Boredom vs Free Play


boredom cures

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”  ~Dorothy Parker

Eight-year-old twins Caleb and Ella used to complain of boredom on a daily basis. “There’s nothing to do,” they’d whine. “I’m bored!”

Their father Mateo didn’t remember being bored when he was growing up. Back in the early 90’s he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. A favorite place he and other kids played was a small creek behind an apartment building. At home he liked to read comics or tinker with projects of his own devising (including a phase of making anti-burglar projects after watching Home Alone). He says he honed his daydreaming skills when he was bored in school. Being an inattentive student didn’t bring him the best grades, but he’s now an aspiring cartoonist who relies on daydreaming for ideas.

Their mother Camila said her childhood wasn’t boring either. She remembered lots of imaginative play with her sister while their mother worked a full-time job at home. The girls played for hours as spies, queens, and magicians. They also liked to play office, mimicking their mother’s phone calls and typing. Camila says her friends preferred playing at her house because they were allowed to hang sheets off a tree branch for an impromptu theater, bake cupcakes, even paint and repaint their old wooden play structure in the back yard.

“If I moped around my mother would say, ‘Go out and play.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command,” Mateo said.  “Maybe that’s what made me so self-reliant.”

When Caleb and Ella complained of boredom their parents gestured to all the toys they owned and reminded their kids about sports practice and other activities. They urged their kids to go outside. But the kids tended to say, “There’s nothing I want to do!” and off they’d go to play a game on the tablet, watch the same movie again, or look for a snack.

Mateo and Camila wondered if they were unwittingly raising their kids to be bored. They worried the kids weren’t getting enough of that all-important free play.  Let’s consider these possibilities.

Excessive Distractions

This may start early on. There are so many mobiles, play gyms, bouncy seats, swings, and toys marketed to new parents that we’re led to believe they’re necessary, even though babies need little more than loving connections with caregivers and a safe place to explore. Nature insures that the newest humans are perfectly cued to observe and interact with the world around them. A three-month-old lying near a window can amuse herself looking at patterns of sunlight, work on rolling over, and chew on a simple toy. She’s already busy learning exactly as she needs to learn. Few of us are raising infants in some tranquil Eden by any means.  But we can avoid overstimulating them, distracting them, and breaking their concentration as they play.

Within a child’s first few years many of us accumulate a staggering overload of items, each one meant to amuse and educate our kids. Camila, who repeatedly tried to reorganize her kids’ toys, reported they had bins and shelves packed with toys but everything was always a mess. “Just to see how bad it was, I thought I’d count all their stuffed animals, large and small,” she said. “I gave up when I got to 100.”

Like so many other purchasing choices we make, quality matters more than quantity. For example, when toys are tied to specific movies or shows, kids are likely to reenact storylines but less likely to play creatively. They also play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. ” In contrast, open-ended playthings like blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, art supplies, and yes, a few generic stuffed animals, are far more likely to inspire imagination. Engaging fun happens when kids create their own projects, come up with their own games, and drift into their own make-believe worlds. A significant way to encourage this is the freedom to play with loose parts.

Parents (well, those who can afford it) know it’s easy to placate bored kids with a treat, toy, or digital playtime. But we don’t need to overdo it. We don’t want to teach them to depend on external stimulation instead of building strength essential for resilience and happiness at any stage in life — the ability to amuse themselves.  Sure, every parent is going to distract and placate at times, but we need to keep from letting this become the go-to solution. We can build on a child’s capacity for self-directed play just by getting out of their way. This starts early on, in babyhood, as Janet Lansbury explains in “7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play”  and there are all sorts of ways to encourage self-directed play as kids get older.

Top-Down Activities

The more we structure children’s time, the more we interfere with their own drive to learn, explore, imagine, and simply be. The inner motivation we want for our kids can be supplanted by external rewards like constant validation, a fix for every frustration, and bribes for good behavior. It’s possible to focus so intently on what we believe will make our children happy and successful that we forget children look to us as guides. They feel most secure when adults are grounded, consistent, and caring authority figures who trust that kids they’re growing up just fine as they are.

