Thursday, February 10, 2011

If You Give Kids Free Time, Won't They Get Lazy?

Kate Fridkis blogs about education at Un-schooled and life as a young woman at Eat the Damn Cake.

A lot of people think that if you have too much free time, you’ll get lazy. You’ll spend it scrolling through shows on Hulu. You’ll read Yahoo articles with titles like “Are single women really ten times more desperate than single men?” all day. They think there’s a big risk that if you give kids, who aren’t responsible because they’re too young to be, a lot of freedom, they’ll never learn anything. They’ll never focus. They’ll just get on their iphones and text or gchat or ichat or whatever.
In fact, we’re pretty concerned about focus as a nation, these days. We have all these distracting devices. We are always plugged in. We’re multitasking and the neurologists are telling us it’s bad and that kids can’t learn that way and neither can grownups.

Focus wasn’t an issue for me, growing up. I was trying to explain this to my husband, Bear, the other day. We were talking about homeschooling (I mean, who doesn’t talk about homeschooling all the time?), and he was saying something about how he would’ve just watched TV instead of doing anything, or something to that effect. It wasn’t exactly the first time I’d heard that. Or, like, the three-thousandth time (No offense, honey!).

Kids are naturally interested in the world. Have you ever been around a baby? It’s fascinated by EVERYTHING. Learning to be bored is an incredible feat when you think about how intrinsically interested humans are, and how intriguing the world is. When you think about how much children love to engage with the world around them, and how they make everything into exciting games, it’s hard to explain laziness.

I think laziness and boredom happen when learning and play get bifurcated. When work and fun become dichotomous. When kids are taught, day after long day, that learning is something that happens in school, and it’s going to be boring. And that “free time” means the time that doesn’t involve learning. In fact, free time is all about recovering from learning.

When kids learn this lesson, they become a little bit more prepared for an adult life full of jobs that rely on weekends for recuperation. Work that is balanced by partying to relieve tension. Work that is really always about something other than work. About waiting for work to end. About making enough money to stop working.

For me, as an unschooled kid, it was hard to be lazy. Doing nothing doesn’t give you very much pleasure if you haven’t earned it by working hard. Doing nothing is, on its own, meaningless. It’s unfulfilling. It’s incredibly boring. I loved to create things. Paintings, sketches, stories, poems, songs, plays, outfits, tuna salad with a lot of weird additions. For fun, my friends and I created things. We wrote stories together. We dressed up and acted them out. We directed and acted in plays. We wrote songs and sang them over and over. We painted each other and photographed each other.

It sounds really dorky or something, putting it like that. Because dorkiness is a function of school, too, of course. Being a nerd or a dork is when you want to keep doing things that involve learning, for fun. In your free time.

(I took these pictures of my friend Emily, when we were sixteen or so. I still love them. She is the cutest.)

I was trying to explain to Bear– I didn’t know what laziness was. I didn’t know what it meant not to focus. I wanted to feel good about myself. I wanted to enjoy myself. I wanted the same things that everyone wants. So I worked, and learned. Because that is what you do to feel fulfilled and happy when no one has taught you that working and learning are dull and nerdy and lame.

If someone had given me the option of watching TV all day or working on the book I was writing, it wouldn’t have even sounded like a real question to me. Why would I want to watch TV when I could do something interesting? I mean, of course TV can be fun, and I love some shows, but all day? I’d hate myself! I’d be a boring person!

I’m a little addicted to my phone these days. And I am a strong believer that technology isn’t the enemy if you use it to do productive things. Blackberries and gchating and laptops make work so much easier. Technology only becomes “bad” for kids when they only use it to distract themselves from whatever else they might be doing. When they don’t recognize that it should be incorporated into their schooling as well as their socializing. When socializing and learning are two totally separate things already.

(Emily took this picture of me)

My work is mostly online. I’m always waiting to hear back from a magazine about how awful my latest submission was, or how maybe it was OK and they’ll think about publishing it. I’m getting letters from people who read my blog, or read an article I wrote, telling me that they feel a lot better or a lot worse, thanks to me. I’m sending another query and coordinating a project. Technology keeps me focused on my work, and my work isn’t separate from what I love to do. Sometimes, though, Bear removes the laptop from my hands and sets it down a safe distance away.

“That’s enough,” he says. He confiscates my phone, too. “Pay attention to ME now.”

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