In Praise of Boredom...
The Gift of Unfilled Time
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.
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.
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.
Stay tuned for part two of this article in our next newsletter: Katherine will be share an amazing resource for acquiring a chest of raw materials for creative play and the ending will make you laugh out loud.