Handling Boredom:  Why it’s good for them

“Mom, Dad….I’m bored.”

Makes you feel put on the spot, right? You might even feel like you’re a bad parent. Most of us feel pressured to solve this “problem” right away. We usually respond to our kids’ boredom by providing technological entertainment or structured activities. But that’s actually counter-productive. Children need to encounter and engage with the raw stuff that life is made of: unstructured time.

Why is unstructured time so important for your child’s healthy development?

One of our biggest challenges as adults, and even as teenagers, is learning to manage our time well. So it’s essential for children to start encountering the experience of deciding for themselves how to use periods of unstructured time.   

Maybe even more important, unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is how they discover who they are. It’s the beginning of creativity; how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create.

So the best response to “I’m bored,” is:

Wonderful! Bored is that feeling of spaciousness that happens before you create or explore or discover! I can’t wait to see what you do with that feeling!”

Unstructured time also challenges children to explore their own passions, which is how they grow and develop their unique gifts. If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or they “fill” their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts. Those stirrings might lead them to build a fort, make a monster from clay, write a short story or song, organise their friends into making a movie, or simply study the bugs in the garden or park (as Einstein reportedly did for hours). These calls from our heart are what lead us to those passions that make life meaningful, and they are available to us beginning in childhood — but only when children are given free rein to explore and pursue where their interests lead them.

As Nancy H. Blakey said,

“Preempt the time spent on television and organized activities and have them spend it instead on claiming their imaginations. For in the end, that is all we have. If a thing cannot be imagined first — a cake, a relationship, a cure for AIDS– it cannot be. Life is bound by what we can envision. I cannot plant imagination into my children. I can, however, provide an environment where their creativity is not just another mess to clean up but welcome evidence of grappling successfully with boredom. It is possible for boredom to deliver us to our best selves, the ones that long for risk and illumination and unspeakable beauty. If we sit still long enough, we may hear the call behind boredom. With practice, we may have the imagination to rise up from the emptiness and answer.”

Most kids given unstructured time rise to the occasion (after some minor complaining) and find something interesting to do with it. Kids are always happiest in self-directed play. That’s because play is children’s work. It’s how they work out emotions and experiences they’ve had. Watch any group of children playing (outside, when screens are not an option) and they will organize themselves into an activity of some sort, whether that’s making a dam in a  puddle of water, playing “pretend” or seeing who can jump farthest.

Why does “I’m bored” become a constant refrain for so many kids?

When kids simply can’t find something to do, it’s usually because:

  • They’re so used to screen entertainment that they aren’t practiced at looking inside themselves for direction.
  •  Their time is always so structured that they aren’t used to finding fun things to do with their “free time.”
  • They have no one to play with, and haven’t yet discovered things they like to do by themselves. 
  • They need some parental connection. All kids need to check in with their parents for refueling during the course of the day.

Unfortunately, our society is raising a whole generation of children who are addicted to screens. That’s because electronics are designed to produce little “dopamine” rewards in our brains as we interact with them. That’s so enjoyable that other experiences pale in comparison.

But children need all kinds of other experiences, from building with blocks (motor skills, perceptual abilities) to engaging with other kids (learning how to get along and partner with others) to creative pursuits (becoming a doer, not a passive observer). Children also need to be physically active. Their bodies are designed to move, and if they don’t, they have a harder time sustaining attention and staying in a good mood. That’s why it’s essential to limit screen time.

When children say they’re bored, how can parents respond?

First, stop what you’re doing and really focus on your child for five minutes. If you use this time to connect, just chat and snuggle, your child will probably get the refueling he needs and be on his way fairly quickly.

If he doesn’t pull away from you, and you need to get back to work after five minutes of fully connecting, consider that maybe he needs a little more time with you. Most of the time when children are whiny and unable to focus, it’s because they need more deep connection time with us. If you can, offer to involve him in what you’re doing, or take a break from your work to do something together. If you can’t, then get him started on an activity and then gradually ease yourself out of it.

