The third grade at the elementary school in which I teach ESL has recently begun a new unit: free time. According to the curriculum, the activities which qualify as free time as are follows: ride a bike, cook spaghetti, go sailing, play the saxophone, feed the squirrels, dance, ride a horse, swim, play football, ski, go shopping, skate, and play cards.
I continue to be slightly uncomfortable telling my students that “feeding the squirrels” is an acceptable leisure activity. I would much rather teach them to “feed the ducks.” Feed the birds, not the rodents. And to make matters worse, the picture flash-card that goes along with this phrase shows a young blonde boy who has lowered himself to a squat in order to offer a squirrel some sort of seed/nut assortment. His other hand hovers above the squirrel’s tail, as though he is contemplating stroking it affectionately. The squirrel looks deceivingly pleasant. Pronouncing “squirrel” is also a problem. My students say the word much like the young girl in this famous video.
Nevertheless, I began the unit by attempting to establish exactly what “free time” is. My students all agreed that yes, they knew about “free time.” Free time was the fifteen minutes of chaos between lessons, when—as far as I can tell—it is acceptable to run up and down the halls, bounce super balls, eat whatever you want, pull your classmates’ hair, or change into your P.E. clothes in front of anyone who is around. This time is free because no one is telling you what to do.
I had to somehow convince my students that “free time” could also refer to the time they have after school, when many of them go to dance lessons, play sports, or go to the park (perhaps to feed the squirrels.) They agreed that while holidays and summer vacation qualified as free time, the afternoons and weekends were not free.
Upon further recollection of my own childhood, I remembered that time after school, though it may have been labelled free by the adult world, did not feel that way to me. There was always homework to be completed, and although sports practice or dance class always felt obligatory, even if it was your choice to participate. Only in the summer or during an extended period without school are children blessed with empty days to fill with whatever they can imagine. This is free time in its truest sense, without adult instruction or supervision.
My freest days were spent on summer vacation at a country house in upstate New York. I went with my immediate family and one other family with three kids whom we thought of as our cousins. We bought groceries once for the whole week so we wouldn’t need to leave the house. Mornings were solely for reading in pajamas on the back porch. Afternoons were for playing outside in the yard and in the creek that ran through the multi-acre property. We explored the creek and named every waterfall, every large rock that was suitable for climbing, and every rounded pool. Evenings were for helping with the family meal (tacos or spaghetti) and for playing games. At twilight we played a tag game where all six of us were characters in a murder mystery. There were thirty different rules. Every game was a part of a greater plot—a broader narrative about the alter egos we wished we were—detectives with blue hair and nose piercings. We borrowed our fathers’ laptops and wrote down our best ideas
There is a freedom to being a child that I will never experience again. There is a freedom in being aware of time but not fearing it. There is freedom to not feeling guilty about doing nothing. Despite our best efforts, adult free time is filled with productivity rather than pure, imaginative play. Will we ever be able to trust the days in the ways we did as children? We will be able to wake with an entire unplanned day and know that we will be able to fill it with more imaginations than anxieties
In third grade, after learning the predetermined free time activities, the students learn “Can you…?” and “Are you good at it?” We write sentences on the board: Sally can dance but she is not good at it. Students practice further by asking each other “Can you ride a horse? Are you good at it?”
Today, I overheard one student improvise. “Can you fly?” He asked his neighbor. Eszter jumped as far as she could in the air and waved her arms frantically. “Yes!” she exclaimed, “I’m good at it!”
I have plenty of “free time” in Hungary, but I’m not sure that I am very good at it. I recently signed up to run a half-marathon because I know I will have the time to train for it. While I do not gain much enjoyment from running itself, I do enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and productivity. However, I could also benefit from practicing making free time a time when I imagine, create, or even do nothing. And I mean “doing nothing,” of course, in the way that A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh did, when he explained it as “going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
Caroline (Higgins) Nyczak (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.