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:

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+ 04/03/2017—04/04/2017
TeachTechPlay Melbourne, Australia
   Public Event
+ 04/29/2017
8:00am-3:00pm
Fox Valley Reading Council Peoria, IL
   Private Event
+ 05/05/2017
9:00am-3:30pm
Ecorse Public Schools Ecorse, MI
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+ 05/06/2017—05/07/2016
CUEBOLD Lafayette, CA
  Venue:Burton Valley Elementary School
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Lafayette, CA 94549
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+ 05/20/2017
8:00am-3:00pm
TXGoo17 Klein, TX
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+ 05/31/2017
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+ 06/05/2017
8:15am-2:00pm
PowerED UP Conference Leopold, IN
  Sponsor:Indiana Department of Education Office of eLearning  
Venue:Perry Central Jr/Sr HS
18677 Old State Road 37
Leopold, IN 47551
+ 06/07/2017
8:00am-3:00pm
Innovation Institute Springdale, Arkansas
   Public Event
+ 06/09/2017
8:00am-3:00pm
Region 6 Digital Learning Conference Huntsville, TX
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+ 06/15/2017
8:00am-3:00pm
Whatever It Takes Conference Galesburg, IL
+ 06/16/2017
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East Porter County Summer of eLearning Kouts, IN
+ 07/25/2017—07/26/2017
Roughrider Education Services Program Dickinson, ND
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8:00am-3:00pm
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11 thoughts on “We should rethink our definition of ‘wasting time’

  1. Happy people are ones that take pleasure in what they do. This was their work. Pursuing something and learning in the process is work. If we can teach kids that same satisfaction in all learning experiences, it goes a long way.

  2. I absolutely agree! We take my boyfriends special needs daughter out of school each fall, in Oct. on a 3 to 5 day camping trip, (in a tent, at Big Meadows On Skyline Drive) She learns about nature, collects samples, keeps a journal, we take pictures and she does a presentation to her class. This has been well received and is just as valuable as classroom work.
    Daily her meds for ADHD wear off by early evening, making homework a real struggle if not done immediately off the bus. Down time is necessary even for me at the end of the day before I can tackle more school as I am a special educator.
    All of your childrens’ activities, I feel were life lessons and perfectly acceptable to their growth as individuals!
    Would you like to come scrub my kitchen floor?

  3. How many times as a child did I hear my dad say stop wasting time? How many times did I say the same thing to my children? As I age (I refuse to grow up), I realize that so called “time wasting” really allows the child’s brain to explore possible solutions to a variety of problems adding flavor to ideas, like a cook adding spices and vegetables to soup. Writers and artists have long “wasted time”, yet Michelangelo’s PIETA, Shakespeare’s MACBETH, even Stephen Spielburg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN demonstrate how wasting time allows the brain to create new visions of old ideas. As teachers we must allow students time to “play” with ideas and explore new methods of developing ideas into new forms. Since the beginning of history, man has explored his world and wondered about the WHAT IF. Were these explorers, thinkers, scientists, and writers wasting time or using time to open new vistas of thought?

  4. I totally agree with you. When do you call it quits with your son watching behind the scenes “how they made it” videos? If you want him to be well rounded – how often will you allow him to do the same activity over and over again?

  5. The way you’ve raised your children makes a huge difference. You’ve helped them them think critically and creatively to get to end results. I love it!!

    And on a personal note, for years as a teenager and young adult, I watched little to no television. Yet I married a spouse who gained lots from t.v. He converted me. And now I watch not just informative shows but even old crime shows–just to relax. I no longer consider this wasting time b/c it gets my mind off work-day issues.

  6. I definitely agree! While I may appear to be wasting time reading twitter posts, in reality, I am growing my professional learning network. I am connecting with other educators and developing a deeper understanding of my role as an educator. I believe my students and children should be able to do the same, invest time in doing things that appeal to them.

  7. Thought-provoking article. I think you make some very good points there. This ties is with “play-based learning” I feel. I was reminded of something my almost 3 year old granddaughter said the other day. We were in the car going to the shops and she said “We need to look at the map to find the quickest way”. Now she got that from watching Dora the Explorer on tv. Some might say she was wasting time watching tv. (I won’t even get in to those who would say there should be no screen time for kids her age) But she had taken what she had seen and successfully transferred that knowledge to a new appropriate situation.
    She also spends lots of time reading books, playing outside and in imaginary play, often involving characters she has read about or seen on screen, and a variety of other activities. Play and relaxation are not wasting time, they serve valuable purposes. Balance is the key and is different for every individual.

  8. Having just returned to school following our winter break vacation, it occurs to me that some might label what I did throughout week as time wasters. I slept later and took naps, binged on tv shows, read, snacked, and hung out with my dog/family. So here’s why such activities weren’t time wasters … my sleep and naps helped to rejuvinate me and gave me the energy to conduct educational research and lesson plans; my binging was a result of acquiring and learning to use a DVR and a means to relax – I practiced my reading decoding and application skills; my reading materials included educational resources but also novels – I learned some new info. and vocabulary while getting lost in my imagination; my snacking was at times even healthy – not always the case with me; and hanging with my dog meant some enjoyable and healthy walks/cuddles whereas hanging with my family took place while painting a new addition. All of this time was not wasted and helped me feel refreshed – not waste time.

  9. Excellent and timely post! I have 5th grade twins, boy and girl. My boy will spend time watching gaming videos for this farming game or monster truck game on how to get to the next level or whatever. I was looking at this thinking it was really dumb to watch a video of someone playing a video game. But it makes sense he’s figuring things out. My daughter is really into DIY things so she watches a lot of tutorials on how to apply blush to making your own slime. She also likes to listen to the musical Hamilton a lot! Both kids are getting good at finding things online and learning. Looks like I need to readjust my ideas of “wasted” time.

  10. Thanks for this Matt. A very healthy and well balanced insight into your own kids. One more thing that you could have said is this. Your kids are learning/have learnt to entertain themselves. Many children are so organised with activities that when there is a lull in the activities, they don’t know how to entertain themselves or more importantly manage their boredom. I think we are doing them a huge disservice by micro managing their lives.