People often say, “let your kids get bored.” I agree, but I also find it’s more complicated than this. Yes, it’s great for children to be bored because eventually, or hopefully, they’ll find a way to entertain themselves. Their creativity will shine; they’ll adventure and explore. However, I believe we have to somewhat prepare children and also the environment to prepare for them to be bored. Is that crazy?
Here are my thoughts:
I think it starts with paying attention to your kids and their cues, and monitoring yourself, too! I think we often start to save our kids, or step in, when we notice them getting bored or disengaged. Anything to save us from hysterics or the dreaded “I’m BORED!” comments. My daughter usually watches a morning cartoon with breakfast. Recently I’ve noticed that if I let her be, she’ll go pick up a toy or her markers and start coloring or playing. I have to pay attention to her and stop myself from asking her if she wants to watch Sesame Street and honestly kind of ignore her! If she starts to play and entertain herself, that’s a win! I just let her be.
Once you are paying attention to yourself and making sure you're not stepping in before your kids get to the good part, see if there’s things you can do to prepare your kids and your environment. I know times have changed since most of us were little and we would play outside all day long without cell phones, but now your older kids might have phones, or you might be more worried about them, so you may have to prepare them for big outdoor adventures. You might go over rules, which streets they can’t cross or go past, make them a map of the neighborhood, pack snacks and water, etc., but once they know the rules and you feel comfortable, set them free! For younger kids, whether you’re in the back yard or going to explore in the woods, you can still set rules and keep them safe while also letting them explore freely and creatively. You have to be okay with a little risk which is sometimes hard for me but I’m learning. Hang behind, sit back quietly, and just watch your child. When they ask you questions you can explain, smile, or nod, but really just observe them and let their minds (or bodies) wander a little.
If you’re out and about, let nature do its thing. If it’s your back yard or your house, there’s ways you can prepare for “bored” kids!
Stock up on open ended materials like plain blocks, baskets, buckets, sticks, spoons, etc. Open-ended materials allow your child to do multiple things with it instead of a block with a house painted on it, a regular old block could be a house or a sandwich or a fish in the pond and the list goes on. Outside, there’s nothing better than a nice bucket and a few big sticks!
Make items visible and accessible so your child can see what there is and help themselves. I always leave my daughters markers and notebooks lying around so she can grab them whenever she wants.
Show your child what there is and teach them how to use it, or give them new ideas, so they can do it themselves next time. You’d be surprised how often kids don’t know how to use a toy or a material, so they won’t touch it! I like to teach my daughter and the kids I work with how to talk about money, pretend on the phone, make different kinds of food, draw different shapes or letters… you get the point!
If your children want you to join them in play, extend what they are doing. For example, if they are playing doctor by themselves, join for a minute and then bring in a doll or a stuffed animal and make up a story for them. “My doll fell and scraped her knee! Can you help her?” Use this opportunity to hand the play back to them if they’ll take it. “Okay I need you to take care of my doll while I go and call her auntie to come and pick us up!” Walk away and start washing the dishes or catch up on email and hopefully this new idea will be enough to continue to engage your child. Continue to insert yourself in and out as much as you need with the hope that eventually you won’t have to anymore, your child will have learned how to play and entertain themselves!
What if you don’t like the games or play kids engage in when they’re not engaged? Great question! Again, it starts with us. Why don’t we like the game? Just today at work I felt like a group of kids was disengaged in the classroom because they started making guns out of blocks and they weren’t in the dramatic play center either. It felt a bit chaotic and stressful to have this gun play in the middle of the classroom. Eventually, we broke up into small groups and they went on a big walk. Reflecting back though, I thought, why did I feel uncomfortable with the gun play in the middle of the room? What could I have done to deepen and strengthen their play, or even redirect it to something safer, or a different part of the room? I saw their gun play as disengagement but in reality, they were engaged in a game that they had created themselves! I had to decide if it was an okay game for the classroom.
Looking back, I might have tried to redirect and deepen their play like this, “Hey, I see that you’ve made some guns out of the magnet blocks! What’s your plan for them? I wonder if you could take them over to the block rug and draw out your plan. You could use blocks to build a hideout or a rocket ship since we’ve been learning about space and see how you might use your guns in one of those two things.” These ideas may work for you, or they may not work, especially not right away. But I urge you to remember to take a step back and think about why you feel the way you do about the play or the game. Do you have home or classroom rules that it’s going against? Is it harming or distracting other kids? Have open conversations with your kids and work together to find something that works for everyone!
Finally, keep trying! Helping kids to get bored enough to get creative can take time and energy! Summer is coming and I know this will be a fun challenge for families everywhere! Good luck!
Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.