The Art and Science of Boredom

Why it’s good for kids to be bored

Now that summer is officially in full swing, it’s the perfect time for kids to be bored, and for them to bother us that they’re bored. There are great reasons for us to encourage and celebrate this boredom so we no longer have to carry that burden of figuring out “what to do.”

On the last day of school this year, a friend invited us over to celebrate with an afternoon of playing with water balloons in the backyard. The end of May had already been sweltering, so this sounded like the perfect activity. Of course, that day was the coolest it had been in a couple weeks, so we debated about what else the kids could do.

As soon as we got there, though, the group of kids started playing and we adults started talking. Before we knew it, we were watching some elaborate games naturally orchestrated by the older kids, including the whole group with a wide age range. We didn’t have to do anything.

I have heard the complaints from parents many times – “as soon as we have a break from all our activities, they say they’re bored.”

So the less often we are bored, the less often we daydream, and our creativity has nowhere to grow.

When we take our kids out on the weekends and do more than usual, it almost seems MORE likely they start to complain of boredom sooner, which totally aggravates me. I’ve started to pre-empt the whining with a lecture on the way home: “When we get home, Daddy and I have stuff to do so you all are going to play together and figure it out. We’ve been out ALL day and we don’t want to hear about being bored.”

I have always had an instinct that it’s good for kids to be bored. Maybe it’s because I remember hours of self-created entertainment when I was a kid without siblings close to my age. I made fashion books, wrote long stories, and became a huge reader because I kind of had nothing else to do.

The modern world of extra-curricular activities offers the greatest abundance of riches that has ever existed for kids. I love that there are community STEM classes for preschoolers, Saturday morning baking classes, and multiple martial arts options. I really do appreciate that our kids nowadays have all kinds of ways to stimulate different ways of thinking, and learn skills that I never remember being options when I was a kid.

It means, however, that it’s more work for us as parents to figure out this balance, which may look different depending on the personality and brain wiring of each of our kids. Some kids thrive with a schedule full of what they feel passionate about; others get overstimulated and overwhelmed, which can be like living with one of those super cute creatures that turn into Gremlins when they get wet or eat after midnight.

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In the day-to-day, it’s annoying to hear the “I’m bored” refrain, and we may be avoiding it by making sure we have stuff lined up. In the big picture, we may not even realize how little time we have left for boredom because we are taking advantage of so many great opportunities for our little sponges to absorb.

Also, let’s be real: How bad are WE at being bored these days? Elevator rides are now 30 seconds of everyone staring at their phones. How do we feel when we are bored? Antsy? Anxious? Or we are also so over-scheduled, that we can’t remember being bored?

But do you remember being bored as a kid? Do you remember the feeling? I remember it transforming into feeling really absorbed in a new activity, and how good it felt to be in such a zone. Experts say that boredom breeds imagination and creativity, and allows a child to figure out a sense of self, based on internal stimuli instead of external stimuli.

There are actually some recent brain studies about how boredom leads to daydreaming, which then stimulates creativity. So the less often we are bored, the less often we daydream, and our creativity has nowhere to grow. Some highlights from the science of boredom:

  • Boredom is defined as a “state of dissatisfaction” which then motivates finding a way to feel satisfied again, stimulating creativity, curiosity, and innovation
  • Boredom and time to daydream have been found to increase creativity on tasks right after the period of boredom
  • A wandering mind actually allows our working memory to have a “work out;” the better our working memory, the better we can daydream even while doing a task (maybe that’s why it’s true we actually do our best thinking in the shower, except when children are banging on the door . . . )
  • For adults and teenagers, too much boredom, or not managing boredom well, can lead to risky behaviors to find stimulation (eg, gambling, drugs)
  • Learning how to tolerate boredom as a child helps them learn at a young age healthier ways to deal with boredom, like finding creative solutions from within instead of relying on other people for entertainment

There you have it. Giving your kids the opportunity to be bored now may help them not use drugs later! (Okay, science has not made this conclusion, but it’s a good theory.)

The point is this summer may be the perfect time to find pockets of time for boredom to thrive into creative play.

I can tell my school-age kids are less mentally exhausted from not being in school all day, and itching to use their brains. My evidence: the 8-year-old has been writing and administering math quizzes to the 6-year-old; all three kids were going “fly-hunting” around the house last night for about 30 minutes before bed (complete with setting out joke poop to trick the flies).

The daily routine of summer – even if filled by camps – is still different from the demands of school. The thrill of summer is this break in routine – more staying up late, vacations, long weekends, random days off. More time to be bored. And creative. And innovative. And curious. 

What we know about the benefits of boredom for kids transforms this into a time of opportunity instead of a burden. Or, at the very least, this knowledge hopefully transforms any parent guilt of not having "enough" for kids to do into resolve that we are actually doing well by our kids.

You might just have to start with some earplugs to drown out the "I'M BORED!" cries and they'll eventually find some flies to capture, and figure it out.  

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