Perhaps you can remember times of open-ended play in your childhood—times when you left the house at noon and your mom said "Be home by dinner." Most of us had no plans when we left the house, but possibilities soon emerged as we saw streams to explore; paper, crayons and scissors to create with; or bicycles to take us and friends to unexplored territories. Or sometimes we couldn't think of anything and complained of being bored; but out of boredom often grows creativity and imagination.
Why Children Are Always Busy
- The thought that boredom is bad for us is one reason children today are seemingly more busy. In actuality, experiencing boredom can have value. Have you ever said, "I do my best thinking in the shower?" Why is that? There are typically no distractions and the activity of washing is automatic which allows your brain to drift. You think about projects ahead of you for the day, writing that needs to be done, or perhaps how you want to spend your next vacation. That "idle" time allows your creative thoughts to flow in ways that can’t happen when you are constantly checking a mobile device or engaged in structured activities. The same is true for children. Critical thinking often happens when children have time to practice making choices, planning their time, or creating from nothing. Of course it is a balance. You don’t want your child saying "I’m bored" constantly.
- The proliferation of electronic devices also may contribute to the lack of boredom. Dr. Michael Rich, an M.D. who calls himself a "mediatrician" at Boston Children’s Hospital, talks about the concept of "bringing back boredom." At a recent Early Childhood and Technology Conference, Dr. Rich said that 97% of 0 – 4 year olds use mobile devices. Sixty-three percent started before they were one year of age. There are certainly educational benefits from children using technology but getting away from screens is an excellent way to bring boredom back and spur a child's imagination.
- Being over-scheduled leads to less instances of boredom. There are few free minutes and those that are open, we fill up quickly. A lot has been written about children being over-scheduled in sports and extracurricular activities. Take a look at your child's schedule. Are there some open-ended breaks with nothing scheduled?
The Benefits of Boredom for Children
Boredom often leads to creative play. Bodrova and Leong (2003) discuss the concept of mature play which is typically complex, imaginary play with themes and roles for those involved. Mature play contributes to a child’s language and social skills as well as attention, concentration and problem-solving skills. It often takes a period of boredom for mature play to arise.
Children don't need much to stimulate their creativity. A stick can become a wand; a small blanket can become a cape; and an appliance box can become a castle. A stretch of time with nothing to do can allow new ideas to germinate.
Tips to Increase Free Time
- Leave openings for open-ended unplanned time if possible, at least once a week. If that is not possible, plan for once a month. This could be during a long car ride, a walk in the woods, or time at home on a snowy day. Try not to jump in to plan an activity but give your child time to think of what she'd like to do and then join her in that activity.
- Have open-ended materials available for times when boredom might arise. A cupboard at your child’s level filled with art supplies, a bin of recycled cardboard boxes or dress-up materials, or a space outside where your child can dig or plant or create, offer the conditions for creativity to grow from boredom.
- Participate in "Screenbreak,"a week in the winter where your family watches no television or other screens for seven days. Screenbreak is a project of the Alliance for Early Childhood and similar versions are available across the country. This gives families an opportunity to see what happens when screens are off for an extended time period.
There are many expectations on children’s time that are out of our control; but look for the parts you can impact. Look at boredom as an opportunity to try something different which may be beneficial in your child’s life. The next time your child says "I’m bored," welcome the opportunity. Give open-ended time a try and see what happens. It might be good for you too.
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