Why Boredom is Good for Your Kids

Laura Markham's picture

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bored child"Mom, I'm bored."

Makes you feel put on the spot, right? Most of us respond to our kids' boredom by providing technological entertainment or structured activities. But unstructured time challenges kids to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create. Kids need practice with unstructured time, or they'll never learn to manage it.

Even more important, children need empty time to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity.

Most kids given unstructured time find something interesting to do with it. Kids are always happiest in self-directed play. When kids simply can't find something to do, it's usually because:

  1. They're so used to TV that they aren't practiced at looking inside themselves for direction.
  2. Their time is so structured that they aren't used to finding fun things to do with their "free time."
  3. They need some parental attention. All kids need to check in with their parents for refueling during the course of the day.

So how to respond when kids complain that they're bored?

First, stop what you're doing and really focus on your child. 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 a few minutes of fully connecting, consider that maybe he needs a little more time with you. Offer to involve him in what you're doing, or take a break from your work and go for a walk together.

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

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 she suddenly has more time on her hands than usual, or if you're newly limiting TV and electronics. (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 him by creating a Boredom Jar stuffed with ideas written on pieces of paper. Whenever a child says he's bored, he picks three pieces of paper from the jar and chooses one of the activities.

Suggestions for the Boredom Jar:

  • Hug Your Mom
  • Write your Granny a letter
  • Run around the yard three times
  • Put on some music and dance
  • Write down ten things you love about each person in your family
  • Draw on the sidewalk with chalk
  • Play hopscotch
  • Play jumprope
  • Brush the dog or give her a bath
  • Find shapes in the clouds
  • See how many times you can dribble the basketball
  • Paint or draw a picture
  • Plan a treasure hunt, with clues
  • Organize your room
  • Ride your bike
  • Make a scene in a cardboard box
  • Start a journal
  • Make homemade wrapping paper
  • Write a story
  • Create a play with costumes
  • Cut out pictures from magazines and make collages
  • Cut up old holiday cards and make holiday stickers for next year by coating the back with gelatin glue, let dry (2 tsp gelatin in 5 tsp boiling water.)
  • Surprise your mom by making lunch
  • Make a zoo for your stuffed animals
  • Create a family newspaper/newsletter
  • Make dessert
  • Start a collection (leaves, rocks, buttons)
  • Create a circus performance
  • Make your room into a rainforest
  • Make a sculpture from pretzels and peanut butter
  • Make an obstacle course
  • Read a book
  • Have a water balloon fight (outside!)
  • Memorize a poem and recite it for your parents
  • Play a board game
  • Create your own board game
  • Play with bubbles in the sink
  • Weed the garden
  • Wash the mirror with a sponge
  • Make a book of jokes
  • Build a fort with blankets and pillows
  • Make a list of fun things you can do without a grownup
  • Mix liquid hand soap, cornstarch and food coloring into paint and paint the bathtub

One last tip: Don't use the TV or electronic games to alleviate boredom. 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 favor!

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com