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How to Address Child Boredom: Everything You Need to Know


Learning to manage time, especially unstructured time is an important skill for children to develop. Read on to learn more about the benefits of child boredom.

Every parent or caregiver has heard those two dreaded words at some point: I’m booored. It can be tempting to try to entertain your child or come up with a quick fix—but a little bit of child boredom can actually be a good thing.

Boredom teaches kids patience, helps build imagination, and lets them discover the joy of their own company through independent play.

So, how can you handle bored kids while still encouraging their budding independence and self-awareness? We’ve got the answers you need to beat the boredom blues, including why boredom is good for your child, how you can model healthy downtime habits, and a few boredom-busting ideas for you and your child.

What Causes Boredom in Children?

Boredom is a common experience for children, especially during long stretches of time at home.

It can be frustrating as a caregiver, but it’s not a sign that your child is being difficult or lazy. There are several reasons why children tend to express boredom more than adults:

  • Shorter attention span – Younger children haven’t yet developed the ability to stay focused on one activity for long.1 A limited attention span means children naturally need variety in their activities to stay engaged.
  • Less self-direction – Children’s lives are guided by the adults around them. With a set schedule at school and at home, they usually haven’t had many opportunities to explore their interests and find out what they enjoy doing.
  • Less life experience – The fact is, your child doesn't have as many ideas to fall back on when all the usual things sound dull. You have that scarf you always meant to finish crocheting, that podcast you want to listen to, the homemade pasta recipe you want to try… You’ve had a chance to delve into a hundred different hobbies over the years—your kid hasn’t had that opportunity yet.
  • Individual differences – Some children are simply more prone to boredom than others due to their personality, learning style, or neurocognitive differences. Your child may simply need more mental stimulation or more frequent breaks for physical activity than another child.
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What Can Kids Learn From Boredom?

A bored child isn't necessarily a bad thing. Boredom often gets a bad rap. But in fact, it can be a wonderful teacher. Boredom can help young children build a variety of traits that are essential for personal growth:

  • Patience – When kids are bored, you may see a show of sighing, fidgeting, and frustration. While you don’t want to let this get out of hand and turn into a negative experience, working through that frustration independently is an excellent way to develop patience and a tolerance for quiet time. Patience is also an important skill to have and develop as a young child.
  • Self-reflection – When kids are bored, they have time to think about things that they wouldn't normally think about. Free time is when humans come to our most interesting and transformative insights.2 This can lead to some fascinating conversations between you and your child if you allow the space for it! This can also be the time to help your child come up with a fun activity or display their own creative solutions to tackle their boredom.
  • Emotional learning – Oftentimes, the discomfort of boredom comes from trying to push emotions away that we don’t want to feel. Allowing space and time to feel those emotions and name them can help children develop their ability to self-regulate in more stressful times.

How Can Parents and Caregivers Address Boredom?

Fortunately, there are many useful ways caregivers can respond to child boredom. One is to provide opportunities for kids to try new things and explore a variety of at-home or playdate activities. This could involve joining a club, taking them on trips to new places, or simply exposing them to new experiences and hobbies at home.

Another strategy is to help kids develop more comfort with quiet time by teaching them simple mindfulness practices like focusing on what they can see, hear, or feel in the present moment. Research has found that practicing basic mindfulness exercises can help children with:3

  • Emotional regulation
  • Attention span
  • Adaptability
  • Anxiety
  • Executive functioning and symptoms of ADHD

Finally, don’t forget to model a healthy range of interests in your free time, too. As busy caregivers, it’s normal to feel burned out and fall back on scrolling social media or watching videos on your phone when you finally have some breathing room. However, it’s vital for your children to see you engaging in a variety of activities, not all of them screen-related.

Screen-Free Boredom Busters

Take a few moments to brainstorm a list of enjoyable family bonding activities that are quick and easy to do in small blocks of spare time.

Then, the next time you’d normally reach for your phone, substitute an activity from your list and try it for at least five to ten minutes. Your child may want to participate, but even if not they’ll still benefit from your example.

Here are a few simple ideas that can easily be picked up for a few minutes whenever you have a few moments to fill:

  • Do a sudoku or a crossword puzzle
  • Do a deep breathing exercise
  • Take a walk around the block
  • Keep a jigsaw puzzle in progress in the family room
  • Keep a simple musical instrument around the house that you and your child can learn together, such as a ukelele, lap harp, or harmonica

How Can You Respond To “I’m Bored”?

