Can you spare ten minutes?
Here’s what I’d like you to do: One day this week, stop in the middle of the school day and tell your class the next ten minutes are theirs to fill. No teaching, no requirements—just ten minutes to themselves.
Then—and this is the hard part—let them do whatever they want (within the confines of your classroom rules). Fight the urge to make suggestions while you observe unobtrusively.
Once the ten minutes are up, ask your students to briefly journal about the experience. What did they do? Was it fun? How do they feel now? Would they pick the same thing to do if they had ten free minutes on another day? Reading our students’ responses to their ten minutes of freedom will give us insight into what they’re thinking and feeling, and how much down time they actually have on a regular basis.
You probably think I’ve lost my mind. Busy teachers don’t have the first ten minutes to spare, let alone the ten minutes it will take the kids to get out paper, write their responses and, in some cases, moan and groan about it. But there really is a lesson here.
In the busy pace of life—not just in the classroom, but outside of it as well—kids often have all of their time planned for them. Consequently, when they have free time, they don’t know what to do with it.
For some kids, this is no problem. Given free time, they jump right in. For these kids, free time—and even a little boredom—can nudge creativity and introspection, fostering skills like time management and the setting of priorities. Mastering the occasional bout of boredom and filling time in a way that’s fun and/or useful helps them develop self-confidence as they learn that they’re capable of taking control of their own time.
But not all kids know how to do this. Kids who’ve never learned how to manage free time can become teenagers who manage it in all the wrong ways. And teenagers who’ve never learned how to manage free time can become adults who really struggle. Those who are always entertained come to rely on someone else to manage their time. And, in the absence of this guidance, they become time wasters or engage in unhealthy habits. Helping kids figure out what to do when no one is telling them what to do teaches them how to use time effectively and how to entertain themselves instead of waiting for someone (or something) else to do it for them.
So, what are your students doing? Let’s take a look around your classroom during that ten minute break. What’s going on?
- The kids who read are developing not only their reading skills, but also their imaginations. Is that a non-fiction book I see? A magazine? Reading in the pursuit of knowledge, information, or advancement of a hobby is a very good thing indeed.
- The kids who talk are cultivating social skills, perfecting the nuances of verbal and non-verbal communication, and engaging in interaction that doesn’t involve a screen, modem, or app.
- The kids who nap might not be sleeping much at home. If they’re not getting enough sleep, what else might they be lacking? This behavior can signal a need for additional support from a school counselor.
- The kids who stare into space may be introverts who are recharging. A full school day of interaction can be exhausting for someone who needs down time and transitions to be at his or her best.
- The kids who wander around the room might just sit still for the math lesson that comes next—or at least part of it—because they had an opportunity to release some of their pent-up energy. Maybe they’ll even sharpen their pencils while they’re up.
- The kids who draw may be indulging their creativity, or they may be retreating from the overstimulation they feel when constantly surrounded by other people. They may transfer these skills to their note-taking or prep work, incorporating drawing as they take in concepts or plan projects.
- The kids who write stories are playing with language and advancing their writing skills and imagination beyond the prompts that pass for self-expression in a test-driven culture. By transferring their own ideas onto the page, they’re building skills for writing essays and papers.
- The kids who do their homework are showing off their burgeoning time management skills. Or, perhaps they need help to complete their work, and no one at home is available to assist them.
- The kids who wander from one thing to the next may need your help most of all. Unless you teach very young children, your students should be able to fill ten minutes without much difficulty at all. Students who struggle to fill even this short window of time may be used to other people entertaining them. They need your help to learn how to manage this free time so that they do not make impulsive choices in the future when they have too much time on their hands.
Have I convinced you? If so, it’s possible that I’ve left one question unanswered. What are you supposed to do while your kids are learning to entertain themselves and manage their time? Take that blissful, all-too-short ten minute time frame to do something you want to do. You will be modeling free time management for your students. You can even share your journal entries with them. It’s good for you. And for them.
A retired school counselor, Lisa Lawmaster Hess teaches psychology at York College of Pennsylvania. Lisa is the author of Acting Assertively, Diverse Divorce, and two novels. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.