It is reported that Albert Einstein, renowned physicist and namesake of Einstein Academy, would spend hours studying bugs on the sidewalk as a kid. He would watch how they moved and how they interacted with each other and gathered food and occasionally would interfere by placing a stick or another object in their path just to see what happened. He didn’t do this from a scientific perspective; he wasn’t gathering data or testing a hypothesis or doing scientific research. He did this because he was a curious kid who had some unstructured free time. Later in his life, he would secure approximately 50 patents, including a self-adjusting camera, a refrigerator, and a blouse. Different activity, but same idea: allowing curiosity to flourish during without the confines of structure.
After a family vacation or two, countless trips to the pool, a piecing together of different day camps, and gaining a deep appreciation for your kids’ teachers, summer is over halfway gone, which may make you start panicking about school supply lists and a return to a more rigid schedule. Or that same return to a rigid schedule might make your heart flutter just a bit in eager anticipation. Either way, chances are good that you’ve heard or will certainly start hearing the refrain of “I’m bored” coming from your little ones.
The deviation from the structured schedule of school can be fun and exciting for some families and kids, but for others, it provides endless hours without built-in entertainment and the introduction of something with which our kids sometimes struggle: unstructured free time.
“Time management” is one of the necessary skills for the 21st century, and, especially at a young age, grappling with unstructured free time gives children the opportunity to explore their world (inner and outer), find their passions, and foster their own creativity. Researchers at Texas A&M University are currently exploring the benefits of boredom, arguing that, “By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”
Still, boredom can be scary, and parents might put pressure on themselves to prevent their children from entering a state of boredom, sometimes through over programming or taking too much responsibility for our kids’ entertainment. When this urge starts to creep into your mind, we’d encourage you to pause and consider the benefits.
As author Nancy H. Blakey shares, “Preempt the time spent on television and organized activities and have them spend it instead on claiming their imaginations. For in the end, that is all we have. If a thing cannot be imagined first -- a cake, a relationship, a cure for AIDS-- it cannot be. Life is bound by what we can envision. I cannot plant imagination into my children. I can, however, provide an environment where their creativity is not just another mess to clean up but welcome evidence of grappling successfully with boredom. It is possible for boredom to deliver us to our best selves, the ones that long for risk and illumination and unspeakable beauty. If we sit still long enough, we may hear the call behind boredom. With practice, we may have the imagination to rise up from the emptiness and answer.”
Children need to be supported in this process, however. So, what can you do when your kids tell you they are bored?
Take a minute to stop what you are doing and really focus on your children. If you take the time to connect, they will feel heard and acknowledged and will probably have gotten the attention they were seeking in order to resume their activity and find their creativity.
If they are still struggling, engage your children in a conversation about their ideas of what to do. Try asking them questions instead of immediately suggesting.
Consider creating a “Boredom Buster” jar or a personalized set of dice with suggested activities. A quick Google search can yield hundreds of ideas of quick and easy activity (spell name in playdough or sand, collect 12 different leaves, play “family,” write a poem, etc). This needs to be done ahead of time so that when the boredom strikes, you don’t have to stop everything you are doing to create these activities, but consider laying the groundwork with your children so that they have buy-in. This also shifts the responsibility for entertainment away from you, emphasizing the responsibility your children have for their own entertainment.
And, if all else fails, maybe just encourage your kids to go watch the bugs on the sidewalk; you never know where that might lead.