Despite Pandemic Fatigue, Kids Are Still Figuring It Out

The pandemic is no picnic, but many kids are finding silver linings and discovering new passions.

No matter how crazy your child’s school year is (I hear you!), rest assured that at least one good thing is going on: Your kids are getting quirkier. Or maybe a better way to think about it is that they’re getting better at being self-directed. Here are some of the things I’m seeing from kids learning and trying out new things: 

“I’m learning how to draw SpongeBob.”

“I learned how to put on a new door handle.”

“I started an ant farm.”

“I’m teaching myself Japanese.”

“I am watching videos and reading articles about the old west trappers. I am also watching videos about 1940s gangsters and researching them.”

It’s a challenging time, but kids keep figuring it out. 

Naturally we’re seeing (and experiencing) plenty of pandemic fatigue. You might be wondering things like, Will my children ever have a normal life again? Will I ever get five minutes away from them again? But if we look for a silverish lining, we’ll find that lots of kids are pursuing offbeat interests that they probably wouldn’t have been exposed to in a normal year with a normal curriculum. Thanks to a year that has grown increasingly Dalí-esque, they’re finding themselves noodling around.

Not that they didn’t noodle around before. But over the past generation or two, kids have seen a lot of their noodling time evaporate. A 2004 University of Michigan study (the most recent I could find) discovered that between homework and at-school time, kids were spending 7.5 more hours a week on academics than they did 20 years earlier. That’s basically an extra workday. 

Outside of school, too, kids have become busier than ever, but busy with activities organized for, not by, them. It’s the difference between kids taking a robotics class and kids gathering in an abandoned barn to build their own working rocket. Modern-day after-school time is less like playing and more like doing a bunch of interesting electives.

So when suddenly most of those supervised, structured activities went the way of fans at football games, free time flooded into kids’ lives. This led to boredom. Boredom is such a painful state that it led to kids coming up with new things to do. 

Studies show that boredom is a good thing. 

We saw this even at the beginning of Covid. Last spring, when we did a survey asking 1600 kids ages 8–13 across economic and geographic spectrums what new things they were doing and learning on their own, not for a class assignment, we heard about fort building. Origami. Dragon research. Making beads. Studying fuses. Parents noticed these new interests, too, including one dad who divulged his daughter’s new obsession: Bitcoin. She’s 8.

“They’re making up their own stuff,” says Boston College professor of psychology Peter Gray, a cofounder of Let Grow. “That’s the huge difference. They’re learning to take initiative to figure out what they want to do and go[ing] ahead and do[ing] it.”

In some ways, the kids even seem a little old-fashioned (if you ignore their hours on Minecraft). They’re learning to roller-skate, clean the toilet, sew, saw, and make sandwiches. One boy from our survey said he is learning random words from the dictionary. 

And speaking of random, did you know:

“Turtles can live to 150 years old.”

“Food takes seven seconds to go through the stomach.”

“You should never give someone who is internally bleeding any fluids.”

Kids told us these are new things they’re learning, too. One boy told us that he is now taking pictures of bugs, studying their behavior, and planning to write a book about it. There’s a word for that kind of activity: learning.   

By the way, we also saw plenty of more great examples of kids doing cool things on their own and working through pandemic fatigue when we ran an Independence Challenge contest. (Our main image features kids from that contest.) 

Kids can and will keep trying new things and figuring it all out.

It stinks that this school year is so jumbled and upsetting for many. It’s painful that we don’t know when it will end, and pandemic fatigue is definitely hitting many of us. But we need to keep trusting our kids and encouraging them to figure things out. When we look back, the pandemic may prove to have been a time of great growth for kids, who are learning big life lessons they might never have learned at school. 

How big? Here are some real answers to our What new thing are you learning? survey question:

“I’ve learned about checking and savings accounts.”

“I learned how to fish.”

“I learned my sister has a boyfriend.”

Big.