Should children feel bored?
“He is bored so we enlisted him in a sports group and in a foreign language group..”
“I do not want her to feel bored and so we chose several activities after kindergarten, although she is five.”
“I do not like it when he is bored.”
Parents often mention the problem of their children telling them they are ‘bored’. Many of these parents see themselves as ‘bad’. They ask: How can I help my child so s/he does not feel bored? Why is s/he bored while other children have many interests?
Today, surrounded by constant stimulation, the thought that the child is bored leads parents to increasing time structuring for their child.
On the other hand, from the perspective of adults who have every moment planned and who are looking forward to moments without pressures, it is easy to remember how often we desire boredom. How have we come to this place where we deny our children their right to leisure and the need to try to overcome moments of boredom themselves, without our imposing the principles of efficacy onto them at any price? Psychologists who are into creativity have long been emphasising that the seed of imagination and creativity is hidden in boredom and leisure, but we still rarely afford it… Although it seems that it would be too much of a luxury in the world which we can hardly shape to our own liking, we should at least remember our childhood and how many new games we and our friends created when we were feeling bored.
Unfortunately, children often do not have that opportunity today. Instead of encouraging natural forms of movement, free playing with their peers or adults as partners, dreaming, soiling themselves in the sand and exploring whatever lives in the grass or what is hidden in their granny’s wardrobe with scarves and bags, today children have a series of activities and a crowded schedule. It is not unusual that a girl or a boy who are four or five have three activities after a whole day spent in kindergarten. While we are queuing, travelling by bus, waiting in our physician’s waiting room, while the child is waiting for dinner to be finished – parents give their children a mobile phone, a PC with online games… “so s/he is not bored”. Boredom is perceived as disease which needs prevention.
Bethink us a few important facts about child’s healthy development, which are based on evidence and research:
- Playing is the fundamental and the most important child activity, not only at the pre-school age.
- Early orientation to academic accomplishments (‘schooling’ at a preschool age) is HARMFUL for child development. Although it may seem that by direct guiding and teaching facts and knowledge the preschool child has learned something, it not only has no long-term positive effects, but is harmful for the child’s social and emotional development in the long run, even for his/her academic accomplishment later. Preschool children benefit from all activities based on playing.
- Physical activities and social interactions in their everyday life are important for children. Here we are not talking about organised sport, but about spontaneous physical activity, playing, movement…
What do we do with boredom then?
One answer could be: help your child to accept boredom as a part of life. In some previous discussions related to assessments of a child’s maturity for school, Gorana Hitrec, psychologist, wrote that, besides other developmental needs and requirements a school child will have to satisfy, we should think about the child’s need to control and cope with the feeling of boredom. In other words, boredom is a part of maturation and it contains significant potential. If we do not give a child a chance to experience boredom, s/he will be lost when at leisure and feel as if s/he has failed. That is why it is important that parents give their children a chance to enjoy unstructured time in which they will explore both their internal and external worlds – it is the beginning of creativity.
Unstructured time is also an opportunity for children to do what they like and develop their passions which will drive them in their later life. If they are ‘bombarded’ with monitors, activities which we believe they need according to our plans, they will never learn how to follow a path of their heart’s desire and be dedicated to something they love: studying bugs in books and in the garden, teaching their dolls songs they learned from their parents, building castles from cardboard, writing poems, organising a match in the yard… exactly the situations which give meaning to children’s world.
The first step parents can do is to let their child to decide what s/he will do in so called free time… Is it not weird to talk about free time of a preschool child? I would like parents to sometimes listen to their children. Most children do not complain when they can play alone or with other children, but many complain that adults ‘switch on cartoons’ without asking them what they want to do.
Remember, even when your children complain of boredom, you are not a bad parent. Let them decide what they want to do, offer to play together, join their plans and you will enjoy together. Be with your child, playing with a more advanced child or an adult leads the child to the zone of proximal development. Children are happiest playing games they have chosen themselves. It is because playing is their most meaningful job.
When children cannot express their needs for playing, it is typically because they have been too much exposed to adults’ planning, e.g. passive entertainment in front of the TV screen and have not practised ‘looking inside’ in order to decide what they really need. It is because they have too much cooperated with our plans and expectations as to what they should do. Their time may become so much structured that they do not have opportunities to try fun activities and spontaneous playing. Unfortunately, very young children are growing in front of TV screens today. Stimuli produced by TV programmes create instant feeling of pleasure, and children can easily neglect other developmentally more acceptable pleasures. New technologies are certainly part of our lives, but children need various experiences: e.g. building blocks (encouraging their development of motor and perception abilities), playing with other children (learning how to be alone and how to be with others), creative activities (how to be active, and not passive). And, finally and most importantly, children need abundant physical activity or they will not be able to focus on other learning.
What to tell the child who is complaining of boredom?
First and most important, if your child complains of boredom, it is wonderful s/he wants to share that with you. Pause with what you are doing and focus on the child for a couple of minutes (it does not seem terribly difficult, does it?). Use that time to be closer to your child and connect, without suggesting activities, just listen. Having your attention, the child will discover what s/he wants and focus to his/her activity. If the child does not chose an activity, and you start thinking that you have just stopped doing your job which you have to continue, consider the possibility that the child simply wants to be with you for some time. S/he needs you.
you. Many children who find it difficult to focus and choose what to play, in fact need our presence. Not our work, but presence. Offer your child to be with you while you are doing what your are doing or stop doing it and spend some time with him/her. When the child has received your attention and the needed ‘dose of love’, you can return to the question “what to do?”.Till then, the child probably has a series of ideas about what s/he would like to do. If s/he does not, tell him/her to see what to do ‘to his/her liking’ and enjoy, while your are there if s/he needs and wants to talk with our about his/her plans. Most children can conceive many activities themselves, but all of them will still need your advice.
Written by: Bruna Profaca, Psy.D., clinical psychologist