[Temperamental Children Documented in Preschool Field Notes] Part 1: Children's idle time in the times of life "With-COVID-19" - Papers & Essays



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[Temperamental Children Documented in Preschool Field Notes] Part 1: Children's idle time in the times of life "With-COVID-19"


Young children can often be observed being fascinated and engaged with something through play. This can be an invaluable experience for their development. However, it seems that they are not constantly fascinated or engaged with something. For example, a four-year-old boy named Shota often spends his time absent-mindedly during free time at preschool. It appears that he is idling the time away doing nothing. However, it seems that it is actually a period of incubation that strongly relates to his next play activity. His behavior suggests that children’s “idle time” is an opportunity that lets their minds roam, getting away from various pieces of information surrounding them and nurturing their desire to play and learn on their own ground.


Idle, time, idling one’s time away, play, being absorbed/fascinated, ECEC, child-rearing

I am a researcher teaching infant psychology at university. Due to my occupation, I often visit ECEC settings. This essay will discuss my observations and thoughts on children's behavior patterns, ECEC, and child-rearing through these visits. I hope it is of interest to you.

After the government lifted the state of emergency declaration, the so-called time of life "With- COVID-19" of new normal living conditions began. Now, we need to live by coping with the ever-present threat of COVID-19. However, even during the state of emergency, most daycare centers and kindergartens or ECEC centers with the function of daycare centers continued to provide ECEC services. These ECEC teachers supporting the fundamental social infrastructures are called "key workers " in the UK and "essential workers" in the USA.*1 During the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous people reaffirmed the significant value of these key/essential workers.

There might have been considerable numbers of ECEC teachers who have preexisting medical conditions or families with such conditions. Some might have difficulty continuing to work because they had to take care of their children at home due to school closures. Nevertheless, preschool teachers, whom I contacted during the pandemic, continued to provide thoughtful support for parents in need of education and care and childrearing. These teachers tried to take care of young children in much the same way as before the pandemic. For example, they created a transparent face shield that allows babies to see the movements of the teachers' lips to use when communicating with babies who were in the stage of rapid language development. They also tried to take safety precautions when giving a hug to comfort children, thus constantly working out what they could do under the given situation in order to provide thorough support for childcare and childrearing. In the end, teachers upheld an adequate balance between "Prevention of COVID-19 infection" and "Interaction with children which is meaningful for their development." Amid the unprecedented and stressful situation during the pandemic, they made decisions to safeguard the children's best interests. I would like to express my utmost respect to all these ECEC teachers for their efforts and contributions to society.

Now, I will tell you about something I pondered over during this time of life "With COVID-19," that is, children's idle time. What comes to mind when you think about "idle time"? If someone says, "You look like you are idling the time away doing nothing," how do you feel? You might feel a sense of guilt as if you are unable to find something worth devoting yourself into. It seems that we, adults, always seek to be busy or pretend to be busy, although we may actually feel otherwise. Most probably, we are indeed busy, and it is quite understandable that people today always long for free time. In this regard, the word "idle time" represents feelings of conflict between "desire for free time" and "desire for not being labeled as a boring person."

We often observe young children being fascinated and engaged with something through play at ECEC settings. This can be an invaluable experience for their development. However, I have noticed that they are not constantly fascinated or engaged with something. Here, I will provide one example. One day, Director Akihito Kimura at the Ryuunji Gakuen Baudea Gakusha (a certified ECEC center located in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture) told me about the behavioral traits of Shota, a four-year-old boy. He often gazes absently out of the window during break periods and it appears that he is idling the time away doing nothing. However, once he finds something that interests him, he immediately becomes fascinated and deeply engaged with it. He even takes the lead among children, as if he has transformed into a hero. His behavior suggests that children may spend their time idly while seeking and planning for a new type of play or activity that interests them. In other words, such behavioral traits of children seem like a period of incubation that strongly relates to their next play activity.

Have you ever felt a twinge of anxiety when you see your children idling away their time? I have to admit that I feel relieved whenever I see my child engaged with something, thinking, "She is not just killing time but doing something meaningful!" Her devotion assures me that "I'm doing okay as a mother." In contrast, however, if my child looks bored, I will become anxious. I will worry that my child is in need of something, or that I have not shown her something she can devote herself into, or even provided her with an appropriate learning environment suitable for her personal quality. In this modern world, everything happens and transforms at a rapid pace, prioritizing productivity and efficiency. Therefore, it is understandable that parents want their children to devote themselves to something and fully enjoy valuable time in their childhood.

However, the behavioral traits of Shota present a question to us: "Is being busy with something really good for him?" One of the solutions from the adult's side is to assign a certain task or activity to children like Shota. Then, they will have something to do during their free time. But do they really enjoy it? For them, such a given activity may be tedious. Children like Shota can probably leverage their time where their minds roam. As a result, they recognize unknown or incomprehensible things that emerged from our world and become fascinated with them. Or they are actually doing a lot of things while they look like they are just killing time. For adults, "idle time" implies emptiness. For children, however, "idle time" is an opportunity that allows their minds to roam, feel emptiness, and engage in self-reflection. They get away from various pieces of information surrounding them for a little while and nurture their desire to play and learn on their own ground.

Many of us would recall that, when we were little, the summer holidays felt very long, time seemed to pass very slowly, and there was plenty of time to spend. When we noticed "There is nothing to do today," our minds started wandering. Such experiences might have been valuable for our personal life. In these modern times where productivity and efficiency are prioritized, it is essential to understand what children are thinking and feeling when apparently idling away their time.

Due to the prevention measures against COVID-19, my job was put on hold, and I had a lot of free time. As I explained above, this situation allowed me to rethink about children's idle time. My own children also gave me some hints on that topic. When school closed, they had a lot of free time and suddenly started drawing pictures. They even invented a new play activity, pretending to be prehistoric dwellers in the Jomon era, and started making bows, arrows, and stone tools. Watching them do this made me think about having free time.

Lastly, I would like to note that I was inspired by the out-of-box stories of children and the observations of teachers at ECEC facilities, as well as Philosopher Koichiro Kokubun's book "Hima to taikutsu no rinrigaku [The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom]" (Ohta Publishing Co., 2015).


  • *1: Mikako Brady, "European Season Review: Care workers who are essential to our society" (Asahi Shimbun, June 11, 2020 morning edition)
Sakiko Sagawa
Associate Professor of the Faculty of Education, Kyoto University of Education She is originally from Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture, Kyushu. After raising her first child, she entered postgraduate school to do research on children. Currently, she is a mother of children and a university lecturer/researcher. Her major publications include “An Analysis of How Children Design and Make Objects Through Interaction With Others” (Kazama Shobo). She also co-translated “GIFTS from the CHILDREN: Kodomo-tachi kara no Okurimono (Early childcare practice based on the philosophy of Reggio Emilia)” (Houbun Shorin).

* The above titles are as of publication.