The fact that our society is an "instant gratification society" leads us to panic if we don't have something to do or somewhere to be. This expectation of being entertained in the moment is a very slippery slope for children and parents, as it sets up a dangerous precedent that all time should be managed and structured. Striking a delicate balance between work and play becomes even more difficult for adults that have grown up in an environment where there was always something to do or something that must be done. We are creating activity monsters.
Studies have recently shown that periods of boredom cause children to become spontaneously creative and innovative, learning to rely on themselves for entertainment and activity. Here are some other ways that boredom benefits children:
Boredom encourages imagination and creativity
When children are left to their own devices, they are forced to come up with ways to entertain themselves. Giving them the opportunity to create the boundaries helps them to build their sense of discovery and curiosity that ultimately exposes their passions. Without this sense of exploration, the imagination and sense of passion for what fuels them in life are stunted, leaving them with a dull and lackluster experience as they enter adulthood.
Boredom teaches "grit and gristle"
Thinking of ways to generate curiosity and entertainment is one way to develop resilience, or "grit". Without this important skill, children can easily give up when they are given a difficult task to accomplish; this pattern will set them up for a series of negative consequences in adulthood. Having the freedom to try things out without the fear of consequence is one way to encourage and foster creativity and a sense of resilience.
Boredom encourages development of problem solving skills
Many of us rush to help our children think of things to do when they are bored, when in actuality we should leave them to develop their problem-solving skills. Taking a passive observant approach while watching children develop the skill of tackling their problem will help to shape this valuable life skill that they can draw upon when older.
Boredom helps children to form healthy relationships
Having unstructured time and little access to technology forces kids to learn the skills of negotiation and interpersonal communication, assets that are being slowly lost in our technology-obsessed society. Children with excess time and space learn to collaborate with one another, make compromises and learn to read eye contact and body language, skills that cannot be developed other than through experience.
Boredom breeds confidence
When children are given the opportunity to solve their problem and they do so successfully, it is helpful in building their self esteem. Children learn to try new things, test skills, and take risks, which are all helpful in building confidence.
Boredom improves a child's mental health and stimulation
Our society does not know how to be still and enjoy "what is". Both children and adults become increasingly agitated and anxious when surrounded by quiet; we want to fill the space with activity, conversation, and entertainment. Having unstructured time is the perfect opportunity for them to be alone with their thoughts; they get to know themselves better, and their mental health and self esteem are both improved. Research shows that allowing the mind to have mental breaks from stimulating activity is essential for a balanced state of mental health.
Boredom creates community
When children are always distracted with a flurry of activity and scheduled time, they seldom notice what is going on around them. Allowing children some quiet time to connect with and notice their surroundings gives them a sense of ownership in their reality, building a connection with where they are and who they are.
Boredom makes a child happier
While a child may resist being "bored" initially, they will soon learn to appreciate the simpler things in life and the connections to nature and relationships that they are allowed to make during periods of unstructured time. We seldom talk about material things in our childhood; rather, we remember cherished memories as connections to people and nature. Perhaps all of those extracurricular activities are actually getting in the way of their creation of a simple, carefree childhood existence. Hmmm........
How to encourage your children to be "bored"
If children are used to being micromanaged, there will be a little resistance put forth as you make the shift from structured time to unstructured time; it will feel uncomfortable for them. You might have to act as an imagination coach of sorts to get the boredom ball going; use these tips for simple activities that will encourage spontaneity and play:
1. Practice weekly activity detox. Pick one day a week when no one in the family is allowed to make any plans, and tackle the wonderful unknown aspects of the day as you go along. Be co-creators on this journey and model different activities that you could engage in on these days.
2. Give them an open ended task without too many parameters, like building an obstacle course through the garden, or coming up with a fort using only blankets and boxes. The rules are simple; get along, collaborate, and have fun! See what they can come up with!
3. Provide low tech toys to spark the imagination. Using pieces of wood, scraps of fabric, and other natural materials, encourage children to find ways to incorporate them into play or art. There is no need to purchase an expensive marble run when you can get creative and use things around the house.
4. Be okay with messy. Type A parents, take a deep breath. Messiness is part of creativity; be okay with stepping over piles and creations as you encourage your children to build the world around them. The clean up lesson can wait till later.
5. Get outside! Take your children on adventures, and resist the urge to control every little activity. If your child wants to run ahead on a nature trail for several hundred feet, let them revel in the joy and the extra energy they have to do so. Relish these moments, and muster up the energy to get healthier so you can all spend more time outdoors in nature.
6. Be a good role model. Wait as long as you can before introducing smart devices and cell phones to your children. Model healthy behavior when using technology; it's hard to tell your children to put their devices down if you are constantly on yours.
7. Create a sense of community for your child. Connect to others, and build relationships with other parents who have kids. Commit to raising your children together, and looking out for one another as you encourage your children to explore the world around them. If children feel safe and cared for, they are more likely to explore and take risks and develop a healthy relationship with the world around them.
Embrace a new way of thinking, a new way of doing, a new way of teaching, and a new way of parenting. Get ready to embrace the magic moments that develop as you teach your children how to truly interact with the world around them.