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

As psychologists Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer write in The House of Make-Believe, children who have plenty of time for free play are more imaginative and creative, have more advanced social skills, and are actually happier as they play. The Singers contrast two children who are given free-form playthings like dolls or building blocks. The child who has had plenty of experience with daydreaming and make-believe is comfortable coming up with pretend scenarios, and can easily find inventive ways to play with these toys. The child who has not had much experience with make-believe or daydreaming may find little engaging about the toys after a short time —- in other words, he gets bored quickly.  The imaginative “muscles” built by daydreaming, make-believe, and downtime simply haven’t developed.

Default Screens

Here we get to the dreaded “actions speak louder than words” thing. Kids see how we handle boredom. What are our go-to solutions? When we’re waiting in line do we take the opportunity to observe what’s around us, think our own thoughts, talk to each other? When we have a free evening do we do something that actually aligns with our interests —- test out a new recipe, read a book, practice the guitar, shoot hoops, relax on the porch doing nothing but relaxing? Or do we default to scrolling through our feeds, checking email, watching videos? I’m just as engaged with screens as the next person (and hey, there are a lot of important reasons to check our phones) so I’m not pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that this is the first generation to grow up around such immersive technology and our example matters.

According to their parents, many days Caleb played online games for hours and Ella liked to watch the same movies over and over. There’s a great deal of variability in how screen time affects different children and there are enormous positives to be found in the offerings of today’s technology, but apparently not in a child’s earliest years.

Preliminary research indicates that exposure to more than two hours a day of screen time (even background screens) during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with a shorter attention span  and more difficulty with self-regulation (the ability control one’s own behavior) as they get older. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis believes that rapidly changing images on the screen precondition a young child’s mind to expect high levels of stimulation, making lower levels of stimulation such as those found in everyday life somewhat boring. (Dr. Christakis’ viewpoint is, at this point, remains largely conjecture.)

Older kids often use screens in more challenging and stimulating ways. Today’s electronics are far from the passive entertainment Ella and Caleb’s parents and grandparents grew up with. It is, however, a problem when sitting for hours on end replaces other more active, hands-on ways of being. Sometimes kids simply get out of the habit of doing other things. One study even found that older kids are bored during screen time but feel they don’t have other play options. Perhaps that’s because kids don’t have permission to do a variety of other things like make a mess, make noise, and get out of sight of adults —- sure signs that fun is happening.

Makers of toys, games, and movies expect boredom. They counteract this by ramping up conflict and violence to more effectively sustain attention. Makers of children’s programming, even children’s building sets, have resorted to increasingly violent themes to boost sales.  Marketers certainly know how to use brain science to keep our kids’ dopamine levels surging.

We definitely get those dopamine hits when we play a video game or watch a movie. Nothing wrong with that. Our brains get the same rush of pleasure when we create, challenge ourselves, get active, socialize, figure out a problem.  Remember that role model thing? Let’s remember to demonstrate to our kids that we enjoy our screens and get a kick out of non-screen living too. Maybe learn some new dance movies, fix something broken, make up a story, invent a new sandwich, ask Grandma to teach you something, wave to garbage collectors, or whatever playful idea strikes your fancy. Playfulness is contagious.

Two Kinds of Boredom

There’s a difference between a shut-down, numb mind and a fertile, constructively bored mind. Numbing boredom can set in when kids are stuck in a situation where they have very little control over their own activities. This is common in structured, physically restrictive settings — think school, religious services, long trips in the car, sitting through a sibling’s sports event. When numbing boredom happens too often or goes on too long, kids may learn passivity or learn to make trouble.

Constructive boredom is something else entirely. It’s a fertile state all its own. When kids sit on their nothing-to-do frustrations for a while, boredom can hatch into all sorts of possibilities. What kids invent when making their own fun invariably challenges them in myriad ways, often right to the edge of their next developmental milestones. What we don’t want to do is take over or supervise too closely, squashing boredom’s marvelous potential.

