Let them be bored

As we face yet another day in the same park, the same playground, the same muddy-shoe-routine, the same cold hands on frosty mornings, I couldn’t help but despair at the news that many schools – our local included – are staying closed for another two weeks. This is on top of the two weeks over the December break.

Another two weeks. Of this.

Six months ago, with three-year-old tantrums in full flare things were harder, but at the moment, we all seem to be hanging in there okay. Developmentally, pre-schoolers do not need elaborate stimulation or entertainment. Today I spent about an hour cooking a somewhat experimental vegetarian shepherd’s pie – while the kids (aged 3.5 and 19 months) banged pots and pans on the floor at my feet, pretend cooking potatoes. Sure, this activity only lasted about 30 minutes but it allowed us to get on with things for a bit.

Letting them be bored wasn’t intentional to begin with, but when S says: “I don’t know what to do,” she rarely agrees to what I suggest. She’s most entertained when she finds something to do herself. So, when our toddler emptied the pan drawer on the floor, she found some wooden sticks and that was enough to get them going. It’s comforting to know – as I covered on BBC Future – that the more children take part in pretend play, the better they are at engaging with their imagination overall. A rug becomes a boat, a stick becomes a wand, and so on.

Our parents telling us that boredom is good for us was based on actual research after all. Boredom is simply what happens in a child’s brain when they are searching for something to do but haven’t quite landed on it yet, which is obviously frustrating. Each time their little minds wander, it helps them think of something else to latch onto, just not always immediately.

We also have to remember that what we think of as stimulating is very different to what they think as fun. Our hearts broke a tiny bit when S got really excited at the prospect of going on a train (so rarely has she been anywhere recently), something extremely routine for us but a day out for her.

That said, it’s not easy to listen to anyone whining about being bored, but it’s certainly comforting to me that it’s not only OK to let this happen, but it may even help them figure out something else to do all by themselves – and make them more creative in the process.

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