My mom used to tell me that, “Only boring people get bored”. And now as a parent, grandparent, and clinician I find myself quoting this often. I believe that this is one of the most important life skills a child can learn. When we spend all our time entertaining our children, they never have to learn how to entertain themselves.
Research suggests that people are more creative when they’re bored – and that’s true for our kids, too. It’s just how the human mind works. When our kids have nothing to do, they exercise their imaginations and that just might be the most important skill they can develop. I love it when a kid tells me they are bored – this is a perfect opportunity to hand them a bunch of materials and say, “figure out how to make something from these that isn’t boring!”.
It’s our responsibility as parents to build the skills of imagination and creativity. The way we do it, in large part, is by giving these skills (that are in seed form when our children are young), the chance to play, evolve, do their work, and become. Boredom is water for these seeds. When we’re supplying all the goods for our kids’ attention, we’re actually discouraging our children’s imaginations and creative capacities.
When children are left to their own devices, they’re forced to be more creative and imaginative in finding ways to amuse themselves. Giving them opportunities to try things of their own volition builds their sense of discovery and curiosity and helps them explore what brings them joy.
“Resilence” has become a buzzword in schools, referring to children developing a flexible attitude and the ability to adjust when things are tough. Being bored – or having to think of ways to amuse themselves – is an important way to develop this ‘grit.’ Having free time to try things out without the fear of failure is essential if a child is to develop grit and resilience.
In a world where children are constantly stimulated, they can feel uncomfortable if they don’t have anything to do. But this encourages initiative and problem-solving, as they have to rely on themselves to tackle the ‘problem’ of being bored.’
Your child may argue that being bored is, well, boring, but actually, it could make their childhood happier overall.
When adults talk about their childhood memories, no one ever mentions anything material. It’s always the simple things they remember: connections, laughter and nature.
All the activities that we think are making childhood richer may be getting in the way of a simple but contented life. If your child is used to having their time scheduled, making the shift to a way of life where they’re responsible for amusing themselves some of the time can be tricky. For some kids this will be something that requires adult support. It will be difficult at first because they don’t know how to do it, and you’ll have to be their imagination coach, but once the spark has ignited, it will get better.
Try these techniques for encouraging children to entertain themselves:
- Have a weekly imagination activity. Pick one day a week where there are no structured activities and provide kids with materials to play with – let them make it up as you go along. Create a dinosaur park, a construction site, a fort, whatever sounds like fun!
- Give them a creative, open-ended task like building an obstacle course in the backyard or setting up a treasure hunt. This will inspire them to think up the clues, plan a surprise, try a new “trick” etc.
- Provide low-tech toys. If you have the space, collecting things like blocks, paper tubes, pipe cleaners, legos, straws, chalk, a long roll of paper, markers, boxes, modeling clay, masking tape, plastic water bottles, and yarn can provide kids with endless opportunities to create. You don’t need to buy an expensive marble run when your child can make an even better one from things you have lying around the house.
- Don’t mind the mess. Everything can be put away, and you can make it a condition that your child has to help clean up after the creating is finished.
- Get outdoors. Take your child to open spaces and resist the urge to jump in. Let them climb on the monkey bars, walk up and down a slide, jump off steps and allow them to take risks.
- Be a good role model. Hold off on technology as a play opportunity for as long as possible. Try to model healthy attitudes to technology yourself: you can’t insist that your child puts their phone down if you’re always on yours.
- Become an “IMAGINATION COACH”. Think of it as an opportunity to provide materials, support developing ideas and facilitate problem-solving. Sometimes the role of the coach will be to sit beside the player and wait and watch what unfolds. And, other times you will take a more active role by asking the questions: “what if?”, “how can you?”, “what about tying this?”