Boredom may feel uncomfortable, but it’s actually the tingle of imagination signaling of possibilities to explore. We can tell kids to say “yes” to boredom, letting it tug at them until they come up with an idea. When they do, we need to remember to say “yes” to as many of their ideas as we can, to accept the mess and uncertainty and noise that often accompanies kid-generated fun.

~~~~~

Camila and Mateo were frustrated by their children’s chronic boredom until a radical change was imposed on them. Mateo, who worked in building maintenance, lost his job when the company closed. His only income was a small cash flow from drawing comics and some side jobs as an illustrator. Camila taught several courses as an adjunct at a local college for low pay. Faced with a drastically reduced income, they talked to the kids and together prioritized holding on to their house and maintaining a close family.

This meant taking big steps to simplify. They stopped the kids’ lessons and sports. They dropped cable, leaving internet service with a data cap — which cut into Caleb’s gaming time and Ella’s movie time. They held a series of tag sales to raise money. The kids chose what toys to sell and kept the proceeds. (They turned their nearly empty closets into hideouts.)

Next they embarked on a project to bring in some income by converting their walk-out basement into a compact apartment to rent out. It was hard work, even harder to adjust to having another person living in their house at first, but the rent effectively paid most of their mortgage.

Mateo found another job three months later, yet they’re sticking with the changes made during the upheaval of unemployment. “No one wants to minimize because they’re forced to,” Mateo says, “but what we cut out helped.”

He sees all sorts of benefits. There’s no nagging about getting out the door for sports practice and games.  Honing down their possessions cooled the pressure on everyone to clean up clutter and almost magically made their home feel more welcoming.  Rehabbing the basement, Mateo believes, was the best thing of all. The kids felt good about helping out and still incorporate “fixing things” into their play. It’s like this was a reboot,” he says, “reminding us the four of us are in this together.”

Camila reports the kids are thriving. “They’re not perfect,” she says, “but there’s a lot less whining. I’m really impressed that they’re able to amuse themselves for hours on end.” That day while she graded papers, Caleb and Ella colored, pretended the stairs were a volcano, and made paper airplanes they threw off the porch. Then they conducted an ill-fated experiment to see if they could balance the recycling bin on their dad’s old skateboard. They could not, but they got an idea for another project as they cleaned up the spilled contents.  Painful as simplifying was, it helped bored kids find ways to make their own fun.

The big takeaway from Caleb and Ella’s story, to me, doesn’t center on fewer structured activities,  minimizing toys, or helping out around the house. It has to do with having time and freedom to play. Time? Hours each day. Freedom? Noise, mess, arguments, mistakes, space to play away from constant adult supervision.  As Robert Coles said, “We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

Resources

“The Play Deficit”

“6 Ways to Encourage Free Play, Create Stronger Communities, & Raise Safer Kids”

“How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”

“Playful Cures for a Toy Overload” 

“Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit”

“The Boy With No Toys” 

bored kids,

 

 

18 Playful Cures for a Toy Overload

toy overload, play without toys,

But there’s nothing to do! (CC by 2.0 Dennis Brekke)

Friends of ours were burdened with a serious toy overload. Their four children had generous weekly allowances and lots of gift-giving relatives. As a result, there were more toys than I’ve ever seen in one home. When the family room was overrun,  their father would use a snow shovel to scoop the floor clean. He dumped the shovelfuls in big plastic bins and hauled them to the basement. After doing this a few times he realized the kids rarely bothered to get out those particular playthings. They didn’t really miss them at all.

I deeply admire the mother I interviewed for The Boy With No Toys although we’ve personally never taken an anti-toy stance in our family. Over the years we’ve happily accumulated dolls, trucks, building sets, art supplies, stuffed animals, as well as lots of books. We emphasize quality, not quantity. It’s one way of sparing our planet the burden of sweatshop-made, eco-unfriendly products.  And more importantly, we think it’s part of raising kids who aren’t oriented toward materialism for their own well-being, both now and in the future.

Too often the typical options for childhood amusement include overly structured activities, lots of screen time, and commercial playthings that do the entertaining for them. Unfortunately, kids can become accustomed to someone or something else providing the fun for them. As a result they may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in nature. They may actually have trouble generating their own fun.

