What to do When Your Kid is Bored
It’s the two words every parent cringes at, “I’m bored.” Even adults dislike being bored. Everyone is constantly looking for new ways to avoid being bored.
If you google “bored” you get a list of boredom busters. People left right and center trying to answer your question “What to do when your kid is bored?” But is being bored really that bad?
What happens when your child is bored?
They reach out for you to engage with them. They are hoping you will do the thinking for them. But if you leave them to figure it out you are actually helping them to discover their passion and their own interests.
If adults are always there telling them what to do they will never figure out what they really love. They will only discover what you think they should love, i.e. what activities you tell them to do.
They will get creative, problem solve, and they will find something to become engaged in. When given the opportunities to come up with their own games they get a sense of confidence.
When my son (3 yrs), has given up standing at my legs telling me how he doesn’t want to play by himself and that he has nothing to play with (haha nice try), then he will go and start playing.
Currently his favourite activity involves the cushions on the couch in some way. He creates forts or a jumping course. He shouts to me “Mommy come see what I made!” You can hear the sense of pride in his voice as he shows off the game he has come up with.
He gives me the full explanation of what every part is for and invites me to join. I join in and play for 5 minutes and then explain that I need to work, or clean, and he goes right back to playing by himself.
Engage in short bursts
It can be helpful to play with them (especially younger kids) for short bursts to keep them engaged for a longer period of time. They want the company but don’t always need someone actively playing with them.
It is a good time to join in when you notice they are starting to disengage. Offer some ideas to expand on their play. If they are playing play dough, offer some extra things that can be added. If they are playing blocks suggest some cars or animals. This will help to keep their ideas flowing and keep them engaged for a longer period of time.
I find when children are left to come up with their own activity they actually stay engaged for a longer period of time than if I had told them to do an activity I had come up with.
Some children end up figuring out new hobbies when left to be bored. You may notice that they gravitate towards the same kind of activities each time they get bored. If notice a pattern, you can set up some “play invitations” that are related to what their interest is.
Is it good for a child to be bored?
Yes, it is incredibly beneficial for your child to have a chance to occasionally be bored.
Kids these days are constantly entertained with TV/ screens and after school activities (sports, swimming, dance etc.). During their little bit of free play they seek attention from a parent/ caregiver.
At no point are they left to entertain themselves. During all of those situations there is someone (or thing) telling them what to do or keeping them engaged (distracted).
What happens when we (adults) get bored?
Adults that were not often left to be bored as children can sometimes have a hard time dealing with boredom as adults. They turn to screens, food, smoking, or drinking to fill that void and give them some distraction from the boredom.
I know some people who still, even as adults, do not like to be by themselves. They don’t know what to do with themselves when they get bored. So they turn to other people to keep them entertained.
But adults that learned to entertain themselves when they are bored tend to have more hobbies and find healthier alternatives to fight the boredom.
What to do when your kid is bored
Offer them chores to do. This is the first thing I do when my son comes to me and tells me he tells me he has no one to play with. He has not yet figured out the phrase “I’m bored”… it will come in the upcoming years.
I offer him to help me wipe stuff down, or to help with laundry. Some days he will help for a couple minutes before going off to do his own thing. Other days he complains for a couple extra minutes before walking away to find something to do. And some days there are some tears and he needs a little help to become engaged.
If your child is old enough, you can create a list of activities, together, that the child can do when they are bored. When they come to you bored, you can refer them to the list. If they are younger you can give them some ideas of what they can do. Some of the ideas I give my son are:
- Play with playdough
- Look at a book
- Colour/ paint a picture
- Build with Lego or Magnatiles
- Build a fort
- Make a restaurant – play with his play kitchen
When he says no to all of those I reply with “Well I’m sorry you don’t like my ideas you will need to figure out one for yourself” and then I continue with my cleaning or working. It only takes a moment or two before he gets up off the floor and finds something to do.
Try to offer them things that are open ended. Try not to be too specific when giving ideas. You want them to use their brain and think of something.
Benefits of being bored
Although boredom is often viewed as an unpleasant state to be in, children (and adults) can benefit from occasionally being bored.
Being bored is your brain telling you that it doesn’t want to be doing what you are doing. So when kids are left to be bored they are left to be creative and use their imagination to come up with something to do, that they want to do.
It allows them to day dream. Kids are so busy these days that they don’t often get the chance to let their minds wander and go off into dream land. This is actually quite beneficial for mental health (children and adults).
