In my classes, we spend quite a bit of time discussing scheduling. In Chapter 5 of Simplicity Parenting, Kim Payne uses a metaphor I find incredibly useful to help us understand the different activities that fill our children’s days. The metaphor is based on the idea of crop rotation: in order to keep soil healthy, wise farmers of old knew they needed to rotate their crops. If a field was planted with a heavily producing crop one season (let’s say corn), the next season that soil would be depleted and so would need to rest. After a season of lying fallow, that same field would be planted with a root crop (think carrots) that would nourish and aerate the soil; following that, the field would be ready to be planted with corn again. And on and on; rotating crops so as to keep the soil healthy.
These days, crop rotation has fallen out of favor; many farmers forego rotation for “enhancing” their soil with fertilizers so they can “maximize” their output. Fallow fields don’t make money and seem quaintly foolish when viewed through the “maximization” lens of our current culture. Of course, eventually, these maximized and heavily planted fields end up with soil that is dry, depleted and infertile; which leads to GMO crops (that can grow even in unhealthy soil) sprayed with increasingly toxic fertilizers.
In this metaphor, the crops are the types of activities that fill our children’s days, the soil is our children’s health and well-being (physical, emotional and spiritual), and we, as parents, are the farmers, faced with the responsibility of choosing whether we will follow the old system of crop rotation or if we will follow the current trend of planting heavily season after season.
What types of activities does each crop correspond to? The heavily planted fields correspond to activities that demand a lot from our children; that require them to behave in certain ways, to follow rules and conventions—school, playdates, library story time, any and all “enrichment classes” (foreign language club, soup kitchen volunteering, computer programming class). These are the activities that can easily come to fill most of our children’s time if we aren’t mindful; there are endless activities these days that promise both fun and enhancement.
The fallow field corresponds to unscheduled time; time of nothing much happening—staring out the window at the bird-feeders, petting the dog; those afternoons when there is time and space enough for your child to declare “I’m bored.” Ensuring that your child has enough do-nothing time requires a conviction that this kind of time is healthy and important; it also requires the ability to tolerate (and not “solve”) complaints of boredom. While it makes perfect sense that we all need times to putter around doing “nothing,” if you still need convincing about the importance of this fallow time, there’s this: Children need this do-nothing time in order to arrive at the holy-grail of activities: deep play.
Deep play corresponds to the root crop field—the field where transformation and growth are happening out of plain sight while aerating and nourishing the soil. Deep play takes as many different forms as there are children (some examples from my boys are working on their hook shot, building a blanket fort or making an arcade, complete with tickets and prizes) and has countless lifelong benefits, but the hitch with it is this: it cannot be scheduled, planned for or coerced—it is stubborn and requires an open stretch of time (fallow field) in which to take root.
So, fellow farmers, what’s it going to be this summer? Do we have the fortitude to buck the culture of “busy” for our children? Can we stop enriching them and just let them be long enough to get bored and then to solve their boredom? It takes strength (that warm/firm/kind parental resolve we talk about in my classes) and is, truly, counter-cultural, but what’s at stake is nothing less than our children’s inner lives and the slow, quiet and subtle conditions they need to grow and thrive.
Want to learn more about the many brain benefits of deep play? Why Free Play is the Best Summer School from The Atlantic is a great article.