It’s a weekend and vacation rite of passage: “Mooooom, I’m bored.” Before you begrudgingly let them plug into the iPad or a three-hour game of Fortnite in the name getting something—anything—done, remember that there are huge developmental benefits to boredom. Here, we share 11 reasons why being bored is actually really important for your troupe and six ideas for providing structure to encourage kids to play alone. Keep reading to see them all.
It helps develop children’s sense of identity.
Clinical psychologist (and parent) Dr. Laura Markham explains that unstructured time allows children to, “[E]xplore their own passions. If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or they ‘fill’ their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to build a fort in the back yard, make a monster from clay, write a short story or song, organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie, or simply study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein reportedly did for hours). These calls from our heart are what lead us to those passions that make life meaningful.”
It fosters creativity.
Studies show that people who are bored show more imagination when participating in a creative thinking activity. “We’ve become an instant gratification society, and children almost start to panic if they don’t have anything to do,’ says Melissa Bernstein, mother of six and co-founder of the toy company Melissa & Doug. But when children are left to fend for themselves during playtime, they’re forced to be more creative and imaginative in an effort to amuse themselves. Bernstein notes, “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.” In fact, A 2013 study found that "bored" participants outperformed those who were relaxed, elated or distressed on creativity tests.
Being bored allows kids to discover their life passions.
How many times have you walked into your kid's room after an "I'm bored!" declaration to find him doing the most random (and adorable) activity, like organizing his stuffed animals or setting up a makeshift restaurant? As Markham says, "Unstructured time challenges children to explore their own passions. If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or they 'fill' their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to build a fort in the backyard, write a short story or song, or simply study the bugs on the sidewalk."
It teaches grit and time management.
Similarly, Bernstein says that “Having free time to try things out without the fear of failure is essential if a child is to develop grit and resilience.” It may sound obvious, but children need to experience challenges to know how to deal with them. Echoes Markham, “One of our biggest challenges as adults, and even as teenagers, is learning to manage our time well. So it's essential for children to have the experience of deciding for themselves how to use periods of unstructured time, or they'll never learn to manage it.”
It helps form peer relationships.
When your child is bored with other kids—whether they’re siblings or neighborhood pals—searching around for something to do helps develop interpersonal skills that are left untapped when they resort to technology. Together, they learn to negotiate, collaborate, and develop a play “plan” together. Dr. Teresa Belton, visiting fellow at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, observes that “They’re learning to communicate, make eye contact and read body language: things that can only be learned from experience.”
Kids are more likely to be physically active.
Given that childhood obesity rates are significantly higher than they were generations ago, it's vital for kids to get outside and get moving. Children are more likely to be physically active when there isn't a screen around, and you haven't laid out a Pinterest-inspired craft for them that involves them being sedentary. Not only is exercise (which can come in the form of fort-building, hide and seek or dancing) crucial for little ones' health, it's a great way to get out pent-up energy, which is something all children are in ample supply.
It develops problem-solving skills.
Research has found when kids are bored they're more apt to do—and learn—things that may become lifelong interests, or at the very least, be important life skills. Belton also contends that constant stimulation can make kids uncomfortable when 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.” When your child doesn’t have you or another adult to come to their aid when they confront a challenge, you want them to have the skills to think through their options.
Being bored makes kids happy—eventually.
When tell your kids to "find something to do" after they tell you they're bored, you're likely to be on the receiving end of a few grumbles. Eventually, though, when your child drums up a way to entertain themselves, they'll be happy. "Kids are always happiest in self-directed play," Markham notes on her site. "That's because play is children's work. It's how they work out emotions and experiences they've had. Watch any group of children playing outside and they will organize themselves into an activity of some sort, whether that's making a dam at the creek, playing pretend or seeing who can jump farthest."
Boredom makes kids more content.
Just as catering to your child's every need will bring about unfavorable behavior, so will solving your child's boredom dilemma—be it with a screen or a new toy—every time they can't come up with something to do on their own. Philosopher Bertrand Russell waxed poetic about the makings of a happy life in his book The Conquest of Happiness, "A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure ... There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure ..."
It makes childhood happier.
Perhaps most importantly, Bernstein reflects, “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.” We may think we need “things” to fill our lives and cultivate happiness, but, “All the activities that we think are making childhood richer are just getting in the way of a simple but contented life.”
Boredom can be motivating.
According to psychologist and author Michael Ungar, being bored can help foster long-term motivation for kids. "Children who experience a lack of programmed activity are given an opportunity to demonstrate creative problem solving, and to develop motivational skills that may help them later in life," he notes on Psychology Today. "It might sound nostalgic, but we parents influence our children’s level of motivation. A motivated child is one who is raised to seek new experiences, not one who is endlessly protected from boredom."
Here’s What You Can Do
A few tips on creating a nurturing environment for bored kids:
1. Create a list of things to do.
2. Have designated play areas designed specifically for kids.
3. Periodically structure some unstructured time for kids (how’s that for irony?).
4. Encourage outdoor play, especially in a natural setting.
5. Leave books everywhere.
6. Create a dress-up bin out of things you have around the house.
7. Make a busy box.
8. Give her a new way to play with LEGO.
9. Save your big amazon boxes.
—Katie Brown & Nicole Fabian-Weber