Tolerating Boredom

When I was a child, my siblings and I spent very little time being entertained by our parents.  We found countless ways to fill our time.

For example, while waiting at the supermarket checkout, we either helped our parents load the groceries or talked to the cashier.  (Once I even stole candy, “oh no”).  When we got home from school on a nice day we built forts, played pick up baseball, or even made our own home movies.  When we had extra time in class we played heads up seven up and cat’s cradle.

But today, it seems that kids spend very little time in unstructured play. There is so much pressure on parents and teachers to fill every moment of our children’s time.   And the problem with the lack of down time is that children don’t know what to do when they are given the opportunity for free play.  Unfortunately, for them, is during these times that they learn some very valuable skills such as how to resolve conflicts, overcome fears, and regulate their emotions.

When I read the following statement by Dr. Michael Patte, professor of education at Bloomsburg University, it led me to ponder my own wishes for my children.

“Most parents would agree that they want to raise self-reliant individuals who can take initiatives and think for themselves. But filling a child’s time for them teaches nothing but dependence on external stimulus, whether material possessions or entertainment.”

I want my kids to be self reliant.  I want them to be independent thinkers.  But I never considered that when I “entertain them” I am in some way stalling their emotional development.

But in once sense, it is liberating to think that I don’t have to fill their schedules with academic enrichment, physical activities and arts and crafts.  I can feel less guilty about doing housework while they are playing independently.  And I might also feel less stressed.

So yesterday I challenged myself.  My son had an appointment in a very sterile doctor’s office.  There were no books, no toys, and no TVs.  Initially my idea was to spend the 10-15 minute wait time providing him with a lesson on pocket change.  However, he preferred to put the coins in his trucks and make deliveries. And you now what, we had fun. I was proud of myself that I resisted the pressure to “educate him” with my lesson on the value of coins, or to “entertain him’ with some form of electronic.

If your children/students are young, the transition to more unstructured playtime might be easier.  Here are some simple ideas.

  • When your child asks you to play with him/her; set a timer and explain that you can play with them for 10 minutes and then they can play on their own.
  • Allow them to make a mess once in a while.  Sometimes when their creative juices are flowing they need the freedom to explore and experiment and that gets messy.
  • Provide them with the materials and let them do the creating.  Ie.  sometimes while I am on the deck with my kids I give them a pot with water and they are free to use all of my potted herbs and they make soup.

If your kids are older, here are some ideas to make the transition.

  • When your kids have playdates, resist the urge to plan; make it more informal.  And maybe suggest that they don’t use electronics during that time.
  • Have a designated family time once a week.
  • Consider limiting the number of structured activities that you allow them to participate in weekly.  (It is healthier for the whole family).




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