Paddington had noticed in the past that he often got his best ideas when he was “at a loose end.”
-Michael Bond, Paddington
It’s a cry that strikes a visceral reaction in the hearts of parents everywhere-often frustration, annoyance, or an anxious leap to action. While some parents can find the balance of calm assertion, helpful suggestions, and wise withdrawal, many of us feel responsible to keep our children constantly entertained, stimulated or “enriched.” The result is overscheduling, excess screen time and fatigue for everyone involved.
Parents used to order their kids to stay out of the house on a nice day and find something to do. How many adventures were born out of boredom? Clearly, today we live in a different generation and culture of safety and supervision. But we can still appreciate the underlying principles: 1) free time and boredom can be good things for children, and 2) learning to entertain yourself is an invaluable life skill.
Why is it good to let your child be occasionally bored?
Think of the best memories of your childhood. How many of them started with being “at a loose end”? Sitting with nothing may be uncomfortable because it requires your mind to work by itself. In fact, boredom is connected to original thinking; learning to harness boredom helps us to become productive, creative, interesting people. Even daydreaming is important. In Bored and Brilliant, Manoush Zomorodi describes mind wandering—what our brains do when we are doing nothing at all—as very productive work that allows new ideas to emerge. You might even say that never allowing yourself, or your child, to be bored is to miss opportunities for growth.
Everything is not a journey to a destination. Help your child understand that living in the moment is really good for us and is actually quite relaxing.
Deb Lonzer, MD, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital
Overscheduling happens easily even with the best of intentions, unless we are proactive about protecting free time. We want our children to pursue and enrich their interests; we don’t want them to miss out on opportunities. We want them to grow up to be well-rounded, high-achieving, even competitive young people. Some of us who have a high degree of control over our own lives are more comfortable taking the same degree of control over our children’s lives and time. We are wary of having too much free time or boredom.
But remember, boredom is important. Down time is essential not just for physical rest, but for psychological development. Self-directed executive function (goal-oriented processes like planning, decision making, and filtering information and thoughts) develops mostly during childhood and is important both for success both in school and in life. A 2014 study by psychologists at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver found that kids who spent more time in less structured activities were more self-directed; when they spent more time in structured activities, they were less able to use executive function. Because young children are dependent on parents for the scheduling of their days, it’s important for us to model balance for them. When scheduling an activity, consider scheduling down time as well; it deserves to be a priority.
Our preschool’s take on boredom
Despite the importance of boredom, we debated how to write this post because, obviously, the children at our preschool aren’t primarily bored. It’s not the goal of the school or the goal of the parents who send their children here. However, our preschool is based on the principles of free play and imagination; we believe that giving children space to direct their own activity and, occasionally, become bored exercises their ability to try new things. “Children today are overscheduled,” muses Teacher Nancy. “They spend a lot of time overstimulated with structured activities, playdates, and electronics; they are being fed things to do. I’ve observed the kids on micro-schedules are more anxious and less willing to take creative risks. We need to reclaim the lost art of playing, and start to exercise the muscles of using imagination and creating.”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children describes the five essentials to meaningful play as the following:
- Children make their own decisions.
- Children are intrinsically motivated.
- Children become immersed in the moment.
- Play is spontaneous, not scripted.
- Play is enjoyable.
Albany Preschool approaches the education of our children as a journey, not a destination. We provide opportunities, not prescriptions, for learning. Whether a child wants to construct an elaborate fort out of furniture, build rivers, culverts and dams for water play in the sand box, or just daydream in the loft, they have a safe space and a lot of time. Now that’s making the most of being at a loose end.
The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “My Lost Youth”
So now what?
If, after reading the above, you’re more comfortable with the idea of your child being bored, give it a try. Don’t try to fill every moment of your child’s day. When you hear “I’m bored,” wait before intervening or suggesting an activity, and see what happens. Children are good at surprising us. Your child might find something to do (don’t be afraid of messes! Creativity is blooming). He or she might find nothing to do, and rest or daydream a bit. More likely, you might hear some whining and pouting until they figure out what to do with that boredom. Be prepared! Stay strong. Know that learning to deal with the discomfort of boredom takes time. It’s like working out a muscle. And think about ways to allow yourself time to breathe, daydream, and, yes, be bored.
Words of wisdom from parents of the past:
“You’re bored? Go find something to do.”
“Your boredom is not my problem.”
“The best thing you can ever do for yourself is to learn to be happy just sitting with yourself.”
“Giving children time is a gift—time to problem solve, make choices, learn faster from their own choices,” says Teacher Nancy. “Learning what to do with that time builds gradually, with practice. It’s worth it.”
What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments.
Zomorodi, Manoush. Bored and brilliant: how spacing out can unlock your most productive and creative self. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
Study: too many structured activities hinder children’s executive functioning. Elle Wexler, Education Week, July 2, 2014.
Less-structured time in children’s lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Jane E. Barker, et al. Frontiers in Psychology, June 17, 2014
Over-scheduling: a problem for the child and the family. Cleveland Clinic, May 24, 2012.
Why you should do nothing when your child says, “I’m bored.” Vanessa Lapointe, Huffington Post, May 2, 2016.
Children should be allowed to get bored, expert says. Hannah Richardson, BBC News, March 23, 2013.
Being bored is a luxury-and for kids it can be magical. Kat Patrick, The Guardian, May 3, 2017.
Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It’s the last privilege of a free mind. Gayatri Devi, The Guardian, September 28, 2015
Let kids be bored (occasionally). Michael Ungar, Psychology Today, June 24, 2012.
5 ways boredom makes your kid more awesome. Mark Oliver, Parent.com, February 16, 2017.
The importance of letting your kids be bored. Chase Scheinbaum, Fatherly.com, February 6, 2017.
Overscheduled children: how big a problem? Bruce Feiler, nytimes.com, October 11, 2013.
I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black
There’s Nothing to Do by Dev Petty
Doodle Cat is Bored by Kat Patrick