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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Embrace the boredom: How kids can benefit from unstructured time in the summer

Here’s to the first days of summer for many Spokane-area kids. Have you already heard, “I’m bored”? That’s actually a good thing.

More parents and educators are heralding the benefits of summer boredom, at least partly, to build kids’ creativity, curiosity and other skills. They aren’t opposed to some camps and activities, but it’s a revolt of sorts against fully packed days to give kids some downtime.

The strategy helps children learn to feel comfortable with slow stretches solely their own to be idle, look internally to decide what they enjoy and stretch critical-thinking muscles.

“Kids need some structure, but not too much, where every single minute of their time is filled or prescribed, where it’s always an adult-led experience,” said Karin Thompson, Spokane Public Schools elementary curriculum coordinator.

“The reason for that is they need time to imagine and figure out what’s internally motivating them, what do they have interests in and want to spend time doing? It opens the door for creativity but also to discover themselves. That sets the stage for being self-sufficient as an adult.”

A flip side is kids learn they don’t need to look to outside influences – whether adults or the TV – to offset boredom. They learn it can be turned into choice to explore, play, create or enjoy the outdoors.

Parents should set safe boundaries and even be present in those slow moments with their kids. What’s key: Adults back off enough so children decide what fills some lazy hours of summer, Thompson said.

It also fills in a critical piece of a child’s development, she added.

“We think of an internal stimulus or we talk about intrinsic motivation,” Thompson said. “What is it that I myself want to learn more about, experience or do, just for the sake of experiencing and doing it, just for the joy?”

Amy Carney touches on this boredom topic in her book, “Parent on Purpose.” She’s also a leadership parenting coach in Arizona who argues many parents today feel guilty if their kids say they’re bored. It wasn’t like that during her childhood.

“Boredom was what it was,” she said. “We didn’t have planned activities, organized camps and things to go to every day. We’ve seen a shift in children today in that they need to be entertained at all times.

“We’ve got to make that shift back to where we think, no, they don’t need constant entertainment. They need to learn how to entertain themselves because that’s how they learn critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, emotional intelligence; they can use their imagination and curiosity.”

Carney agreed that the approach can be challenging when both parents work, or even in her own busy schedule. She is mother of five, including 17-year-old triplets, a 16-year-old and a 12-year-old.

“But I think it’s just being mindful. An important part of childhood is for our kids to be bored. It’s not a bad thing. There has to be times even on the weekend or in the evening where there is just nothing planned, when they can have downtime to figure out what in the world they want to do.”

That happens each summer for the family of Joel Young, a SPS Odyssey program sixth-grade science teacher. He and his wife are proponents of giving their two children some unscheduled freedom.

But before school ended, parents asked him often about camps he’d picked out for his kids’ summer.

“I’d say, I haven’t, except one camp for my daughter at Camp Reed,” Young said.

“I feel it’s really important for kids to have that free time in the backyard in summer to have to make up their own activity, be part of what’s happening outside at the moment and have things slow down, so they’re observing what’s going on around them.”

Often, he’s been amazed at the games or play-acting they’ve dreamed up, or they’ll bring him the latest insect discovery. Organized activities can be a bit formulaic, he said.

“I feel a lot of kids are given so much that’s totally prescriptive where they go into an activity, they go to a camp, or their parents are doing art and crafts with them.

“You do Step 1, and Step 2, and so on. While that can be good, it also doesn’t lead to kids trying to figure out on their own how to solve problems or create a game.”

Family tips

Thompson suggested that parents ask kids to make a list of what they want to do this summer.

Kids should do summer reading and writing, but let it be their choices, she said. Her own children each summer are expected to do some reading and a bit of exercising that they select.

“Then I have them do something they want to learn about, again their choice,” she said. “We do what we call a one-pager, but it’s really their notes from what they’ve researched. At dinner, they tell us about what they’ve learned.

“Sometimes, it’s what are the best roller coasters in the world or national parks, but the question they’re trying to answer comes from them.”

Her kids, ages 6, 12, 14 and 16, often get the reading, exercising and any writing done early, opening up plenty of downtime.

“They can do what they want to do. It’s building forts, going outside and just exploring. They’ve captured butterflies. They’ve planted their own area of the garden or they’re playing with friends. That’s another huge piece of summer.”

Even if that all falls short, “Don’t be quick to solve it. Encourage them to find stuff on their own, then talk about it later.”

Boredom isn’t bad

Thompson has noticed a major shift in U.S. society.

“We don’t feel as safe as we used to with kids just going anywhere, so what we find is kids are in more structured activities,” she said. “That’s first and foremost, that kids are safe, but they also can greatly benefit from downtime that they then fill.

“What we don’t want is for boredom to be an alarm for parents. It’s good to wait, watch and see what they come up with.”

Among parental tools, Carney has a line for boredom complaints.

“I like to say, ‘Well, only boring people get bored, and there is so much to do in this world,’ ” she said. “They’d usually say, ‘Well, I’m not boring.’ ”

With that, she’d tell them to figure it out. She also created a boredom basket filled with items of a child’s interests, books, puzzles and individual games.

“Then if that basket doesn’t work, I go to my boredom bucket, which is the cleaning supplies. That usually works. The run when they see the toilet brush.”

As a teacher, Young said he views boredom as important because the brain is a pattern-seeking machine. Allowing the brain to experience boredom gives children access to higher-level thinking skills to make deep connections between what they know and what they’re learning.

“Critical thinking requires space and time and tolerance for ambiguity, too,” he said. “Kids who experience boredom can develop skills that will allow them to move beyond memorizing facts to being able to draw deep connections in school.”

Boredom has an upside for adults and kids alike, Carney added.

“We should have enough downtime in our lives to get bored. We don’t want our kids on screens all the time, but we’ve got to give them options or teach them what type of things they can do in downtime, because kids today aren’t used to it.”