In Praise of Boredom...the Gift of Unfilled Time

Posted on January 02, 2014 by Katherine Ruch

Dressed as Beatrix Potter, my daughter paints in the garden.

It is not unusual to hear a child say, "I'm bored." But before you consider that comment as an immediate demand on your creative faculties, guide your child to realize the perfect door is open to discover and create. It is only when children are looking for something to do that they fall into the best kind of play, that is, as long as all media is unavailable.

Somehow as parents we have stumbled into entertaining our children and found ourselves trapped by the constant need our children have to be stimulated. We scramble around trying to fill their time with something that occupies them because an unoccupied child is hazardous, we fear (and this fear is not completely unfounded :)). We put them in classes, in leagues, get DVDs for them to watch in the car, and plan multiple events to stimulate them. When actually, one of the best gifts we can give our children is unfilled time. Only when a gaping hole of time stretches before them do they become curious to fill it. 

Beware...parents and children alike will be tempted to go first for what will entertain and require no imaginative effort, and this is what we MUST resist. Everyone reading this is most likely in a constant fight against the encroachment of media (I know because I am, too). I am writing this to encourage you in your fight.

It is easier for us as parents to be productive if our children are entertained with a video game than if they are coming in muddy from digging an unwanted trench in the yard. How many times my dinner could have been on time if I had not had the "help" from my child on a stool wanting to stir and measure. Wouldn't a movie during dinner prep time make my life so much easier? Yes. But easy is not always what yields the best long term results. For two years, my children took turns walking a needy baby during dinner prep time.

My husband and I made an early decision that we would not entertain our children simply to relieve ourselves from the burden of their messy and infringing presence. This meant less quiet, less order, less sleep for us. Instead of flipping on a DVD in the morning for them so we could sleep longer, Stewart and I took turns getting up with little ones and reading to them in our half sleep. Once they reached four, we would trundle down the stairs, gather a stack of books, plunk a child on the couch, and say, "When you've looked at every one of these you can come wake us up," hoping that we were establishing an expectation that they would learn to amuse themselves...which worked.

A dead soldier being carried home from battle.
Notice the small drum being played on his behalf. This
stretcher is constructed from belts and walking sticks.

Because our children never had the expectation of media in the morning, in their boredom, they began to expand beyond their pile of books. We had many an unappetizing breakfast in bed prepared by eager hands. (Many times one of us awakened to the smell of burning toast and the clanking and dirtying of pans and would shake the other awake, "hurry, get up, get downstairs...they're making breakfast in bed.")

Our living room might be the sight of a pioneer home, all the children in costume and the furniture rearranged for the purpose. Or an elaborate Civil War battle might be staged with Playmobil. Today, our children come downstairs and the readers read to the non-readers and the older children read their Bibles. My older daughter once designed and sewed a table runner before breakfast or another daughter has worked on a fairy house. Even the five year old can make his own scrambled egg...and it isn't so bad.

It is understandable that we live in a day that because of media, our children are predisposed to expect constant stimulation. But this is actually the last thing they need. They need to plan out activities on their own and then sustain and "live into" their plan. This develops a much needed capacity for "executive function," which is highly declining in children, according to researchers today. Executive function is essential in an adult's capacity to lay out plans and execute them both in their employment and personal lives. Read this NPR article and look for the related Q &A link, which are both informative about the need for children to have unstructured play: It will sober you as to the dangerous affect media is having on our children's developing imaginations and the unneeded over scheduling that is robbing our children of something more important for their development...just simple time.

Play changed after TV shows began marketing toys. Now children imitate shows using toys that are TV figures they have seen, rather than planning out a game and employing objects in creative functions that change depending on the story. The best toy is a toy that can be many different things. A piece of fabric can be a tourniquet, part of a tent, a blanket, a towel, a cape, a bed roll, etc.

See my suggestions in Resources for how to acquire a chest of raw materials for creative play.

My son was waiting on me. In his boredom,
he built a structure for his younger brother,
made a fire, and started reading.

This does not mean that children do not need to be guided in their boredom. They must be trained by their parents to be creative in their ideas and to see opportunity. But they do not need you to shape their play. It is important that they do this for themselves. If you read good books to your children, they will act out time periods and characters. Just remember, though, if children are scolded every time they come in dirty from the yard, they will internalize that boundary--("play, but not in ways that make you dirty"). Suggest options for play, but let them come up with the ideas.

The most sobering aspect of this generation of mediated children is that we have let it happen in our own exhaustion and our need to be given space and left alone with our own interests. I am not saying that there is not a time in which a movie is not a nice family activity, but it should be intentionally chosen and scheduled. There have also been occasions in which it is imperative that my husband and I have a meeting that is not interrupted; so on those occasions we might stick in a movie, and because our children so rarely see movies, they are truly hypnotized.

But overall, it is not too much to ask a child who is waiting in the car or traveling many miles to come up with a game to play, make up a story, look out of the window or keep track of license plates. If we listen to music or audiobooks in the car, we listen together. (We have done a 4,500 mile road trips without any movies. Sometimes we wished for them, but we are glad we didn't succomb).

