Why Boredom Is Good for Kids

It turns out a little boredom is a good thing. Unfortunately, experts say today’s overscheduled kids may be missing out on it, even during the summer, a time intended to be a break from the pressures of the school year.

Of course, many of the things that compete for kids’ time and attention also have their place. Summer schoolcamp, extracurricular classes and activities, sports, and even (some) screentime all provide kids with a lot of real benefits. Still, many kids lack unstructured time to daydream and find their own creative ways of occupying their time, something researchers say is also incredibly important.

This Summer, Let Your Kids be Bored

This might sound strange, especially at this time of year when so many articles urge parents to keep kids engaged and learning to prevent summer learning loss. And it’s true that students who are not regularly engaged in learning during the summer months typically experience significant losses in key skills when they return to school in the fall. Finding opportunities for learning during the summer months is vital.

By saying “let your kids be bored” I’m not suggesting that parents should let kids sit on the couch all summer, or forgo finding educational activities for them.

Instead, I’m suggesting that parents schedule in some time for boredom. Plan for time without plans, time for kids to entertain themselves without any kind of goal in mind. And perhaps most importantly, turn off the TV, unplug the video games, and power down the phones and iPads.

In the absence of structured activities and buzzing electronics, kids will find ways to occupy themselves, and in the process, they’ll be developing creativity and imagination. In an article on this subject one expert wrote:

“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.

Are we really doing our children a service by removing quiet, unstructured time from their lives? When we endlessly program them with activities, show them videos while driving, insist on being their playmates when other children aren’t available, and buying them amusements like video games, have we overlooked the amazing opportunities for psychological growth right there in the quiet of our own homes?”

The Value of Daydreaming

Just as important as letting kids find ways to entertain themselves is giving them time to daydream, reflect, observe, and be introspective. In an always connected, on the go world, some experts worry that kids today often lack the quiet time to daydream, an activity that is surprisingly important. According to researchers:

“This kind of skill is crucial to our mental health, to our relationships, and to our emotional and moral development. And it promotes the skill parents and teachers care so much about: the capacity to focus on the world outside our heads.”

In fact, according to researchers, unfocused time actually improves kids’ ability to focus, while a lack of this time “may even hamper kids’ capacity to pay attention when they need to.”

Time to Unplug?

One running theme throughout all of this research is the importance of turning off electronics during this time. Says one expert:

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased. But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Adults are just as susceptible to this impulse to switch on a device at every unoccupied moment. And the results are similar; our creativity suffers. Without moments of boredom or “creative pauses” as one expert calls them, our minds never drift off, and we may miss out on new ideas or understanding. For children, the effect could be worse, because their creativity is still in a formative stage of development. Spending too much time on these devices may “short circuit the development [of their] creative capacity.”

Of course, too much boredom isn’t good either. After all, juvenile crime tends to increase in the summer months for this very reason, as bored, unsupervised kids are more likely to get into trouble. But with supervision and a balance of scheduled, engaging activities and free, unstructured time, parents can give their kids the beneficial and necessary aspects of boredom.

4 Ways to Give Kids Time to Be Bored

  1. Unplug. Turn off the electronic devices, no gaming or television allowed. One expert suggests that the computer could be the exception, provided it is being used for a creative activity. Making a game, writing a story, learning to code, or making a video are all good examples of creative things kids can do on the computer.
  2. Provide creative materials. Provide art supplies, craft materials, writing supplies, musical instruments, and toys, games, and puzzles that encourage imagination and creativity. Then turn off the screens so kids will actually use them! Most kids will not choose these activities for themselves when a screen is available so it’s important for parents to make sure screentime isn’t always an option.
  3. Encourage improvisation. Building blanket forts, playing outdoors with items found in nature, or DIY projects with found materials are all examples of ways kids can exercise their imaginations through improvisation.
  4. Provide time and space for quiet. A corner or nook indoors or out is a wonderful place for a child to be alone with his or her thoughts and do the kind of introspective thinking that experts say is so important. Many children will find these favorite spots on their own, though again, they generally won’t choose them if TV and video games are available. Check out our Learning Spaces Pinterest board where we’ve shared a number of inspirational reading nooks, perfect for a quiet summer afternoon of daydreaming or reading.

Do you agree on the importance of unstructured, unplugged time for children? What do you do to provide this time for your kids? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Image credit: brynja_eldon /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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