Somewhere between the homework assignments and the crafting projects and the screen time, your kid materializes with a complaint: “I’m bored.” But don’t leap into action to fill that gap just yet. As it turns out, boredom is actually good for kids—a nice thing to think about as you scramble to keep them entertained during this time. But how do you maximize that feeling and, better yet, put your kids in that position more often? We asked a child development expert and a child neuropsychologist to weigh in.
1. Stop Thinking of Boredom as Negative
When you hear the word boredom, you might think of it as a passive deficit state. Your kid has nothing to do or, worse, they’re just not entertained by the current offerings. “We need to flip that mindset and think of boredom as an opportunity for kids,” explains Jeanne Huybrechts, chief academic officer at Stratford School.
That feeling we call “boredom” actually underscores an internal energy that’s your brain’s craving for stimulation of some sort and an absence of knowing what to do, says Dr. Chris Ladish, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Network. “It’s the mind’s way of indicating, ‘I’m feeling ready, but I don’t know what for,” she adds. A parent’s job is to help kids capitalize on that feeling and see boredom as a positive thing.
2. The Benefits of Boredom for Kids Are Huge
The ultimate goal for parents is to help their kids independently recognize and navigate periods of boredom. “Working beyond boredom helps children develop critical thinking and executive functioning skills such as initiation, planning and mental flexibility,” says Ladish. “These are essential skills for addressing new and unusual situations that come up throughout life.”
Beyond that, numerous psychologist-researchers have established that boredom can trigger mind-wandering, which leads to creativity, adds Huybrechts. But modern living tends to be an unintentional blocker to moments of boredom for a couple of reasons. “For one thing, we’ve come to value ‘busy-ness’ as intrinsically good and too often curate and schedule activities to fill every minute every day,” Huybrechts explains. “The onset of boredom is nearly always uncomfortable. Before one begins daydreaming and before that daydreaming leads to creative thinking, there’s discomfort. It’s a human instinct to fill that gap with entertainment.” (Cue the quick fix of a screen.)
COVID-19 also presents a new challenge for kids and parents alike. “Schools and sporting events are closed, time with others is limited and the novelty of being home with time on your hands has lost its flair,” says Ladish. “In short, children are beginning to experience a sense of learned helplessness as the challenges of COVID-19 endure and they are unable to see a predictable end in sight.” Luckily, this is where parents can have the greatest impact, says Ladish.
3. How to Help Kids Recognize then Maximize Boredom
First, ask yourself: What are the signs that my kid is bored? Do they complain? Seek attention? Wander around the house? Stand in front of an open refrigerator? If you can notice these markers of boredom early, it gives you a chance to prompt them about strategies to better navigate it.
Ladish recommends making a list with your child of what they can do when there is nothing to do. “Engage their creative mind and place things on the list—about 20 or so—that are both new and old, quick and more time-intensive, active and quiet,” she says. Then, when boredom strikes, direct them to their list. “The key is to encourage your child to be their own problem-solver without always relying on you to plan activities.” (This is of course age-dependent—more on that later.)
Per Huybrechts, you can also help nurture your kids’ creative capacities by making sure there’s time in each day for unstructured activities and play that allow for a bit of daydreaming at the same time. “Walking, skating, bike riding—all of these come to mind,” she says. More options: Arts and crafts, gardening and house chores are all activities that keep kids physically busy, but with a reduced cognitive load. “Parents can free up some time for their children to become bored and then reduce the number of ‘shiny objects’—YouTube, Tik Tok, screens of any kind—that kids will instinctively reach for in those first uncomfortable moments of boredom.”
4. Boredom-Busting Activities for Kids At Every Age
It goes without saying that handling boredom is completely age-dependent. If you have a preschool-aged kid, remember that they live moment-to-moment and can easily be redirected. “Use toys and games, creative play scenarios, special time with parents and seated activities,” Ladish recommends. “In this age group, hands-on activities like coloring or drawing, looking at books and engaging in imaginary play with stuffed animals, dolls or action figures can be enjoyable.” Brief periods of physical activity also work well.
If your kid is between the ages of five and 12, they’re better at engaging their minds independently for a longer period of time. This might materialize in the form of board games, building, reading from a favorite series or creating art for someone they love, Ladish says. It’s also still essential that you prioritize physical activity. “Energy expenditure is very important to help bodies feel more relaxed and ready for sedentary activities,” she explains. “It could be as simple as building a fort or having a scavenger hunt.”
As for teenagers, by nature, they’re more independent. But that doesn’t mean they don’t experience boredom. “Helping them understand that boredom may represent a need for some form of activity can be helpful,” says Ladish. That might be taking up a new language via an app, writing a short story, getting outdoors for a walk or honing a new skill like photography or knitting or crafting. “Remember, boredom isn’t bad—it may simply be a sign of readiness for something new,” she says. “Helping kids recognize and problem-solve their own boredom helps create flexibility, independence, increased attention and enjoyment…all while having fun.”