It’s been said that children who are left to be bored tend to show better resilience when things get a little more difficult. This is due to their need to get creative and problem solve.
When children are left to be bored with other children it can help build relationships and develop their social skills. They learn to communicate, verbally and non-verbally. They learn to collaborate and work together. If one child is not happy or doesn’t like the game, the fun ends.
Being bored also builds confidence. When children are bored and they successfully find something to do, they have solved their problem. When playing by themselves children tend to test their own limits and experiment as there is no fear of failure.
According to Psychology Today, some students “can feel bored when they lack the cognitive resources to focus. The ability to focus and self-regulate is correlated with the ability to handle boredom. Learning to endure boredom at a young age is great preparation for developing self-control skills (regulating one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions).”
When to pay attention to the boredom
If your child is constantly coming to you saying they are bored have a look at their toys/ materials. Are they age-appropriate? Does the child need more of a challenge? Are the toys open-ended? Need some new ideas? Check out Toys for Kids – Batteries not Required
Is their room/ play area clean? Sometimes when their space is a mess it can be hard to become engaged as other stuff gets in the way. Having their toys organized (or slightly organized) can help as they know where everything is and will have all the pieces.
For young ones it can be very helpful to lead them into engaging themselves. Setting up play invitations and walking away can encourage them to engage.
What is a play invitation?
A play invitation is simply the environment is set up in a way that “invites” the children to come and engage in a non-directive way. There are no instructions given to the child while they explore, investigate, and interact with the play invitation.
There is no right or wrong way to play with the invitation. The main tip for setting up these invitations is to make it look as inviting as possible. Your goal is to draw them in without having to say anything. Be sure to keep it to their developmental level.
Some ideas for play invitations:
- Set up some blocks/ magnatiles/ lego and animals/ dinosaurs
- Bring in some outdoor materials like leaves, pinecones, sticks, rocks and place them on a table. You could also add some paper and crayons, paint, or glue.
- Bring out a sensory bin with some beans/ rice/ oats and some scoops – add animals or small objects to find amongst the rice
- In the winter, collect some snow into a tote and add some small containers with food colouring and some eye droppers. Or fill some spray bottles with food colouring and add those in.
- Tape a washable toy to the table and put out some paint with it. When they are no longer painting, or engaging, put out a tote with some soapy water. Add the toy and a scrub brush or cloth
- Take some recyclables out of the bin and place on a table, or the floor. Set them up with some stacked on top of each other or nestled inside of larger ones.
When they are done with the play invitation and are back at you to keep them busy ask them some questions like “I wonder what else you could add to your blocks? I wonder if you could make a tunnel for something to go through?” or “I wonder if you could build a ramp and roll something down it?” I don’t give them all the details but I give enough to make them come up with some new ideas, mostly on their own.
Stick with it
Be consistent. It will become easier when they are left to entertain themselves on a regular basis. And the earlier this is worked on the easier it is when they get older. If you have always played with your children while they were toddlers, or even preschoolers, and then suddenly you stop playing with them it will be a huge adjustment and you will most likely hear a lot of whining. Try using some play invitations to get them engaged.
Start in shorter bursts
So what do you do when your kid is bored and they’re used to always being entertained?
If you have never let your children be bored, or left to entertain themselves, then you can start by getting an activity set up. Play with them for a couple minutes and get them engaged. Then remove yourself from the activity.
When my son plays restaurant he wants someone to come eat the food he cooks. So I come to his table and request some food. I tell him I need to go finish cleaning the kitchen (or other task) and to call me when the food is ready. He hollers when its ready and I come have my pretend meal, thank him for it, and then tell him I have to go finish my task. And he continues playing by himself. Sometimes I request some desert to give him a little bit of direction if I can see he is struggling.
Engaging for those couple minutes here and there keeps him engaged for longer periods of time. Sometimes I will suggest that he brings out his playdough to cook me a meal. This is a guaranteed engagement as he will use a butter knife and cut up all the “food” and place onto dishes, it is very time consuming and he has to focus on what he is doing. There is no external entertainment needed until the “food” is ready.
No magical answer, Just stay consistent
Every parent wishes there was a magical answer to “What to do when your kid is bored” but there isn’t. It takes some work from you to teach/ guide them through the boredom. You need to stay consistent through their whining and complaining. It will be 100% worth it when they get past the whining stage and realize they really do need to go entertain themselves. They will realize sitting there complaining to you is not going to work and does not cure the boredom. The more often you leave them to their own imagination the quicker they will be able to jump into an activity.