In a piece about how stone-cold geniuses like Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and physicist John von Neumann spent their childhoods (hint: lots of free time, and homeschooling, often also by geniuses), the author, Henrik Karlsson, dug up this quote from Carl Sagan:
Britain has produced a range of remarkably gifted multidisciplinary scientists and scholars who are sometimes described as polymaths. The group included, in recent times, Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, and Jacob Bronowski. Russell commented that the development of such gifted individuals required a childhood period in which there was little or no pressure for conformity, a time in which the child could develop and pursue his or her own interests no matter how unusual or bizarre.
But it’s not only geniuses who benefit from the freedom to figure out their “unusual or bizarre” interests. It’s all of us! And this is especially easy to see in those of us who found our way to a fulfilling career, or pastime.
Prank Calls and Professors
For instance: My friend Barbara Sarnecka came up with a quirky hobby as a kid: “I wrote a list of questions and picked up the phone and started randomly calling strangers and interviewing them about whether they had ever played a musical instrument.”
Random calls? Survey questions? Data collection? Just for FUN?
Today she’s a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine, where she gets paid to ask random strangers questions about their lives.
At a debate I attended, I started talking to a gal who played with Barbie as a kid. No surprise — plenty of us did. But she didn’t care about Barbie’s clothes one whit. She only played with the Dream House, constantly creating furnishings. For instance, she gave Barbie (and Ken, I guess) a waterbed made from a water balloon.
And today she’s a theater designer.
Penn & Teller & Colin
As a young man, Colin Summers spent hours drawing fantastical recreational vehicles, like an amphibious Arctic explorer. Then, as a teen, he got so interested in tech, he started working at one of the early computer stores in Manhattan. Soon, he became its main fixit guy. So when Penn of Penn & Teller came in with a computer problem, Carl was his point person, eventually helping him make his computer do wacky things. Then off Carl went to get his architecture degree. And finally, as I wrote in Reason:
When Summers graduated with his architecture degree, he put it all together: The magical motor homes. The deep dive into tech. The drafting. The dreaming. The friendship. He designed Penn’s house in Las Vegas, complete with six secret rooms.
Free Time is Not Wasted Time
The article about geniuses makes clear that the folks who gave us War & Peace, cracked the Nazi’s code in WWII, and composed The Magic Flute had more than just down time. Most came from families that fed their brains with lots of conversation, one-on-one schooling, and respect for their budding talents. But the thing those geniuses had that today’s kids often don’t is the free time to find and expand into idiosyncratic realms. And that seems key,
There is no after-school class that teaches how to draw amphibious vehicles or design mid-century Barbie furniture. Discovering those interests required enough unstructured time to have a kind of fun that isn’t available if all your time is spent on adult-led activities or homework.
What I’m saying is that what can look like “down time,” or “wasted time,” or time when kids can just “chill” so they’re ready for the next “important” activity can actually be he opposite: the time when they get turned on by something no one would ever think to teach them, like how to make phone calls to strangers to collect data.
What about screen time?
Some of that free time can be online, as there’s so much there to learn. But I’d say a decent portion of it should be offline, too, as there’s so much there to learn.
We all want our kids to find their passion, follow their bliss, be the person they were meant to be…etc., etc. To make that happen, we have to trust them with some unstructured, unsupervised time. Consider it an enrichment activity!