Even if you limit screen time and emphasize free play, young children can still be overwhelmed by too many playthings. A study  done in Britain found the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys, but mostly plays with 12 favorite items!

Simply reducing a toy overload can help children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some toy overload solutions.

 

Rotate toys

Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. Take a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. When you do get out a toy or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re putting into hibernation. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while.

 

Reserve toys for specific situations.

It’s helpful to deem some toys for use only under certain conditions. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or a way to minimize use of passive entertainment toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, at a restaurant, or while you’re on an important call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s car, or on a high shelf for special occasions. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Mama’s-on-a-work-call toy” help keep the boundaries drawn and make it easy to put the toy away for the next time.

 

Join or set up a toy lending library 

Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service. Find a toy library near you using USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.

 

Assemble play kits using non-toy items

You can throw together kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. (Of course, these suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too young to use the items safely.) To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between use. They are great to get out when kids have friends over.

Office: Use a briefcase or file box. Tuck in office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, post-it notes, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser—this alone can keep small kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help kids understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.

Doctor: Fill a small suitcase with a stethoscope, tongue depressors, tiny flashlight, notebook for doctor’s notes, and plenty of gauze to bind up injuries. Children particularly enjoy using the items to diagnose and treat dolls or stuffed animals.

Costume: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Add cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Don’t worry about actual costumes, just toss in a range of imagination-sparking things. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes, vests, tool belt, badges, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, and plenty of hats.

Building: Fill a large container with heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. Add a roll or two of masking tape, string, clean yogurt cups, egg cartons, popsicle sticks, corks, plus hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. When you can, bring home the largest cardboard box you can wheedle out of an appliance store. Children will find all sorts of ways to use it.

Market:  Save empty clean food packages, reglue boxes shut so they look new, and keep them in a bin along with any toy fruits and vegetables you may already have. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. They may want to swipe a pretend debit card, use homemade money, or barter to cover their transactions. (They can use a similar concept to play Library with their books, Car Repair Shop with their riding toys, and so on.)

 

Encourage Deconstruction

Grandparents on both sides of our family kept a lookout for broken items our kids could take apart. This is marvelously fun as well as educational. It also requires very close supervision! Kids will need flat head and Phillips screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, safety glasses, wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors, and possibly some child-sized work gloves. Before letting them start, cut off and discard any electric plugs as well as cords on the item. Also check for glass parts or batteries that can cause injury, and make sure the item doesn’t have tubes (as old radios and televisions once did) Be forewarned, kids may encounter sharp bits of metal, coiled springs, and other surprises.

We put small deconstruction items in a shallow box (to catch the pieces) . Normally they’d work at the kitchen table to take apart things like a watch, Dymo labelmaker, motherboard, hand-held mixer, clock, printer, VHS or DVD player,  can opener, camera, radio, household fan, remote control car, and once a Furby (which creepily resumed its ability to talk once it was little more than a Furby skeleton), Large items they’d take apart outside on the driveway, with a big open box where they could put pieces. They took apart a microwave, several different bikes, and a lawn tractor. (This led one of my sons to drag a neighbor’s lawn tractor out of the trash, whereupon he fixed it and used it to make money mowing lawns!)

 

Permit hideouts

Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Provide sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, space ship, or castle. Once inside a hideout, children are in another entirely necessary world.

 

Let them play with water

