Giving Our Kids Nothing To Do Has Some Surprising Benefits

We all find ourselves in a state of constant busyness these days.  Often, we are overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

For whatever reason, our society has transformed in recent generations into one where a whirlwind of constant activity is expected. In fact, if you take a break to unwind for a few moments, you may end up feeling guilty that you are not being productive or getting the next thing checked off your list.

Experts in both adult and childhood behavioral sciences have discovered, though, this lack of downtime and state of frenzied activity is actually hindering our productivity.  Adults, and especially children, all need a little more boredom in their lives.

Several decades ago, social scientists began analyzing the effects of keeping boredom at bay.  Early on, it was the television that began to dominate our free time.  Now, it is the rampant use of digital devices to keep us occupied.

And the results showed that we were stifling our creativity, imagination, and other skills needed for social development.  This is especially of concern with children, who need these skills to develop into independent and well-rounded individuals.

Greater Good reported:

The apparent stifling effect is a concern, as imagination is important. Not only does it enrich personal experience, it is also necessary for empathy—imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes—and is indispensable in creating change. The significance of boredom here is that children (indeed, adults too) often fall back on television or—these days—a digital device to keep boredom at bay.

Sporting, musical, and other organized activities can certainly benefit a child’s physical, cognitive, cultural, and social development. But children also need time to themselves—to switch off from the bombardment of the outside world, to daydream, pursue their own thoughts and occupations, and discover personal interests and gifts.

We don’t have to have a particular creative talent or intellectual bent to benefit from boredom. Just letting the mind wander from time to time is important, it seems, for everybody’s mental well-being and functioning.

Decades ago, children found many ways to keep themselves busy without television or internet.  They explored the world around them and created their own adventures.  Children would gather materials and build their own imaginative creations.  Family life did not revolve around mindless distractions as they do today.

In fact, the whole idea of what boredom is has evolved.  Children several decades ago did not consider themselves bored when they were told to go outside and find something to do.  Now, if we told our children to find something other than the TV or computer to occupy their time, they would likely have no idea what to do with themselves.

Today’s “boredom” is thought of in a negative light, as if having nothing to do is a bad thing.  But having the time to relax and do something mindless has been proven to increase kids’ creativity – even their IQs.  And when parents don’t come to the rescue with some activity to keep them busy, children become more resourceful and learn problem solving.

Greater Good reported:

A study has even shown that, if we engage in some low-key, undemanding activity at the same time, the wandering mind is more likely to come up with imaginative ideas and solutions to problems. So it’s good for children to be helped to learn to enjoy just pottering—and not to grow up with the expectation that they should be constantly on the go or entertained.

Qualities such as curiosity, perseverance, playfulness, interest, and confidence allow them to explore, create, and develop powers of inventiveness, observation, and concentration. These also help them to learn not to be deterred if something doesn’t work the first time, and try again. By encouraging the development of such capacities, parents offer children something of lifelong value.

Most parents would say they want to raise independent, curious, and creative children.  But we often overload our children with classes and lessons and athletics thinking these activities will build these social skills.  In fact, setting aside time where nothing is planned out gives kids time to explore their surroundings and their imaginations.

In days gone by, kids would rummage through the garage or head into the woods and find materials with which to build and play.  They would make a fort or treehouse, build a soapbox car, or rig a fishing pole.

While our world is not quite as innocent as it once was, and today’s parents would hesitate to send their children out without adult supervision to do any of these activities, there is a lesson to be learned from the past.

Studies of modern children find they have a far lower attention span and often do not possess the level of thinking skills we would like for them to have.  Creativity and imaginative play often go hand-in-hand with independence and work ethic.  We want self-reliant kids who become successful and motivated adults.

Greater Good continued:

Parents often feel guilty if children complain of boredom. But it’s actually more constructive to see boredom as an opportunity rather than a deficit. Parents do have a role, but rushing in with ready-made solutions is not helpful. Rather, children need the adults around them to understand that creating their own pastimes requires space, time, and the possibility of making a mess (within limits—and to be cleared up afterwards by the children themselves).

They will need some materials too, but these need not be sophisticated—simple things are often more versatile. We’ve all heard of the toddler ignoring the expensive present and playing with the box it came in instead. For older children, a magnifying glass, some planks of wood, a basket of wool, and so on, might be the start of many happily occupied hours.

If a child has run out of ideas, giving them some kind of challenge can prompt them to continue to amuse themselves imaginatively.

Filling a child’s time with a constant blur of activities can put them on auto-pilot, having so much to process that they don’t even have time to think.  They become dependent on digital media or rely on someone telling them what they should be doing.

Children have a natural instinct towards being imaginative.  And by allowing them the time to do so, we are more likely to encourage independence and confidence in their ability to find solutions.  They are full of ideas, if we only allow them a break from the distractions of the day.

So next time your child says, “Mom, I’m bored,” you can tell them about the great opportunities being bored provides.

What are your thoughts on the benefits of boredom for kids?  Do you think today’s children are so busy they can’t think for themselves?  Leave us your comments.

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