If you’ve been a parent for a few years, more than likely, you’ve heard the dreaded words, “Mommy, I’m bored.” And many of us don’t often meet that phrase with the most positive responses. First, we roll our eyes in frustration because our kids have nine billion toys to play with; how do they suffer from boredom? Second, do they know how good they have it? Free time to do whatever they want, and my kid feels bored? That sounds dreamy. (As we transfer the clothes from the washer to the dryer, stir the dinner cooking on the stove, and make a mental note to pay the bills later after vacuuming the filthy carpet and scrubbing toilets.)
But maybe it’s time we reframe how we respond when our kids say they are bored, especially if we want them to learn how to fill their free time rather than expect us to entertain them. Maybe it’s time we see our kids’ boredom as a gift — and make sure they know it’s a gift, too.
What Kids Mean When They Say They’re Bored
According to research professor Richard Rende, Ph.D., when kids say, “I’m bored,” they mean, “I’m not engaged.” He says that boredom is good because it means your child’s brain is “craving something, and I need to muck around until I find that something that satisfies me.”1 And that mucking around? It’s good for them.
The experience of being unengaged (or “bored”) is when kids can blossom and get lost in unfettered imaginative play. When we don’t structure their entire days or when they have downtime, it gives kids a chance to get creative and come up with ideas to keep themselves busy.4
Why Is Boredom Essential for Kids To Experience?
When children experience boredom, they can let their imaginations kick in. This is when kids get to run around and not have rules, restrictions, or a calendar dictating their every move. Or when they can climb trees and play house, school, or hide-and-seek. It’s when they can gather other kids for a makeshift kickball game in the street. And when they can draw, paint, write stories, find their inner passions, or dream of what they might want to be when they grow up.
We live in a “go, go, go, go,” overly scheduled society that tends to see downtime as wasted time that we should use to be more productive. But we can use free time to find an activity that fills our cup, which is one of the most productive things a person — adult or child — can do. Viewing boredom as an opportunity to do something can benefit everyone. Free play, or a chance to direct themselves, means children can use their time to:2,5,6
- Try new activities
- Develop frustration tolerance
- Take the initiative to entertain themselves
- Develop planning strategies and problem-solving skills
- Learn perseverance
- Increase their confidence
How Parents Should Respond When Their Kids Say, “I’m Bored”
First and foremost, parents should ensure they’re meeting their children’s basic needs. Sometimes, our kids come to us saying they are “bored” but actually seek our attention.2 If you can give your child a few minutes of undivided attention, especially if you’ve been busy and haven’t connected with them lately or as much as they need, try that first.3,5
If your child’s needs are being met, and it is truly a case of classic boredom, you shouldn’t swoop in as the 24-hour entertainment source. That is not your job. We do more harm than good if we always solve our kids’ boredom struggles. We should teach them to figure out their boredom independently, using their imagination and problem-solving skills.3 Their self-esteem also relates to feeling capable, i.e., if they can figure things out for themselves, it can improve their sense of self-worth and self-efficacy (the belief that they can achieve things).6
Knowing that it’s imperative to foster a sense of independence in our kids and encourage their ability to fill their own free time, experts in the parenting field offer an array of suggestions for responding to our kids’ boredom.2 For example, Rende recommends saying, “OK, got it. So enjoy your free time and figure out something to do that isn’t boring to you.”1
However, clinical expert Stephanie A. Lee, PsyD, says parents may need to be a bit more hands-on in helping kids learn to handle their boredom. Because boredom fosters creativity, self-esteem, and original thinking, she says it’s essential to help kids learn to manage their boredom to develop independence and control their happiness and well-being.2
How Can Parents Help Kids Learn To Handle Their Boredom?
Parents must be proactive when their kid says they’re bored. That means anticipating our kids’ inevitable boredom and brainstorming with them a list of activities they can do next time the opportunity arises.2
Experts suggest making a list that comprises a mix of your ideas and some of your child’s. Mix up the length of ideas with some short- and long-term ones. You can use items you already have around the house and consider your child’s interests or things they might like to learn more about. Your child can make their list on a marker board or write ideas on paper, then cut them up and put them in a “boredom buster” jar for the next time they want something to do. The idea is to point to the list and say, “That’s great! I can’t wait to see what you’ll do with your time.”2
Another option is to assign chores to help kids cope with boredom. They can brainstorm fun ideas they would like to do once they clean their rooms, fold the laundry, or put the dishes away. They fill their time with something worthwhile, contribute to the household, and still get to choose an activity in the end. Everyone wins!
Also, it’s essential that as we encourage our children to manage their free time, we make sure to give them adequate time. A child with little time to play, read, or run around will struggle to figure out how to pass those hours and minutes when the next opportunity arises. A child frequently faced with “boredom” may learn how great boredom can be and quickly transition into a satisfying activity.1
Boredom-Buster Ideas for Younger Children
Here are some ideas to help bust your little ones’ boredom:
- Create an obstacle course with items from the house and garage
- Gather art supplies like scrap paper, pipe cleaners, stickers, and glue for an art project
- Play dress up with their parents’ old clothes
- Go on a nature scavenger hunt
- Make stationery and write letters to their grandparents or relatives
- Make a reading fort
- Make puppets with craft supplies and popsicle sticks, then have a puppet show using old shoeboxes as a stage
- Play classic outdoor games like kickball or hide-and-seek
- Learn about a new animal before a trip to the zoo
Boredom-Buster Ideas for Older Kids
Got older kids? Here are some ideas for how they can bust their boredom:
- Plant a garden
- Gather a bunch of DIY leftover materials and “invent” something
- Learn to cook new food
- Take apart broken electronics to see how they work
- Go for a walk and listen to a podcast or audiobook
- Start reading a new book series
- Work on athletic skills (dribbling, sprinting, gymnastics, etc.)
- Create their own board game
- Gather old magazines and scrapbooks or make a collage
Even if your kid says they’re feeling bored, remember that boredom is a gift. Kids need it and deserve it. We need to change the narrative and attach a positive connotation to this word so they see it as an opportunity, not something negative. And we need to teach our kids that they — not us — can figure out what to do next time they experience boredom.