My kids love to watch PBS.  Fetch with Ruff Ruffman and Cyberchase are two of their favorite shows.  And they learn alot from them.  I must admit, so do I!  For the most part, we find the minimal advertising that PBS presents innocuous.  There’s a newish ad that they are running that burns my kids every time.  It’s a promotion for Chuck E. Cheese.  The catch phrase is something like, “We’re showing kids that doing something is way better than doing nothing.”  The aim of the ad is to show that this pizza/arcade establishment is ‘partnering’ (I’m not sure how other than running this ad) with PBS (a television network) to encourage children to get out and get physical exercise.  I’m not sure how these two can do anything more than lip service in this arena given their primary goals- making money on pizza and arcade games and having viewers for television programming.  This aside, my kids question the insinuation of the message- that children opt to or ever really do “nothing”. 

Activities that constitute “nothing”
Why do the kids find this offensive?  Well, they do not understand how anyone could assume that kids are EVER doing “nothing”.  I’ve given this much thought.  What DOES doing “nothing” mean?  I used to know.  At least I thought I did.  Before I had kids and spent all day every day with them, I thought I knew.  Doing “nothing” meant spending time being “idle” or not participating in an activity that seemed “appropriate” at the time.  It meant that the objective observer could not measure a product from the time spent.  Sitting around?  Watching television on a sunny day?  Playing video games?  Listening to music?  Talking on the phone? 

Standards of measurement

This is an old story for unschoolers but in a new context.  It’s a tremendous process of growth to recognize that learning is happening without putting the burden of proof on the learner.  Testing aptitude does not truly measure learning just as intangible or inobvious outcome does not indicate a lack of productively spent time.

These are completely subjective judgments on the part of the observer and, after bearing witness to the true nature of unadulterated people, I understand that there truly is no such thing as doing “nothing”.  The kids point out that they are doing at least three things in every moment – (heart) beating, thinking, and breathing.

This leads me to one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies- Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium:

Molly Mahoney: [after they have set all the clocks forward in a shop to strike noon at the same time] Now we wait.
Mr. Edward Magorium: No. We Breathe. We Pulse. We Regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. Thirty-seven seconds, well used, is a lifetime.

Time well spent, indeed.  How often do America’s over-scheduled children have time to regenerate, create, or ingest?  And how often are those who do considered to be lazy, unproductive, or… bored – leading to overscheduling?

The importance of doing ‘nothing’

Doing ‘nothing’ has a bad rap.  It is also often confused with being idle, bored, loiterous, or other such words bearing the negative connotation of being unproductive and potentially spinning backward into troublesome behavior or activities.  I find the complete lack of obvious productivity to be glorious to witness.  It is mystifying to watch a child as they ponder, stare, wonder, and process internally.  These are the moments when their true nature dissects the world’s input, fills in gaps of previously held knowledge, and moves forward with new assumptions and questions.  These are the quiet moments when passions are spun round and round to revel in the excitement of information held and wonder at that which is yet to be discovered.

Boredom as communication

Let this not be (necessarily) confused with declarations of, “I’m bored!”  which can often mean a number of things given any variety of family dynamics.  Sometimes, “I’m bored!” means, “I’d love for you to engage with me.”  Sometimes it means, “I’d love to learn something new or engage in a new and exciting activity.”  The boredom to which I am referring is what we often call ‘downtime’ around here but is really some of the most ‘up’ time their growing brains have to process all that is coming to them and at them in this world full of stimulation.

How does this translate to the schooled child?

No matter what we think of how school time is spent and whether it is worthy of the time taken from the lives of our children, there is no question that school takes up a tremendous amount of a child’s lifetime.  Getting to school, being at school, after school activities, getting home from school, doing homework, and preparing for school all over again.  So much adult discussion is devoted to how exhausting this life of taxi driver and schedule keeper is and yet there continue to be more and more ways to squeeze in more ways to squeeze out more productivity from the child.  When advertisements say, “we’re showing kids that doing something is way better than doing nothing,” I come at this from two angles:

1) Doing ‘nothing’ is some of the most valuable time we spend in our lives.  These are the moments of meditation, deep thought, and connection with ourselves.  We should not rob our children of the chance to make this connection while they are still young and not in need of a class series or a self-help book to do it.

2) How many children have a chance to actually do ‘nothing’?  To sit with their own thoughts, process, and feel who they really are?  Are we talking about encouraging physical activity?  I assure you that a free child wants to move their body because it feels good.  A child who is over-scheduled and under-empowered will default to ‘zone out’ mode when given the opportunity because they have to.  A full day spent in an institution without free thought or choice and with governed instruction and assignment is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.  It doesn’t burn the calories or work the muscles that free play does but it sure does use up the time and energy needed to participate. 

If the public access goal is to have physically healthier kids, we may want to make mental health the priority.  The more time and energy we take from our kids, the less they have.  It just makes sense.

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