Summer ain’t what it used to be.
At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man a few decades early, the summers of my youth were not packed wall-to-wall with extracurricular affairs. Yes, there was Little League, but the days were long enough to accommodate no small number of other “aimless” pursuits. Playing home run derby in the tennis court with my friends. Exploring the ravine near my house as a pint-sized Indiana Jones. Sorting and displaying my baseball cards, and then drawing my own.
It was the opportunity to freely explore the things that fascinated me, without the prospect of a bell ringing in my ear telling me when to stop. I could follow my own curiosity, tugging on the proverbial thread that leads from one thing to another and then another, in a way that strict 50-minute periods don’t look kindly upon.
This ability to “wonder aimlessly” is a valuable thing. It is the heart and soul of tinkering and the key to a happy, fulfilling life.
It’s also something we need to fight to protect for our children and ourselves. One of the reasons Kim and I homeschool is to keep the “old school” spirit of summer alive, all year ’round.
According to the dictionary, to “wonder” is to “desire or be curious to know something.” It’s also to “feel admiration and amazement; marvel.” Meanwhile, to be “aimless” is to be “without goal, purpose, or direction.”
Wonder is a state we tend to view favorably. To be aimless, on the other hand, is an American sin. Someone without a goal or direction is seen in a negative light. A slacker, destined for an unproductive, ungratifying life.
The current system in America is anything but aimless. From the earliest ages, the goal is to get kids reading as quickly as possible, even if that means limiting the amount of time they have for “aimless” free play, which interestingly enough, science has confirmed is crucial to the development of resiliency and conflict resolution, while helping them discover their own areas of interest and engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
Once they are reading, the race is to get them to excel in a handful of subjects deemed worthwhile (science and math for sure, art and music and building things, not so much) so that their test scores match up favorably with other children in different cultures around the world.
Even extracurricular activities are highly structured and systematized, and have grown so demanding that they completely crowd out any time for those “aimless” pursuits, like the ones from the summers of my quickly retreating youth.
Of course, all of this academic and extracurricular excessiveness is necessary in order to get an esteemed university to look favorably upon our children, so that they will grant them admission to their hallowed halls, only to graduate burdened with suffocating financial debt and haunted by the uncertainty of not knowing if this is really what they want to do with the rest of their life…
…because they never had the chance to wonder aimlessly.
Direction and structure and purpose are good things. But they are empty skeletons if we have not been given the slow stretches of time to spend figuring out for ourselves what we like and don’t like, what we’re good at, what fascinates us and matters to us, and what lights us up inside so much that Friday is simply Friday, not some reason to thank God for the sweet relief from another week spent in drudgery.
One can never experience too much wonder. Unfortunately, we have less of it now than ever because we have filled our lives with too many distractions. In order to get it, we need to put our phones down, opt-out of some of the structured activities that eat our calendar, and carve out time for a little aimlessness.