Many parents feel the expectation both from society and our children is to entertain our little ones 24/7, whether that’s through guided activities, organized classes with other kids, or just surrendering a screen. Are our children ever bored? And if not, what is sacrificed?
Believe it or not, research reveals that boredom is an essential ingredient for creativity. Summer is the perfect time for parents to let children grapple with the frustration–and eventual fruits–of not knowing what to do. According to Michael Ungar who wrote this article for Psychology Today:
Children who experience a lack of programmed activity are given an opportunity to demonstrate creativity, problem solving, and to develop motivational skills that may help them later in life.
When I was a little girl, I often complained of being bored. My mom’s only retort was “If you’re bored, you’re boring.” This comment frustrated me to no end — until I mixed up a concoction of ingredients in the kitchen, or taught a ballet class in the basement to the neighborhood 3 and 4 year olds, or put on my spy gear and set out on my route up and down the street.
Unstructured play allows children to tap into their own passions and desires, as well as explore emotions. An excellent article in Aha! Parenting says:
Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity. This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create.
Knowing this, it’s still hard to resist what my kid wants most: wholesale entertainment. It turns out that just like the ability to withstand frustration, the skill of tolerating boredom is a learned behavior that requires training.
Of course, younger children require shorter stints of boredom, and more help figuring out the possibilities of how to spend time. For a toddler, we might pull out a favorite toy and say, “I need to do some reading now. You can play yourself.” Then we can spend 5-10 minutes “reading a book” to ourselves while really keeping watch.
Children ages 3-5 might be able to spend longer periods of time playing “on their own.” Parents might provide some art supplies like a hunk of clay or a piece of chalk, or give kids a pail and shovel and a pile of dirt. Don’t give any explicit instructions. Just observe from a comfortable distance without direction. If your child wants you to join in, you might say, “I can play with you when the timer beeps in 15 minutes.”
Kids ages 5 and older might be ready to generate their own ideas for what to do in a given period of time while the parent says, “I’ll be busy for the next 20 minutes doing the laundry” or “finishing up work.”
No one likes to be under-stimulated, and it takes getting used to. Keep in mind, however, the complaints that you’re sure to hear as your child practices being bored are leading to the launching of your little one’s imagination. And what could be more fun than that?