In days gone by before our current ‘Screen Age’, children’s cries of “It’s sooo boring!” or “I’m bored!” were often met with the one solution: “Go outside and play!”
It seems these parents were really onto something. Research globally shows that allowing children to feel boredom and encouraging them to create activities to fill the space can be a springboard to building better emotional wellbeing and mental health. And this is a state that should be encouraged not avoided.
Leah Stevenson, The Resilience Project’s Teaching and Learning Advisor, agrees and says we all need time to sit with our feelings, not find ways to continually escape them.
“Technology and devices can really numb our feelings. If we don’t give ourselves time to allow our thoughts to wander, to daydream, we don’t give ourselves the space to process big emotions, especially something like trauma. We just don’t get the time to learn how to deal with it. This is important for children too. The way I like to explain it is, device-free time creates presence; presence creates conversations; conversations create connection and connection creates resilience.”.
What the research says
In 2017, Toy Company Melissa and Doug commissioned a survey of 1,000 parents each from the UK, Canada and Australia to discover how children’s free time was spent. It revealed that “too few parents let boredom work its magic”. Although more than two thirds of the parents surveyed said they were worried their children spent too much time on electronic devices, only a quarter of them let their child confront boredom on their own.
Scientific American also revealed research by the Lego Foundation, which found that unstructured play – that is, activity guided more by imagination than rules – helps children to develop fine motor skills and importantly, social, communication and emotional skills that build resilience.
This type of play, VicHealth says, also fosters risks-taking, demonstrating that it is okay to make mistakes and helps children learn how to deal with the consequences of mistakes. These are essential skills that are needed all throughout life.
Role modelling boredom
Leah also stresses how important role modelling is in influencing behaviour change with children.“I think a really big point is how are we role modelling back to our kids. How often do we allow ourselves to be alone with our thoughts, to have time-out from our devices? How many times are we in a doctor’s waiting room for example or waiting for a friend in a cafe and are filling in the time on our phones or other devices?”
Persuading your children to replace screen time by embracing boredom and doing a bit of creative thinking instead of numbing out with screens will take practice. You might want to name these new activity sessions something like “Boredom Busters” that will signal to the children that fun times are ahead, and they may start to look forward to them or even request them.
Making the most out of boredom
Giving children opportunities to see just how inventive they can be by allowing them to come up with their own boredom busters, can turn out to be quite magical. While parents and carers can help provide a framework for their imaginative play, kids should be empowered to drive the creativity.
If you need it, check out the ideas below to help get them started:
- Encourage kids to explore the space they’re in. This could be your home, the backyard, the park – wherever you are. If they’re stuck on what to explore, try suggesting a hunting expedition. What objects can they find in that space? A feathery one, a green one, a fluffy one, an object that starts with “A” and so on.
- Give kids some masking tape and prompt them to create a race track or town roads on the floor. Add a few matchbox cars, blocks or Lego to the mix and this could provide hours of imaginative play.
- Pull out a couple of old cardboard boxes when boredom hits, along with drawing materials or decorations and let imaginations run wild — from creating a rocket, car, plane or just a colourful space to play in.
- Help little kids, or simply encourage bigger kids, to set up a cubby. They could use big sheets and some chairs to play houses, neighbours, camping or whatever they can dream up.