We should rethink our definition of ‘wasting time’

It's easy for us as teachers to say kids are wasting time. But maybe we need to change our definition of "wasting time." (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

It’s easy for us as teachers to say kids are wasting time. But maybe we need to change our definition of “wasting time.” (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

On Sunday, I was cleaning the kitchen. On hands and knees scrubbing the floor, to be more specific.

(Yep, I’m that guy, and that’s OK with me, You know what they say: happy wife, happy life!)

All of a sudden, mid-scrub, I thought, “Where are my kids and what are they up to?” I have three kids: a fifth grader, a third grader and a first grader. So I put the brush down and went to check.

I found my oldest daughter, Cassie, first. She had received a drone for Christmas, which has since quit working after a particularly bad crash. (OK, let’s be honest … I was the one that crashed Cassie’s drone and felt obligated to replace it.)

When I found her, Cassie was researching drones on Amazon. We decided that she should look at lots of them, then narrow them down to the top three. She would provide me pros and cons, price and specifications, and in the end, she would pitch me which drone she thought we should buy. (Cassie is the same girl that organized a petition to get graphic novels and a class pet in her second grade class. Kind of a go-getter.)

So she was busy.

Next, I found my first-grade son, Joel. He was indulging in his latest obsession, American Ninja Warrior. There’s something you should know about Joel. He’s a competitor, even in first grade. (Heck … he was a competitor before he started preschool.) He runs. He plays basketball and baseball and soccer. He will race me up the stairs on a whim for fun.

When I found him, he was watching a behind-the-scenes web episode of the show, saying how they develop new obstacles and test them.

So he was busy.

It wasn’t as easy to find my third-grade daughter, Hallie. That’s no surprise. She’s content going in her room to play by herself for long periods of time. But on Sunday, I found her in the bathroom. She had received a tin full of different pairs of earrings for Christmas. Ear piercing was her big Christmas gift this year, and her ears were finally healed enough for her to put different earrings in.

When I found her, she was swapping earrings in and out, seeing what they looked like. Since she hadn’t been able to take them out long, it was kind of practicing putting earrings in and removing them.

So she was busy.

After checking in with all three kids, I went back to my scrub brush in the kitchen. I thought about them for a bit and came to a conclusion.

Those activities — online shopping, watching TV and trying on jewelry — could have been seen as a waste of time. In education, it’s easy for us to label activities kids are doing as time wasters. “They should find something more productive to do,” we might mutter under our breath. I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past.

Were my kids wasting their time?

(If you’ve been waiting for me to “get to the point” in this post, here it comes …)

I think we need to rethink our definition of “wasting time.”

I heard an interview of Jane McGonigal, an expert in game design and game theory, on a recent podcast. (In fact, I wrote a blog post right after listening to her about how video games can help students.) She spoke to this issue and changed the way I think about activities that adults may label as “wasting time.”

She was talking about the benefits of gaming, and her conclusion applies to more than just an Xbox or Playstation.

She said that if we can show benefits of playing games and if we can ground them in our real lives, maybe they aren’t wasting time at all.

Example: If a child is playing a level of a video game over and over again, struggling to finally complete it, that can be a lesson for life. If kids can ask themselves (or if an adult asks), “What can we learn from this in our real lives?”, they may get some serious benefit. There are clear growth mindset, grit and perseverance lessons here.

How should kids spend their free time?

While working on Ditch That Homework, a new book I’m co-authoring with Alice Keeler, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how kids should spend their time outside of class.

It’s a fundamental question if we’re going to even consider ditching homework. If kids aren’t working on schoolwork when they’re not in school, what should they be doing? And is that better than asking them to spend that time doing homework? Or taking violin lessons or some other adult-imposed activity?

I should mention that I have pretty well-balanced kids. They just got finished with basketball season and had practices and games every week. We go for walks in the woods at our very rural house in west-central Indiana. It would be hard to make a case for them being couch potatoes.

So, if kids aren’t working on homework, is it OK for them to shop online? Or watch YouTube videos? Or play video games?

To a certain extent, I’m totally fine with it, especially when it has a purpose.

Online shopping? Surfing clothing websites could be considered research into the latest fashion.

Watching YouTube videos? It’s a way to stay up on current events or pop culture, and it’s the go-to way to learn how to do something for many of us.

Playing games? There’s persistence and problem-solving. Online gaming creates community. Multiplayer games like “Call of Duty” force players to work together as a team and communicate if they want any chance to win.

Cassie was learning how to pitch an idea to me to get me to say “yes.” Joel was researching new American Ninja Warrior techniques and obstacles that we could build in our basement. And Hallie was getting a feel for how each set of earrings might go with different outfits she wears (being the fashionista of the family).

Plus, if we look at it as adults, we need a time to recharge, too. It’s good for us to have multiple passions and to pursue them in our free time … no matter what they are. Learning for social reasons is just as important as learning for academic reasons. Being able to talk football with friends or geek out about common interests benefits me personally as much as knowing my vocation well.

We want kids to be well rounded human beings, productive members of society.

We can become self-appointed controllers of kids’ schedules when we assume how they should spend their time. (And assigning homework is one way of seizing control of students’ free time.)

Personally, I love to see my kids’ eyes light up when they’re passionate about something.

They should have the freedom to find those passions on their own time, even if they make poor choices from time to time.

Because I’ve seen plenty of adults wandering passionless through life. That’s no way to live life, and I want better for my own kids.

Question: What’s your take on this topic — should we rethink our definition of ‘wasting time’? What fits in your definition of ‘wasting time’? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

 DateEvent / Event DetailsCity / More Info
+ 01/26/2018
Erie 1 BOCESWest Seneca, NY
  Register to attend
+ 01/29/2018
Jackson R-2 School DistrictJackson, MO
+ 02/02/2018
California League of Schools (DBC)Monterey, CA
+ 02/07/2018
Ditch That Homework Workshop (Region 8 ESC)Fort Wayne, IN
 Venue:The Summit
1025 W. Rudisill Blvd.
Fort Wayne, IN 46807
Public Event
+ 02/08/2018
Ditch That Homework WorkshopMishawaka, IN
 Venue:Northern Indiana Educational Service Center (NIESC)
56535 Magnetic Drive
Mishawaka, IN 46545
Public Event
+ 03/01/2018
Kids ROELoves Park, IL
  Register to attend
+ 03/07/2018
Delaware Association of School Admin 
+ 03/16/2018
Lake Shore Central SchoolAngola, NY
+ 03/30/2018
Taylorville CUSDTaylorville, IL
+ 06/04/2018
Granbury ISDGranbury, TX
+ 06/13/2018
InnEdCoKeystone, CO
  Register to attend
+ 06/21/2018
Barr-Reeve Jr/Sr High School- Washington Community SchoolsWashington, IN
+ 08/09/2018
St. Joseph Grade SchoolSouth Bend, IN
+ 08/15/2018
St. Anthony de Padua Catholic SchoolSouth Bend, IN
+ 10/03/2018
Orrick R-XI / I-70 Excellence in Education ConferenceKansas City, MO