At home, the sky is the limit as to what can occupy or stimulate. I check out art books or books on subjects that I think will interest my children and simply leave them around the house. Many times I will find them "in a moment of boredom" leafing through one of those books. Recently, I found one on different Civil War regiments and their regalia open on the floor in the bathroom--bathroom boredom reading. My six year old was poring over the different kinds of money of the Confederate army.

Pilgrims with "hobo lunches." If kids bring me sticks, I tie their lunches in a bandana so they can journey and eat on location. Gives me a quiet lunch inside.

Recently a friend was traveling on a greyhound bus and found his seat companion to be a freshly released convict. The ex-con asked what my friend was studying in college. When he mentioned "finance," the ex-convict started asking him about different authors and theories. My friend said the ex-con knew more about finance than he himself knew. So he asked him how he knew all of this. The ex-convict's response was, "When you're in prison, you get bored; so you read anything you can find." This man had educated himself in his boredom. So many of my children's interests have grown out of reading and exploring during stretches of unfilled time.

Orphans surviving together (in the rabbit cage?)
This is an ancient temple. To find the gold,
you must survive secret traps and tunnels.

These are some of the games my children have made up during swaths of available time: "Achilles' Heel"(when one child keeps all the others from touching his heel), any and every sport inside and out, Irish fleeing the potato famine, an African market, library, many plays, Victorians, medieval knights and princesses, The Trojan War (with neighbors--including the girls as Amazons), "Voco Humans" (?), Julius Caesar acted out with togas and ketchup, cowboys and Indians, pioneers, doctor office (including baby deliveries), all kinds of doll games, hanging a rocking horse high in a tree or a chair that different kids could rock on, using grapling hooks for climbing up trees, burials for birds, parachuting off of the playscape, the Oregon Trail, many Lincoln Log fort wars, countless Playmobil extravaganzas, hiking, creating forts and lean-to's, and every year with cousins, a rehearsed show (some of the past have been: a rodeo, circuses, an elaborate jousting tournament, Church of the Baptism and the visitation of the bishops--with tea cosies on their heads), a yearly acting out of the Christmas story with Jesus in a laundry basket, a magic show including cutting someone in half, making movies with the neighbors. This does not touch the books they have read, the cooking, and the Play Doh, and the art. Now as they are older, they love table games, sewing, cooking, reading, making music together, sports, hiking, and simply sitting around and talking and laughing. This did not evolve in one weekend, but has developed over the course of years.

All of these things unfold even though my children sometimes long and hope for media and are more than glad to watch anything, even if it's "educational." It is always a battle, and we have had seasons in which as parents we have given in too often. When this has happened, we have instituted fasts from media by putting away the DVD player. We have never allowed computer games of any sort; so our children never expect that. (I know that video games can be very useful for children who are greatly restricted in their capacity for activity due to health issues). We realize how necessary it is to set strict boundaries on media when we see how sad and disturbed some are when the DVD player is being carried into the basement. Even though we use it sparingly, the possibility of distraction through media is always a lingering hope. That response motivates our fast more than ever. It is amazing how quickly they get over the hope and expectation of media when they know it is simply not available.

Now with media in your pocket through the cellphone, it is more important than ever that we not use our phones to entertain our children. Just last night I watched a child at a restaurant watching a movie while the family had dinner. Don't hand phones to children to distract them. Insist that they learn to sit and listen to others (of course this cannot be expected of children under will have to take turns distracting them). You will never be sorry when they are teenagers and want to be with the family, listen to the guests you have over, tell stories, and simply be present to what is happening. In another post I will expound on my deepest concern about the accessibility of all media at all times, which is that people are losing the ability to be fully present to the moment.

When my children first started complaining of boredom, I felt no pity. Instead, I offered a list of chores that needed to be done. And they quickly found they had endless other ideas waiting to be incarnated. I won't lie that sometimes after their creative bursts, I don't look longingly at the DVD player. Today, New Year's Day, arrived after several days of unstructured time at home in a small house with high volume and activity and plenty of scuffles between the youngest two who had had too little sleep and too much sugar. We brought in 2014 watching an episode of the Andy Griffith show and two episodes of Lark Rise to Candleford. I was pleased today to hear my teenage son learning two worship songs on his guitar (using the computer...we aren't Amish) while my teenage daughter organized a family cabinet and made Austrian dumplings. One son was dressed up as a police men sneaking around with his two year old brother who was in various costumes. My other son worked on playing his trumpet by ear and teaching himself to play the recorder, while his sister in the next room worked on a scrapbook and cleaned up her room. Later we all took a long walk in the falling snow. But if I so much had turned on a YouTube, and they had heard the sounds of media, they would all have come running from their productive and interesting engagements, glad to throw it all away for a "quick fix." As much as we wanted the break ourselves of quiet, order, and some mindless distraction, my husband and I were quietly thankful that all of our children know how to be together and amuse themselves with worthwhile and enriching activities.

P.S. Especially those of you with younger children--read my responses to one of the questions and comments below for more creative ideas and suggestions for some helpful media when distraction is a must.

Could somebody please stick in a movie for these boys???