Jonathan Stroud explains why he thinks children should have nothing to do this summer.
Close your eyes and summon up the essence of childhood. Chances are it’s an image of freedom – of roaming the wild outdoors, of devising a wonderful game with siblings or friends, of sitting undiscovered reading a book. These are the key moments that help to define us all; the moments when, as children, we have the space and time to explore our imaginations and discover who we really are. Sadly these are precisely the moments that are under pressure as never before by the requirements of modern life.
One year ago I launched the Freedom to Think campaign. It was prompted by watching my two eldest children (now 12 and 9) as they sought to balance the demands of school with their own creative impulses. Already – at a comparatively young age – they were having to wrestle with homework, clubs and daily routines, and I could see how these threatened to overwhelm their energies. Which isn’t to say these structured activities were inherently bad – far from it – but I knew they were just one part of the story.
I began to think about my own childhood, and how it moulded me. When I was young I spent many hours doodling, writing stories, making board-games, creating comics. The things I created filled up my mum and dad’s loft for years. At the time of course I was simply having fun, but unbeknownst to me I was also slowly figuring out who I was and what I wanted to be. That private, solitary voyage of discovery led directly to my adult career as a writer.
No one forced me to write and draw. I just followed my nose. And I believe all children need the opportunity to do something similar. In many ways this is a process that begins with boredom – with free time stretching away ahead of you, and only your own ingenuity to help fill it. My personal instinct was always to tell stories, but other children will make dens, design robots, play music, look at the stars… There are infinite paths to follow, infinite places to end up. But you need that breathing space – that time to let your mind drift and wander – if you’re going to find a path at all.
The Freedom to Think campaign suggests that we cordon off regular periods of unstructured time for our children to follow their noses and do what they like. There’s no required outcome, no set agenda, just the intuition that boredom leads inevitably to play and play to creativity. In the frenetic world we live in, protecting and prioritising such moments is more essential than ever.
Since launching the idea we’ve had a fantastic year, reaching out to like-minded parents, championing the cause in the world of books and beyond, and holding terrific events like the ‘Great British Creative Challenge’ at the Oxford Literary Festival. It’s been a delight to see people embrace the campaign, and it’s also made me, as a dad, become better at kick-starting my own children’s creativity. To be fair I’m usually wholly surplus to requirements, but occasionally a simple suggestion, tossed casually into the conversation, is enough to ignite an afternoon of happy activity.
With the long holidays now upon us, what better time can there be to put Freedom to Think into practise? To celebrate, here are five top creative ideas that might spark some youthful imaginations this summer. All you have to do is light the touch paper, and stand well back…
Love music? Become a pop star. Write a song, give it a tune, dress up like a rock god and put on a performance for your family. Or make your own musical instrument. Get five glasses and line them up. Fill them with different amounts of water. Use a pencil to gently strike each glass and listen to the different notes. Can you compose a tune?
How about a good gross-out? Try designing the world’s worst stink-bomb. Think of the most disgusting smelly things that might be mixed together to make the bomb. Write or draw your recipe. You could even design a catapult to launch it at your enemies.
Space crazy? Can you make a space station? Use cardboard boxes, Plasticine, lego or wood. Think about how it would be protected from the sun’s rays. What powers it? How does it move? Be inspired by Tim Peake’s adventures – the universe is your limit!
Sport mad? Pretend you’re a football commentator – make a microphone, decide on the match you’re watching, and draw up notes on the star players. Now talk through the game. You could use a smart phone to record your commentary and play it back to friends.
Love nature? Go for a walk and collect natural things you find – leaves, branches, flowers, fruit and stones. Can you use these things to design something – perhaps a fossil dinosaur, or weird animal you’ve just invented?
I hope these ideas will inspire you and your family this summer. If the campaign strikes a chord, take a look at our website where you’ll find lots more activity suggestions. Meanwhile I’d love to see any photographs of your children’s creations or ideas. You can upload images or videos to our tumblr site, tweet them to @iamfree2think or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Whatever you end up doing, have fun!
The Freedom To Think campaign, set up by Jonathan Stroud, best-selling author of the Bartimaeus and Lockwood & Co series, hopes to enrich our children’s lives – and the lives of the people around them – by shining a spotlight on the importance of imaginative play.