Once you’re confident that your child has a full “love tank,” you can revisit the “what to do” question. By now, he probably has some ideas for something he’d like to go do. If not, tell him that figuring out how to enjoy his own time is his job, but you’d be happy to help him brainstorm about possible activities.

What about when kids really do need help coming up with a boredom-busting activity? How can we help… while still being clear that entertaining themselves is their responsibility?

Most of the time, kids left to their own devices end up doing something interesting, but sometimes they really do need our help, especially if you’re newly limiting TV and electronics, or if they suddenly have more time on their hands than usual, for instance when school ends and summer begins. (Once kids get used to limitations on TV and electronics, they become good at entertaining themselves, and more creative at play.)

Even if you need to help your child come up with ideas for “what to do,” shift the responsibility to your child, by working with her to create a Boredom Buster Jar. Together, you write down ideas that your child thinks would be fun to do and put them in the Boredom Buster Jar. Whenever a child says she’s bored, she picks three pieces of paper from the jar and chooses one of the activities.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Make a scene in a cardboard box of the ocean, or a jungle.

Make a book of jokes.

Write Grandma a letter.

Draw a picture of a desert island with all the things you would want on it.

Cut out paper dolls and costumes for them.

Get a magnet and make a list of everything in your house that is magnetized.

Use a ruler to measure things in your house, recording their length.

Give your dolls or stuffed animals a bubble bath.

Make a boat using a plastic soda bottle base & popsicle sticks (use duct tape) for the top, then float it at the pond.

Write down ten things you love about each person in your family to surprise them.             

Brush the dog.

Make homemade slime or playdoh.

Draw a tree.

Make a dollhouse out of cardboard.

Learn a tongue twister.

Make homemade ice cream in a baggie.

Give the dog a bath.

Cut paper snowflakes.

See how many times you can dribble a basketball

Make paper airplanes and fly them.

If it really does seem like there is nothing to do, is using electronics and TV ever an acceptable solution?

The problem with using TV or electronic games to alleviate boredom is that this is one of those temporary solutions that digs you into a deeper hole. Studies show that kids who regularly use electronics are more likely to feel bored when not doing so than other kids. Even after eliminating the habit, it can take months for them to find other activities about which they’re passionate. But don’t give up — you’re doing their creativity an enormous favour!

If your child can read, there is never “nothing” to do. There is a whole world of books just waiting. Of course, you will need to schedule a weekly library trip to find wonderful books. And you will have to “hook” your child on a book by beginning it with them. Choose a book they can read, but might not choose on their own — a simple chapter book, rather than a picture book, for example. Read together until you have to answer the phone or start dinner, but a minimum of a quarter of the book, so your child is hooked. Then tell them it’s time for them to read-alone time. It’s their choice. Do they want to keep reading the book you’ve just gotten them into, or read something else? Most kids grab the book and finish it themselves. (If they don’t, you may need to drop back a level to a slightly simpler book.) Keep choosing engrossing, slightly harder books.

If your child cannot yet read, but you are available, there are thousands of wonderful things you can do with your child. You are likely to draw a blank in that moment when your child is whining, so it’s worth making a list in advance. Again, there are many wonderful lists online of parent-child activities. I highly recommend games that are designed to bring you closer to your child, because these will fill his cup, after which he will be more able to figure out what else to do. (They also deepen your relationship, which makes kids much more cooperative and makes you both happier.)

So those times when there really is “nothing” to do are mostly when your child cannot yet read to herself well enough to stay engrossed for an hour, and you are otherwise occupied. If you can include your child in your activity, your problem is solved. Small children love to wash windows, cook dinner, help you fold laundry, etc. If they can’t be directly involved (for instance, stirring a pot on the stove or cutting the onions), set them up with a child-sized table in or next to your kitchen, give them a plastic knife and some soft fruit, and let them make a fruit salad for dessert. You will never see such a proud child. Or let them “wash” the porch with water while you vacuum inside. Or “clean out” the cupboard where you keep your pots and pans.

And just be sure you turn off the screen once you’re available, rather than taking advantage of your child’s glazed-over connection to the screen to finish “just one more thing” on your computer!

If you have any concerns about your child and need some support please contact the Therapeutic Lead in your child’s school