Some parents dread the approach of summer, envisioning that their kids will do nothing but stare at screens all day or complain of boredom. Others prepare ahead of time by signing children up for a full schedule of activities designed to keep their bodies moving and their brains engaged. Still other parents try to find a middle ground where their kids have enough activities so their muscles and minds continue to work and grow, with lots of free time mixed in. That happy middle ground is where kids learn that summertime can bring the joy of creative self-discovery.
Increasingly, caring parents are scheduling their children’s time tightly, hoping to give them an edge in a competitive world. But there’s strong evidence that the competitive edge over the long term goes to those who’ve had ample time to engage in imaginative play, exploration, collaboration, and invention. And although there’s a place for technology in children’s lives, too much time on computer games, television, smart phones, etc. can encourage lazy habits of mind, where a child comes to rely on entertainment and activities created by others, instead of creating his own fun and discovering his interests.
What happens when kids are given enough free time—without technology—to feel bored? As long as they’re also getting enough stimulation, care, and guidance, unscheduled time provides opportunities to find out what they enjoy doing, and what they want to know more about. It’s also a great way to learn to manage feelings, behaviour, time, and intellectual focus, all of which are important for achievement and fulfillment in the long run. Kids who spend time making secret hideouts, inventing stories of pirates, paupers, astronauts, and circus clowns, and thinking about what to do next, are much more likely to take ownership of their own learning. Summer can be a wonderful time to cultivate the self-discovery that precedes high achievement in all fields.
What to Do When a Child Says, “I’m Bored!”
Sometimes ‘I’m bored’ means ‘I’m up for some challenge and excitement’—but it can also mean ‘I need a bit of tender loving care.’ So if your child lets you know she’s bored, stop what you’re doing, look her in the eye, and give her a snuggle. Slow yourself down, and take enough time to find out if she wants to talk about anything. If she seems emotionally okay, here are some practical ideas and constructive responses to a child’s expression of boredom:
- Ask what needs doing. Sometimes just asking if there’s anything that needs doing is enough to get a child thinking creatively. If not, move on to one of the other items on this list, depending on whether you think he needs a job to do, or requires some help getting started on an activity.
- List some chores. Make a list of age-appropriate household chores the child can do when he’s bored. From the right perspective, chores can be fun, so in addition to emptying the dishwasher and cleaning the bathroom sink, the list might include sorting out the toybox, walking the dog, or making decorations for the next family gathering.
- Help her get started. Maybe she needs a hand getting out the art supplies or the sports equipment, someone to take her to the park or library, or some other physical support or materials in order to do something meaningful and productive.
- Make a Great Ideas jar. Brainstorm things he enjoys doing. Write each one down, and put it into a jar labelled ‘Great Ideas.’ Whenever he’s bored or looking for something to do, he can reach in and see what idea he gets, or he can poke through the entire jar until he finds something appealing.
- Tell her to go outside and play. Spending more time outdoors in the summer, preferably in natural settings, can be the healthiest boredom-solution of all, especially for children who spend a lot of time indoors during the school year. This may require attention to safety considerations, but it’s important to make it happen. Even the same-old neighbourhood park can have a new feel at different times of day—in the evening, during a drizzle, or when the sun rises.
- Create a summer calendar together. Mark in upcoming excursions, as well as daily and weekly schedules, so your child knows what’s happening day to day and what to look forward to. If there’s a trip ahead, a calendar can be a catalyst for planning and anticipation.
- Suggest she read a book. A trip to the public library can be an investment in happy reading hours during the week. You might also suggest starting a kids’ book club, scheduling family reading times, or writing book reviews for kids’ journals.
- Create a home science corner. You can find ideas for simple home science experiments at http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/experiments.html
- Put together an artist’s activity box. Collect odds and ends for pictures, cards, collages and other works of art: glue, coloured paper, ribbon, cardboard, wool, popsicle sticks, paper clips, sprinkles, cotton balls, scraps of fabric, tinfoil. And here are some recipes for playdough: http://www.kiddinaround.com/pages/3-Easy-Recipes-for-Making-Homemade-Play-Dough.html
- Create a music-making centre. Your child can make musical instruments out of paper tubes, wax paper, and a rubber band, or with sticks, tiles, wood, plastic, or different sized pots. Put a kazoo, harmonica, or recorder in the box. Ask him what rattles, rings, or makes other interesting sounds, and throw those in, too. Encourage him to create and perform his own songs.
- Make a puppet show kit. Include old socks, buttons, felt, feather boas, and big picture frames.
- Assemble a drama box. A carton for theatrical productions might include old hats, make-up, shoes, scarves, shirts, sheets, purses, gloves, and props.
- Create a writer’s activity box. Include here the essentials for creating a journal, newsletters, joke books, short stories, poetry, scripts, and letters.
- Make a section on your bookshelf for activity books. Include crossword puzzles, games, Sudoku, brain teasers, treasure hunts, and how-to basics on topics like drawing cartoons, building birdhouses, and decorating cupcakes.
When Boredom is a Sign for Concern
We’ve focused here on healthy summer boredom that can open the door to self-discovery and creative productivity. Sometimes, however, boredom is a cause for concern. Here are some of the most common reasons a child might use ‘I’m bored’ to mask something more serious:
- Not enough intellectual, physical, or social stimulation. Make sure the activities your child is doing during the day while you’re at work are sufficiently challenging to keep her learning and growing in areas that interest her.
- Too much challenge. Is your child expected to do too much in one area or another? Is it time to pare down the expectations?
- Insufficient focus on affection or attention. When life gets busy, time for easy affection and attention can get lost in the shuffle. Make sure your child is getting enough warmth and connection-time.
- More serious psychological problems. If you have concerns about your child’s psychological well-being, consider seeing a professional.
Summer Downtime Can Bring Exciting Opportunities
After you’ve made sure your child’s physical, social, intellectual, and psychological needs are being met, the best summer parenting advice is this: help your child welcome his downtime as an exciting opportunity for discovery, creativity, and engagement. For more about these ideas—and many other topics as well—see Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. You’ll also find articles, blogs, and resources at www.beyondintelligence.net
Dona Matthews has taught at several Canadian universities and was associate professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, where she was the founding director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Education. Her previous books include The Development of Giftedness and Talent across the Life Span.
Joanne Foster teaches educational psychology courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Dr. Foster contributes to the journal Parenting for High Potential. She’s also the author of Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination.
Visit the authors’ website at beyondintelligence.net