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Are There Really Benefits to Boredom?

Learn how you can help foster positive outcomes from less-than-thrilling times.

I’ve read numerous blogs that say things like “my kids’ boredom is not my problem.” The authors make some good points, and experts agree that if parents try to fix their kids’ bored feelings, it just won’t work. But given our kids’ more limited options this summer, paired with parents experiencing reduced incomes, the notion expressed in those blogs sounds a little too simple to me.

Boredom is, in fact, our problem if our kids aren’t sure what to do with the feeling. Research shows that people prone to boredom have higher rates of depression, hostility, and sexual promiscuity, and engage in riskier behaviors, says James Danckert, cognitive neuroscientist and co-author of the book, Out of My Skull (scheduled for release on June 9).

On the positive side, “My research has shown that we get much more creative when we are bored,” says Sandi Mann, senior psychology lecturer and author of The Science of Boredom. More creative, that is, if parents consider the following:

Allow unstructured time.

It may seem a counterintuitive solution to give bored kids more free time, but it can actually inspire ideas. “The problem with kids growing up now is that they are not used to any downtime. Everything is structured and what I call ‘whizzy whizzy bang bang’— fast moving, fast paced, lots of novelty—and that lowers their threshold to boredom,” says Mann. “So the best thing you can do for your kids is give them plenty of free time.”

Arvada mom of four Susie Rodgers has seen the results of unstructured time at home. In her newly blended family, her four children spanning a wide age range don’t often agree on what to do. One evening, when Rodgers and her husband decided to watch a show by themselves, the four kids started a game of capture the flag outside. “They used a shoe as the flag; they set up their own boundaries. It has amazed me what kids will come up with if we step back a bit,” Rodgers says.

The concept of abundant unstructured time has also been integrated into some education settings, such as the Sudbury model, for decades. It’s part of the philosophy of Alpine Valley School (AVS) in Wheat Ridge, an independent school where students pursue only activities that interest them. Marc Gallivan, graduate of the school and current staff member, has seen the results, both as a student and an adult community member at the school.

At age 14 when Gallivan first enrolled in AVS, he was often bored, as he tried to figure out how this new school worked. “One of my favorite things to do when I was bored was to go see what my good friend was doing. She was usually writing. Sometimes she’d read what she wrote, and sometimes we would collaborate on a story together.” From there, Gallivan and his friend formed a writing group at AVS, which met consistently through his high school years and wrote a screenplay that was performed for their school community. The group continued meeting for six years after graduation, and lifelong friendships developed. “Boredom can be an invitation, if we listen to it,” Gallivan says.

Help kids build on the skills they have.

“If you foster creative outlets, then when [your kids] get bored, [they] can turn to them,” Danckert says. A seasoned piano player might try writing a song; a young soccer player might work on an advanced move; a child taught to hammer a nail might be ready to build something. “Vary the level of oversight as [they] gain more skills,” advises Danckert.

Make a variety of supplies and materials available.

“Give them the tools to be creative … craft materials or material to build dens [blanket forts] … natural things that are lying around your house … they don’t have to be expensive,” Mann says.

Arvada mom of two Lacey Meyerhoff started doing this for her two-year-old daughter Alanna, after she researched Montessori philosophy, which is designed to engage children’s natural desire to learn, by allowing them to learn at their own pace. She used to have toys stashed away in bins and totes, but she now sets out a variety of different materials at eye-level for Alanna to access on her own.

“I get to see more of her sense of curiosity, and see what grabs her attention,” Meyerhoff says. She hopes that by doing this, Alanna will start to develop more independence to play on her own, as is evident in Montessori classrooms.

Ask questions.

Rather than trying to solve a child’s boredom, ask, “Why do you think you are bored right now? What are you missing? What would you want to be doing right now?” suggests Danckert. Note that these questions can be harder for some younger children to answer; you know your child best. Think about questions that would be most appropriate for them.

When AVS students complain to Gallivan of boredom, he says, “On the inside, I’m [thinking], ‘Great! It’s working!’ What I tend to say is, ‘Do you want to see what I’m doing? Do you want to talk? Do you want to go outside?’”

Take longer breaks from technology.

“If kids are constantly swiping and scrolling their boredom away, they are not learning to un-bore themselves, and they are not going to get their creative juices flowing,” says Mann.

Danckert says it’s important to make the distinction between active and passive engagement with technology. Just scrolling through social media will occupy time, but won’t be very mentally satisfying. Using technology to make videos or as a way to connect with friends would be an active way to use it, rather than using it to just pacify boredom, Danckert adds.

Remember that boredom is normal. Everyone experiences it, and Gallivan believes boredom is essential to learning. “It’s uncomfortable, like all lessons that are essential,” he says. “How kids learn to handle the discomfort will carry them through their whole lives.”

Kids Are More Prone To Boredom If…

Clinical psychologist and co-author of Out of My Skull, John Eastwood, cites the following factors that contribute to boredom proneness in adults, some of which could be helpful when considering why a child is often bored.

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