You might tire of your children moaning about being bored over the long summer holiday, but it can actually be good for them says ALIX NORMAN
Type ‘I’m’ into Google and the first search that pops up is ‘I’m bored’. There are approximately 144 million hits for the search term. With any number of websites dedicated purely to overcoming lethargy, boredom is clearly an issue, and never more so than in the long summer months when the kids are out of school and want to be entertained 24/7.
But before you reach for the credit cards and sink yourself further into debt with more computer games, trips to the waterpark and endless hours as a glorified taxi driver, stop and consider this: boredom can be a good thing. It’s true. New research is proving that children are not programmed to be constantly on the go. In fact, overstimulation can have some seriously negative health impacts: higher stress levels, lack of focus and creativity and even an addiction to technology. If this sounds anything like your kids, then consider this: indulging in the odd spot of boredom can actually make children more productive in the long term – not to mention more creative and generally happier overall.
Just think back to those endless summer days of your youth – with no internet, no mobiles and precious few videos to keep us busy, the world was alive with possibility. “Twenty or thirty years ago, we just didn’t have the resources that kids do now,” says Irene Papasavva, who struggles to keep her two under-fives occupied during the summer months. “But boredom made us creative,” she adds, recalling how a toilet roll once kept her and her younger brother busy for weeks with a convoluted zombie game!
Boredom is a wonderful catalyst for the imagination, says Dr Laura Markham, Clinical Psychologist and founding editor of AhaParenting.com. “Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity,” she says. “This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create. If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or they fill their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to study the bugs on the sidewalk (as Einstein did for hours), write a short story or song, or organise the neighbourhood kids into making a movie.”
Neuroscience research has proved that the daydreaming which happens during boredom involves the same processes that govern imagination and creativity. So instead of dismissing languor as a waste of time, think of it as a mental ‘restart’ that can refresh and rejuvenate young minds. Giving kids the chance to take a break from constant stimulation allows them to absorb new information, follow new thought processes and try new activities – all of which can boost creativity. Boredom can stimulate the imagination like nothing else!
Kids left to their own devices often default to videogames. But take away the computer and the Playstation, the smart phone and the mp3 player, and – if you can weather the initial outrage – you’re giving them a better chance at happiness. Constant mindless stimulation isn’t healthy: spending too much time using technology and social media has been linked to stress, depression, anxiety, poor academic performance and poor sleep in young adults, and they’d be far better off spending some ‘downtime’ with a bit of boredom.
“I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to ask parents to unplug their child!” says Emily Andreou, a teacher who often finds her students are losing focus and failing tests because they’re on the internet half the night. “I’d honestly far rather they spent their evenings doing nothing rather than staring mindlessly at a screen; I’m sure a spot of boredom would make them far happier in the long run – at least they’d be engaging their brains in wondering what to do next!”
When anxious parents overcompensate by providing their kids with a multitude of stimulating activities – usually related in some way to technology – they’re actually defeating the point, says Dr Markham. “Kids are always happiest in self-directed play. That’s because play is children’s work. It’s how they work out emotions and experiences they’ve had.
“Unfortunately, our society is raising a whole generation of children who are addicted to screens,” she continues. “That’s because electronics are designed to produce little “dopamine” rewards in our brains as we interact with them.” But if you can wrestle away your kids’ mobiles, leaving them without the technology they usually rely on, youngsters soon turn boredom into independent play. “Watch any group of children playing (outside, when screens are not an option),” continues Dr Markham, “and they will organise themselves into an activity of some sort, whether that’s making a dam at the creek, playing pretend or seeing who can jump farthest.”
If you take away their devices, kids will certainly complain of boredom, but this is often because they’re so used to screen entertainment that they aren’t practised at looking inside themselves for direction. And the tedium of a long afternoon without technology can soon have them turning to other, more fulfilling, pursuits. “Children need all kinds of other experiences, from building with blocks (motor skills, perceptual abilities) to engaging with other kids (learning how to get along and partner with others) to creative pursuits (becoming a doer, not a passive observer).
“Children also need to be physically active, or they can’t focus to learn.”
If you think about the times in your childhood when you were at your happiest, you’re unlikely to recall the moments you spent staring at the TV screen, or tapping away at your Nintendo GameBoy. As adults, the recollections that put a smile on our faces are usually those that involve the vast adventure games which ran for the whole summer, created entirely from our own imaginations and in our own backyards. As a result, no doubt, of being sent outside when we’d whined one too many times: “Mum. I’m bored!”