Little kids adore water play. Pull up a stool to the sink and let them wash a few unbreakable dishes or toys with mild soap. They’ll stay busy pouring water from soup ladle to funnel to pitcher to cup. Add to the fun by putting a few ice cubes in the sink, giving them foil to shape into boats, or letting them add food coloring. Encourage them to gather a few water safe objects (perhaps a block, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a ball, a rubber band) and guess which ones will float before putting them in the water.  Or you might let them play in the tub for an hour or more while you sit nearby reading a book or getting some work done on the laptop.

Outdoors there are many more water options. On a hot day, water wiped on the house or driveway with a brush temporarily darkens the surface, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again. You can also give them a bucket and sponge to let them wash a tricycle, a watering can to give the plants a drink, or a sprinkler to run through. Don’t forget the pleasures of water added to dirt. Mud pies are a childhood classic.

 

Help kids set up obstacle courses

A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder.  Outdoors they can set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. More fun? Setting up obstacle courses on their own.

 

Bring back legacy games

All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Preschooler’s Busy Book, Great Big Book of Children’s Games, or Team Challenges.  Or dig into the game database offered by Bernie DeKoven at DeepFun. And remember to add those classic hand-clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun, studies show they’re also brain boosters.

 

Stage treasure hunts

 First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together. Or hide the book you’re been reading aloud so kids can search for the treasure of the next chapter. Once they’re familiar with treasure hunts, children can create them for each other.

 

Let them help

Even the smallest children want to participate in the real work that makes a household function. They want to tear lettuce for a salad, clean crumbs with a small whisk broom, measure beans and pour them in the coffee grinder, sort socks, carry kindling for the fireplace, water the garden, basically anything they see their elders doing. They benefit in remarkable ways, from greater dexterity to the development of character traits that lead to long-term success. What’s more, they have fun doing it.

 

Emphasize non-toy gifts for holidays and birthdays

It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or even a day later. You can give things like real tools for working with wood, crafting with fiber, or exploring the outdoors. These tools will be used over and over again as kids build valuable skills. You can give passes to events, subscriptions, and much more. For a listing of over 100 non-toy gifts, check here.

 

Encourage loose parts play

Loose parts are anything kids can join together, line up, dig with, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, lift, drag, climb on, or otherwise use as curiosity leads them. That is, as long as the adults in their lives give them the permission and the time to do so. No need to buy special objects for loose parts play. Nature is full of loose parts. So is a kitchen cupboard. Here’s more on encouraging loose parts play.

Take advantage of temporary circumstances

A large tree with damage from a lightning strike had to be taken down in our back yard. What was left behind were perfect playthings. There were large slices of wood the kids used as blocks and wheels. There were piles of brush they cut up with small hack saws and used to make forts. There was the stump itself, the best home base ever for games of tag.

One time my husband hauled home a junk car he’d bought for next to nothing so he could cannibalize it for parts. The few days it sat in our driveway were a delight for our five-year-old. We put one of his dad’s old shirts on him, mixed up a whole bucket of thick red tempera paint, and handed him a large paintbrush. He dragged a step stool around and painted the whole car, windows included. When they could, neighborhood kids came over to add second and third coats.

The septic system had to be dug up and fixed at our next house. When the company was done they left a towering pile of dirt. It was there for months until we had the money to rent the equipment necessary to move it. The kids called it their “mountain.” It inspired lots of imaginative play, one day they might be explorers running over the top and the next day they might be sitting in the dirt playing with toy trucks. They were sorry to see it go.

You may never have these particular circumstances, but there’s a good chance you’ll have others. Mother-in-law coming for a visit? Get her to teach your kids something she enjoys doing, maybe knitting or playing chess or Tai Chi. Power disrupted due to a storm? Let the kids play hide and seek or flashlight tag in your suddenly spooky dark house.  Invited to a wedding? Find some instruction on YouTube and practice the dances that are likely to happen at the reception. Nothing like kids who’ve got the moves! Your kids won’t have much trouble finding the most playful options for any circumstances. All you have to do is say “yes.”

 

Portions of this article were first published in Natural Life Magazine