It was a few years ago when my son was a small toddler that I started thinking about boredom. I was a blog-reading, Pinterest-addicted new mom and I scoured the Internet looking for ways to keep him stimulated and entertained and enriched. I worried that I wasn’t talking to him enough. That I wasn’t doing enough. It was overwhelming.
And then one day, my husband e-mailed me this article about how we should let children be bored. It was like a lightbulb. (And a relief.)
Kids need time to be bored. Simple boredom is part of how the brain works. We all need moments to just space out, do nothing, think about what happened and figure out what’s next. By feeling a need to constantly entertain our children, we interrupt this process. So I stopped worrying about activities and started letting my son lead. I let him be bored.
Now my son is four and sometimes he does indeed gets bored. Though, he doesn’t use that word. Instead, this is what it sounds like: “Mommy-y-y I need something…. else….”
He shuffles in circles. He rolls on the floor. He stares blankly out the window.
He hums mindlessly. He whines. He MommyMommyMommys me.
I might say something briefly acknowledging him, just to check in. Like: Hey sweetie, I see you’re thinking about something. or What’s going on?
Things I don’t say: What’s wrong? Are you bored? What do you want to do next?
Sometimes he gets through it easily and other times it’s harder for him to get over that boredom mountain. When he’s really persistent in asking me for “something else,” I might ask him to explain more about what he wants and gently tell him that I’m working on something right now and for him to go play. And if there’s something specific he needs he can come back and ask me. We can go back and forth like this for a while. There are times when I list a few options of things he could do, but I try to leave it to him to decide.
And almost every single time boredom happens, he comes up with something great.
I’ll be sitting at the computer and hear him start rummaging in his stuff and the dialogue of his imaginary world begins.
Maybe he asks for a snack and then take it onto the corner of the couch to munch while he reads.
Or he will come charging into the room inviting me to come and build a zoo or a bamboo forest or Antarctica.
All I care about is that he had those moments of of so-called boredom while his brain rested, processed and regrouped. And from that he was able to come up with his own ideas and articulate his needs and wants. That’s a Mommy-win for the day.
Here are a few more ideas about navigating boredom with your child.
1. First things, first.
Make sure physical and emotional needs are met. Children who are hungry, tired, or feeling disconnected won’t be as successful overcoming their feelings of boredom.
2. Accept the mess.
When you let your kids play independently, they might not always do things the way you’d like. There might be spills or crashes. They might get into a little bit of trouble. Set expectations and ground rules and make sure your kids know the consequences. In my house, a little mess just part of life. I encourage them to clean up after themselves (otherwise they might not have access to that item again) and we have a daily tidy-up time before dinner to get things looking more civilized for a bit.
3. Consider what toys are available.
Are your child’s toys age-appropriate? Are there too many? Do you have toys that inspire creative and open-ended play? (Here’s an excellent resource to start.)
Try an inspiration drawer/bin. (See ours below.) Instead of creating an adult-led activity, allow your child access to some interesting materials that might spark their imaginations. While these may not be toys in the traditional sense, these items can certainly spark creativity.
4. Don’t give in to the screen.
It’s so easy. And I’ve done it a lot. But soothing boredom with a screen will not do children any favors when it comes to their creativity. More often than not, he will be grumpier and more bored after the screen finishes because his brain didn’t get a chance to recharge.
5. Suggest outside.
We don’t have a backyard so my kids can’t play outside without me going along too. Sometimes I’m up for it and other times it’s not really convenient, but I do throw it out there as a possibility if he’s really struggling. A simple walk down the street is full of possibility and the sheer presence of fresh air will help lift everyone out of a funk.
One of the by-products of my approach is that my kids do tend to play independently a lot. But that’s not what it’s all about. If my son just needs a cuddle or some quality time with me, that’s great. What I want is for him to be able to articulate that need. It’s not about playing independently, it’s about thinking independently. I hope that my kids will grow up with a solid understanding of their emotions and needs.
I want them to be creative and curious about the world. By letting them be bored, I’m giving them that chance.
And remember, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to ignore your children all day any more than you want be their personal entertainment coordinator. We still do activities, go places and have rich experiences, but there’s a lot of hours in a day. I encourage you to be mindful about this need for boredom and resist the urge to give your kids something to do. They can figure it out on their own.
What do you think? Do you let your kids be bored?