The fact that boredom is a modern-day luxury, (people used to spend all their time securing food and shelter) may not be much comfort when your children come up with the old complaint, “I’m bored.”
I can hear those from past generations muttering, “Go outside and play,” which is fine advice. Children used to roam their neighborhoods for hours on end, riding bikes, building forts, and rustling up a game of baseball. Independent play was the norm. That is no longer the case.
Today, for many good reasons, parents tend to structure and supervise their children’s play times. The unintended result of this shift in family life are kids who can’t function very long without someone telling them what to do, how to do it and how to get along with others as they play. 
According to Psychologist John Eastwood, PhD, of York University in Toronto, “A bored person doesn’t just have nothing to do. He or she wants to be stimulated, but is unable to connect with his or her environment—has ‘an unengaged mind’.” In other words, boredom is an unfulfilled desire for engagement in a satisfying activity.
So, what does it mean when children say they’re bored? It can mean different things to different individuals. It may mean…
The child needs direction or ideas. He or she is not able to come up with an activity without help.
It may mean, “I’m lonely. I want some attention from the adults in my life.”
It might be a case of overstimulation and a need for a break, a nap or some quiet time.
It may mean, “I don’t like what I’m doing right now.”
As a former teacher, I often heard parents say their child was more capable than he or she was performing in class because “he was bored.” I learned to take this complaint with a grain of salt. A child not performing in class might feel disengaged, but there are many reasons for that problem. It could be:
He or she needs redirection. Attention and focus are lifeskills that require some practice. Getting off-track is not the same as needing more difficult or challenging work.
He or she may, indeed, need a greater challenge.
The learner may need guidance in order to proceed with a task. The parent or teacher then takes the role of a coach.
The child may be in the habit of negative thinking when it’s time to work. Work ethic is another lifeskill that takes time to master.
Today’s children live in a world of near-constant stimuli. Television, videos, games, all entertain at the push of a button. There is very little opportunity for our kids to practice coming up with their own ideas for fun. They lack experience in using their imaginations, entering into creative play and being independent in their play. And this is a problem, because play is the work of childhood.
What to Do?
There is no doubt that screen time needs to be managed and limited. The addictive nature of online play is more than evident. And while computers and screens are here to stay, they can’t be allowed to overshadow all other forms of play and entertainment.
Children are happiest and most fulfilled when they engage in self-directed play, learning to explore both their inner and outer worlds. They need to imagine, invent and create.
Here are some ways you can encourage healthy, creative play:
Ask questions. Do you know what you’d like to do? Would you like to…?
Provide materials for creative play such as art supplies, dress-up clothes or simple do it yourself projects.
Teach an old-fashioned game such as jacks, hopscotch, tag, or capture the flag. Kids don’t know how to play these games anymore.
Be willing to help your children brainstorm fun things to do. Create an activity jar filled with slips of paper, one fun activity per slip. Then when a child needs a new idea, they may pick three slips of paper and must choose to do one of them. (Check out www.Aha!parenting.com’s 115 activities for the Boredom Buster Jar)
Encourage active play out of doors every day. Bodies are designed to move, not sit still for hours.
Direct your child to a quiet activity such as reading, drawing, or writing.
Talk with your children about the need to grow in the ability to play independently and develop important lifeskills such as creating and finishing a project on their own.
To ensure our children become well-rounded individuals, it’s important to help them experience life first hand. The earlier parents set limits on passive play and encourage active, unstructured playtimes, the sooner creative juices will flow. And we’ll have happier, healthier children.
Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher, reading specialist and is the author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun. Find these books at www.janpierce.net
I’m Bored! Research on Attention Sheds Light on the Unengaged Mind, Association for Psychological Science, September, 2012.
Never a Dull Moment, by Kirsten Weir, American Psychological Association, July/August 2013, Vol. 44, No. 7.
I’m Bored! What Your Child is Really Telling You, Parent Map, May 2010
Mom, I’m Bored—What He Really Means, Modern Families: Parenting, by Allison Bell.
Handling Boredom: Why It’s Good for Your Child, Aha!Parenting.com, Dr. Laura Markham.
Why Parents Should Resign as Boredom Busters by Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D, Psych Central.