After many days of scheduled quarantine activities for her eight- and six-year-old, Cindy Zibel of Bedford, New Hampshire, needed to accomplish some work from home. She wasn't sure how the kids would handle their unstructured time.
After about 15 minutes of leaving her kids with nothing to do, she went to check. “I found them outside with bikes,” she says. "The older one had taken off the younger one’s training wheels and taught him to ride a two-wheeler.”
Many parents have been full-time activity directors since stay-at-home orders were put in place this spring. That job is not likely to end soon, especially with summer starting, social distancing still in effect, and camps and sitters largely unavailable. Children are quick to say they’re bored when grown-ups aren’t ready with a packed day of planned activities. But would it be so bad if we just let the kids … be bored?
Seemingly unlimited activities—especially now with video classes and digital activities—have likely been a lifesaver for many crazed parents. But all that planned stimulation can have negative effects on children. Overscheduled kids can feel irritable and overwhelmed, according to Shannon Barnett, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “They may not be sleeping as well or be kind of anxious,” she says. “They might have stomachaches or other physical complaints. We see teens who’ve always been high achievers suddenly unable to meet expectations.”
Although studies show that feeling bored most of the time might lead to risky behavior in children, research also indicates that sometimes feeling bored can actually be good for kids.
A 2014 study in Creativity Research Journal found that when participants did a boring activity followed by a task, they showed more creativity in completing the task. And a 2019 study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries found that subjects who did a dull task first were able to come up with more creative ideas afterward than people who did an interesting task first.
“We’re afraid of our kids turning around and saying, ‘Mom, I’m bored,’” says Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at University of Central Lancashire in England who co-authored the 2014 study. “Actually, we should be saying, ‘Job well done!' Because we need them to be bored. We need to capture their creativity and let them be creative.”
What the brain does when it's bored
Being bored is different from taking it easy, says Mann, who also wrote The Science of Boredom. “If you’re not stimulated but you’re happy, that’s just relaxation,” she says. “But if you’re not stimulated and you want more stimulation, that’s boredom.”
When your kids are clamoring for something to do, so are their brains. “People’s brains are looking for a certain baseline level of stimulation, so when it’s bored, the brain tries to create stimulation,” says Sara L. Dolan, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco.
A 2018 paper published in the National Academy of Sciences journal showed that when a kid’s brain is allowed to zone out, the problem-solving parts of the brain start communicating. And that nagging, negative feeling that results from being bored could be a good thing.
“People come up with new ways to not be bored, which we then call ‘being creative,’” says Michael Scullin, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor.
“When my kids complain they’re bored, I tell them I’m glad to hear it, that it’s good for their brains,” Barnett says. “Boredom gives them an opportunity to be creative and problem solve.”
How to do boredom right
So how can you help your kids be a little bored?
For starters, if a child is used to being constantly entertained, suddenly shutting everything off probably won’t go over well. “Kids will be frustrated,” says Barnett, adding that entertaining oneself is a learned skill, so some kids might take a little longer to catch on.
But the good news is that it can be taught. She recommends starting out by using a timer—the one she used with her own kids played music until the time was up. “Giving kids the knowledge that it’s between this time and this time can help ease them in and avoid frustration,” she says.
Barnett suggests starting kids with 30 minutes of nothing to do, but adds that the time really depends on the child. “If a kid is not successful with 30 minutes, then the time should be dropped down and gradually increased,” she says. Eventually, younger kids should be able to spend 90 minutes entertaining themselves; older kids, up to three hours a day.
For younger kids, Barnett suggests offering a reward for spending self-directed time. “It could be getting to do something fun with parents, playing a preferred family game, or making a phone call to a particular person,” she says.
Barnett and Mann also agree that you can offer a few activity suggestions. For kids who like to build, Barnett suggests going on a hunt together to find materials they can use. “This can include toys, boxes, tubes from paper towels or toilet paper, or things that you find outside,” she says. Or if you have a young artist, she suggests making a box of art supplies. “Things that can be glued to paper, including pasta, leaves, and flowers can be added,” she says. The “materials” can even be imaginary. “For kids who like pretend, help them start a story that they can continue on their own,” she says. “Maybe send them off on a magical quest.”
Still, "Your hope shouldn’t be that your kids take your ideas, but use them as a jumping-off point,” Barnett says.
Mann agrees. “Provide some interesting materials to build a den or whatever, but leave them to get on with it,” she says. "Because they will create their own fun and stimulation.”
During this incredibly unstructured time, that can be relieving news for parents. And who knows where that’ll lead once things get back to normal? Says Barnett: “Parents might want to look and see—do we want to restart everything?”