It’s inevitable: No matter how much enrichment you provide, at some point, your child is going to say it. And as a caregiver, it can be tough to know how to react.

You might worry that letting your child be bored could lead to messes and mischief. We’ve all had that moment when we realize things have been just a little too quiet, only to find toys in the toilet or an artistic crayon masterpiece on the wall. Thus, it’s tempting to immediately supply an activity or entertainment that’s controlled and mess-free.

However, leaving space for your child to discover how to entertain themselves is an important part of their development. Scientists understand more than ever before that unstructured time is necessary for our brains to rest, recharge, process information, and solve problems.4

So what’s the best way to respond when your child complains of being bored? Here are 6 of our favorite tips for what to do when a kid is bored:

  1. Be open to their feelings and make space for your child to feel bored. Let them know that you’re listening—remember that sometimes child boredom is really a message that they want to connect with you. But there’s no need to reply to “I’m bored” with a long list of suggestions.
  2. Let go of seeing boredom as a problem. Parents often feel guilty if their child is bored. But you don’t need to fill their every waking moment with entertainment. In fact, unstructured time is crucial to creative thinking, problem-solving, and empathy.5
  3. Let them use their creativity, not yours. Parents often respond to “I’m bored” by thinking up one ingenious activity after another. Instead of dreaming up what they could build with straws and tape and yesterday’s recycling, let your child stretch their own creative muscles.
  4. Always encourage imaginative, unstructured play. This could involve things like making up games, telling stories, or even daydreaming. When your child starts off a game of “What if,” or “Let’s pretend,” take the time to engage and keep the ball rolling.
  5. If you find your child just watching the clouds roll by, let them. “Empty” moments are a critical part of dreaming up new ideas and building new connections in the brain.5
  6. Help them find a hobby. A longer-term solution for boredom is helping your child find a hobby or interest outside of school and structured activities. This could be collecting rocks, studying insects in the yard, or learning to cook—anything that they can get passionate about and really sink their teeth into. It might take some trial and error, but it’s worth persevering.

What To Say To Kids When They’re Bored

You know how the game goes: You give a suggestion. They reply, “That sounds boring.” Repeat until you’re both bored.

If you’re ready to escape the infinite suggestion/rejection loop, forget listing specific activities. Instead, try open-ended prompts or off-the-wall thoughts. Don’t be afraid to get silly and explore questions that spark curiosity!

  • Instead of: “Why don’t you play with your Legos?”
  • Try: “How high do you think you can stack Legos?” or “Do you think Legos stick to Play-Doh?”
  • Instead of: “Why don’t you write a story?”
  • Try: “What do you think dogs would say if they could talk?”
  • Instead of: “Why don’t you draw something?”
  • Try: “Wow! Look at that color—what paints do you think you’d have to mix to make that?”

Think of the goal as gently guiding your child toward creative thinking, instead of “fixing” the boredom.

Let Your Child Learn, Grow, and Explore With Slumberkins

No one likes to hear their child complain about being bored, but it’s a normal part of life that can be seen as an opportunity for your child to regulate their emotions and pratice problem-solving skills. Don’t forget that those moments of unstructured time can be a hidden treasure trove where your child can discover new interests and ideas.

Your child will naturally become better equipped to entertain themselves as they grow and learn. In the meantime, you can help them build their self-reliance by engaging in plenty of shared imaginative play and providing regular opportunities for freeform, child-directed activities. Learn more about the importance of imagination in childhood.

Educational resources like social emotional learning books from Slumberkins can be a part of the journey too. Our caregiver blog is brimming with games and activities you and your child can enjoy together on those I’m-bored kind of days.


Sources:

  1. Tremolada, Marta et al. “Which Factors Influence Attentional Functions? Attention Assessed by KiTAP in 105 6-to-10-Year-Old Children.” Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 9,1 7. 8 Jan. 2019, doi:10.3390/bs9010007
  2. Schooler, Jonathan W et al. “Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind.” Trends in cognitive sciences vol. 15,7 (2011): 319-26. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2011.05.006
  3. Dunning, Darren L et al. “Research Review: The effects of mindfulness-based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents - a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines vol. 60,3 (2019): 244-258. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12980
  4. Seshadri, Ashok. "Boost your brain with boredom." Mayo Clinic.  https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/boost-your-brain-with-boredom
  5. Baird, Benjamin et al. “Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.” Psychological science vol. 23,10 (2012): 1117-22. doi:10.1177/0956797612446024

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