Make Room for Summer Boredom

Little Boy Very Bored and Unhappy
Portrait of Asian boy with glasses showing very lazy unhappy bored and tired gesture

When you think of summer vacation, what comes to mind? I think of my summers as a kid. My family had a large yard, a pool, and a nearby park. My siblings and I had free rein of the neighborhood, and we took advantage of it. Our schedule was simple: Be home for dinner. I remember starting a club called The Number 7 Goldies with some neighborhood friends and producing musicals and plays with my siblings and buddies. I rode my bike, swam in our pool, bossed my younger siblings around, roller skated, and read a bit. And sometimes? I went over to other kids’ houses while their parents were at work, and we’d watch television!

But summer vacation for you and your family these days probably looks pretty different from my experience as a kid. Maybe summer includes day camps, sleep away camps, sports clinics and more. And you probably had to work really hard to cobble a summer plan together–specialty camps can be very expensive, and spots in the “good” camps fill up fast.

However summer plans come together, most kids will probably have at least some free, unscheduled time. And honestly, unscheduled time is such a gift, offering so many benefits to children.

In this article, I discuss some of the rewards of downtime, even outright boredom. I also present some suggestions for how parents can support kids through (but not rescue them from!) bouts of “I’m bored.” Finally, I offer some resources for age-appropriate, boredom-busting activities if kids are craving more autonomy and independence.

Unscheduled Time Is Important
Downtime is one of seven daily essential mental “activities” that optimize our brains and create well-being. The others are: focus time, playtime, connecting time, physical time, internal reflection time, and sleep time. Together, all of these are part of the Healthy Mind Platter and offer a way for us to consider and balance, or rebalance, the way we spend our time.

During downtime, we’re not focused on anything in particular, we don’t have any goals, and we can let the mind wander or just relax. Downtime allows the brain to recharge.

As adults, we are used to managing our time and making choices about how we spend it. Kids, on the other hand, have less autonomy and need to encounter and engage with unplanned, unstructured time so that they can get comfortable with it and figure out what to do with it. Unstructured time gives kids the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds and help them find what lights them up. It gives them a chance to imagine, create, and engage with themselves and others as they begin to discover who they are.

Boredom is Good for Kids
Unstructured time doesn’t always feel smooth and easy, though. As you’ve surely experienced, unstructured time can lead to complaints of, “I’m bored!” And it can be so tempting to try to preempt those complaints by keeping kids’ schedules full or simply to shut down the complaints as quickly as possible with screen time or some other distraction. But it’s worth resisting these temptations because boredom offers kids some real, lasting benefits.

Boredom is basically telling you that whatever you’re doing in the moment isn’t working for you. The feeling isn’t enjoyable–it can be mildly unpleasant even–but it isn’t necessarily negative. Feeling bored gives kids the opportunity to learn to tolerate less-than-ideal experiences, manage frustration and regulate emotions, think creatively, solve problems, plan, organize, and gain independence and self-sufficiency. In fact, boredom, which often leads to free, imaginative play can lead to real fulfillment. It’s possible a child will find they really love creating art, hunting for and learning about insects, or flying kites.

Support, Don’t Rescue
How do we help kids move from feeling bored into taking action?

Be Patient: It’s challenging when the “I’m bored” chorus is resounding, but remember that every skill takes practice, and we need to leave room for our kids to figure it out.

Check In: Sometimes, kids say, “I’m bored,” but what they’re really feeling is lonely. It can be worth checking in–if they are lonely, spending even just a few minutes connecting can make all the difference.

Avoid Distractions: Even though a child may want it, the distraction of a screen is rarely the best response to “I’m bored.” It takes so little effort to soothe and distract ourselves with screens, it’s no wonder all of us reach for them in moments of boredom!

Make Suggestions: With kids under 5, it can be helpful to make suggestions about activities they might like: Do you want to play with Legos? Do you want to go outside? Do you want to play with puppets? And then rather than getting down on the floor to play with them, set them up with what they need and give them space for their imaginations to run and expand.

Help Kids Brainstorm Activities: With somewhat older kids, you might ask them to take a look around the house and come back to you with three ideas of things they could do. This shift towards taking action can transform emotional states, opening up the imagination and new possibilities.

More Boredom Busters
Sometimes, a great way to banish boredom is a little age-appropriate novelty, responsibility, and independence. The organization Let Grow believes today’s kids are smarter and stronger than our culture gives them credit for, and I wholeheartedly agree. The goal of Let Grow is to make it easy to give children the independence they need to become capable, confident, and content adults. I encourage you to check out their free resources.

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