As Half Term approaches, many of us will no doubt be feeling the pressure to devise activities which will keep our families amused, working out how to keep the troops happy and avoid that dreaded refrain of “I’m bored”.
But the strain could be lifted, as Child Psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer reveals that boredom can actually be of benefit to a child’s imagination.
Why are we scared of the word ‘bored’?
The cultural expectation that children should be constantly active and busy means that modern parents can feel a real pressure to keep children amused at all times.
As a result, we occupy their weekends, after-school afternoons and school holidays with endless activities and outings. It’s almost as if some of us have become scared of letting them have any ‘nothing to do’ time at all.
For parents, being told that their kids are in fact ‘bored’ can conjure up all sorts of feelings of discontent, and, as a result we worry that we are not doing a good enough job of stimulating little ones.
Now boredom may be an intrinsic part of life for practically everyone, but it needn’t be destructive for children. In fact, boredom can be a force for good, fostering an active imagination and the ability to fall back on one’s own resources. Both of which are life skills best developed when young as we call upon time and time again on the journey to adulthood.
The benefits of being bored
We often respond to kids’ boredom by providing games, entertainment or structured activities but this can actually be counter productive as children need to encounter and engage with the raw stuff that life is made of – unstructured time.
Thinking back to our own school holidays, that slightly aimless feeling of having a whole day to fill was less met with a feeling of dread, more possibility as we made the most of what we had available by using our own imaginations, from creating obstacle courses or simply daydreaming, lost in thought, planning futures and re-running the day’s events.
Imaginative play and unstructured time are essential elements of childhood that should be encouraged. A cardboard box can become a spaceship; a collection of stuffed animals can play out a story. In the world of make-believe, a child is allowed to try on different roles and learn to solve problems on their own – making them more resilient and able to think flexibly.
Why is unstructured time important?
Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds themselves, drawing on their innate ability to be inventive and harness the power of their own imagination, which is the beginning of creativity. This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create.
Unstructured time also challenges children to explore their own passions and equip them with skills that they can use in every day situations. If we keep them busy with constant stimulus and entertainment, there is a risk that they may never learn to respond to their own interests, for example, imagining what it might be like to go into space or dive deep under the sea.
Why is boredom beneficial to the imagination?
Boredom is one way of challenging a child’s imagination. Children who are sometimes allowed to get bored are forced to use their innate imagination in order to find their own entertainment.
This develops logical thinking, allowing children to analyse, evaluate and create for themselves. This can be achieved by providing children with opportunities to use and develop their imagination in play. Children who use their imagination effectively will be able to role play better and at a young age, will use their imagination as a way to escape from, as well as making sense of their reality.
Tips for parents – when the boredom strikes
It’s important for parents and guardians to be empathetic towards children and offer a safe environment where they feel that they can freely express themselves. The role of a parent or guardian is to be able to judge a situation and know when
To intervene and when to take a step back and just encourage and inspire.
We can also support a child’s imagination by being a facilitator, letting them learn through self-discovery rather than interfering and telling them what to do. The most important thing we can do is to be committed and available by appearing engaged and interested.
Parents can harness any boredom the child feels in a positive way and enhance their imaginative development by not always giving them answers to everything they ask, instead, encouraging them to try and think about their own answers. This is especially beneficial when discussing hypothetical situations where there is no absolute answer.
It’s also good for children to hear their parents say they don’t know the answers to something – they can then encourage their children to imagine an answer – even something simple as ‘I wonder what Granny will have cooked us for tea when we get there’ can prompt an imaginative discussion that can be as plausible or as implausible as you like. It all still helps develop a child’s imagination skills.
Using imaginative language can also help. Phrases such as “I wonder what….” or “Imagine if…” can help children think more imaginatively and incorporate hypothetical or fantasy ideas into their every day lives.
Dr Amanda Gummer (Independent expert) is working with Maynards Discovery Patch on promoting the importance of an active imagination. Click here for tips and ideas on how you can inspire your families imagination.