-minded people can be beneficial. For children, an activity at a young age, like ballet or soccer, is also a good way for them to socialise.

However, when a child has a scheduled activity every day and is constantly pushed to excel by competitive parents, it can become overwhelming and detrimental. Instead of fostering creativity and mindfulness, it risks creating burnout and anxiety.

Studies show that allowing children to experience boredom can be beneficial. Boredom encourages creativity, as children are forced to tap into their imagination to entertain themselves. It also fosters resilience and self-reliance, as kids must find ways to occupy themselves.

Dr Elise Waghorn, an early childhood researcher at RMIT University, notes that too many activities can lead to children neglecting their schoolwork and limiting family time, which are also crucial for development.

Writing in The Conversation, she says excessive activities can impact children’s sleep, and high levels of sport, in particular, can lead to injuries and burnout. Again, I’ve witnessed young children being told by their parents to run around an oval again and again if they show even the slightest sign of being good at cross country.

31.07.2017 - Kyiv, Ukraine. Group of funny kids playing with block toys indoor. Cute kids playing together indoor. Preschool early education.
31.07.2017 - Kyiv, Ukraine. Group of funny kids playing with block toys indoor. Cute kids playing together indoor. Preschool early education. Credit: Denis/DenisProduction.com - stock.adob

Dr Waghorn recommends limiting children to one or two activities a week, focusing on what the child is genuinely interested in.

Psychotherapist Georgina Manning, the director of Wellbeing for Kids, also believes today’s kids are overscheduled.

Worse, when they get home, they use screens for hours to wind down, which can significantly impact their mental well-being. Manning created a mindfulness and positive psychology program for children 10 years ago, now implemented in hundreds of schools across Australia, to mitigate these negative impacts.

“The ramifications of screen use instead of playing are wide, including missing out on socialisation, good sleep, physical activity, and a calm mind,” she says.

“This creates no time for free, child-directed play, which usually calms their nervous system. A balance may be found if children have scheduled activities during the week and can play freely when they get home.

“However, parents should remember that children do not need to be scheduled for every minute of every day. We should not be afraid to let them play with much free time — outside preferably — so they can be present and switch off from the stressors in their daily lives.”

Instead of activity after activity, perhaps take your kids to the local playground and let them run around. Let them relax at home with some arts and crafts and no screens.

Sometimes, the best thing for a child is simply the freedom to be a child.

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