Stop me if you've heard this one before: A child, sitting among various toys, activities and games, looks to their parent or caregiver and says "I'm boooooored!" It can be frustrating to feel like children need constant entertaining and structured activities to be satisfied.
Boredom is in the eye of the beholder; however, meaning that the feeling of boredom is a temporary situation that will pass and is not experienced the same by everyone. Parents are often quick to try to prevent boredom in their children. But allowing your children to feel bored sometimes may actually be good for them.
Research has shown that boredom results from a brain that is craving stimulation and not getting it. Some people crave this more than others, and it is good for our minds to be active much of the time while we're awake. If children (adults too!) become accustomed to having constant stimulation provided to them throughout the day though, their brain gets trained to expect that. When the planned activities stop, their brain tells them "I'm bored!" Depending on the age of your children, they are likely to respond by demanding a quick remedy to this feeling in the form of someone else providing an activity or turning to a screen.
However, many studies have shown that most screen time activities are nothing more than distraction and may actually just delay those feelings of boredom. Younger children may act out by getting into trouble, bothering other family members or interrupting that important phone call you’re on.
Instead of responding by giving into these requests and providing more tailor-made activities, research shows that allowing them to feel bored can be a good thing in the long run. A psychological term called cognitive dissonance is the idea that there is a difference between the current world and the ideal world that causes us frustration. We are motivated to resolve the dissonance by either changing the world, or changing the expectation. During times of boredom, when the world does not comply (by having parents offer an easy solution), the brain is challenged to fix the problem. This makes children more likely to come up with their own solutions to their feeling of boredom. Many people would call this being creative! This can be a difficult transition to make in your household depending on the current structure of your days, but here are some tips to help capitalize on boredom to improve creativity and self-directed play. HINT: Parents can use some of these strategies for themselves too.
- Schedule unstructured time into the day. Insert some boredom into your child’s day so you can guide them toward playing creatively.
- Steer them in the right direction. If they like art, provide a few mismatched supplies or a bin of random things to work with and let them get to it. If they like to build, take them on a hunt for materials and then see what they come up with.
- Be ready to tolerate some frustration. Remember the cognitive dissonance principle? The preferred solution for most kids is to have someone provide an activity for them, not realizing that creative play is often more engaging and satisfying. If they complain about being bored, teach them that this is their brain wanting them to be creative!
- Set a timer. Set aside a specific amount of time that your children need to entertain themselves. No screens or pre-determined activities. If you are able, leave them alone in an area where they can play and let them sit with their boredom until it motivates them to get playing.
- Plan a complex activity (if needed). This could include plans for a blanket fort, how to build a ramp for toy cars or another activity with multiple steps. Don't be too directive about how to do it, but give them the tools or knowledge they need.
- Let them make a mess. Sometimes what gets in the way of good creative play is a parent who doesn't want the floor, play area, shoes, etc. to get too dirty, so they cut off the play and return children to their previous state of boredom. Within reason, allow them to make a mess and then get them to help clean up afterward. It's worth it.
- Praise them. If they disappear into their play area and then you find them engaged in something new or different, let them know how proud you are of them. When they are done playing, ask them to describe how they came up with the idea or what they were doing. Share in the creativity with them and let them know it is something you value.
Check out our ideas for kids of all ages!