The Importance of Boredom
Back in the very early days of my marriage, when I was a new stepparent to two young daughters, but not yet a mother, my sister came to visit for a week at the beach. She brought along my nieces, ages 3-1/2 and 11 months.
With the older girls, I played Scrabble and Careers, Parcheesi and Rummy 500. I loved games, and so did they. But what in the world would two very little girls do all day long? Before their arrival, I carefully worked on a schedule of activities:
7:00 – 7:30 Pancakes
7:30 – 8:00 Sand castles
8:00 – 8:30 Take a walk
8:30 – 9:00 Do puzzles
At the 9:00 AM mark, I panicked. I showed my sister the schedule when she arrived, and she laughed her head off and explained, “Little kids PLAY most of the day. And they do it more or less on their own. You give them simple stuff to play with, and they’ll direct the action.” At the time, I had very little experience — obviously! — with toddlers and babies.
I learned that it’s much less about equipment than about showing kids something new and interesting, and letting them explore to their heart’s content. Kids need to get dirty, smelly, and wet. And they usually enjoy it!
When my own kids were 5 and 1, I found that the best way to encourage creativity was to provide a simple environment, and do very little to engage them. Instead, I let them get bored and figure it out for themselves.
I put a bucket of warm water on our porch, sat Alex, my 1-year-old, down in front of it dressed only in a diaper, and gave him a small pile of objects. These were usually rather random: several corks, a few plastic measuring cups, and an old My Little Pony, perhaps. Then, I sat down on a nearby chair, slightly away from him. At first, the baby looked distressed, and called “Mama?” several times. Then, he looked at the bucket of water, and the objects on the floor.
“Play with water,” I suggested in a neutral voice.
He tentatively slapped the surface of the water, making a big splash. Then, he began putting the toys into the bucket and sloshing them around. Soon, he was scooping water into the small plastic cups, and pouring it over the toys, the floor and his own head. (I did have to get up a few times to refill the bucket of water, but he was completely absorbed for 30-40 minutes.)
Recently, my 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter Clio was given the same set-up at our cottage. She was less than enthusiastic about getting wet, and looked skeptically at the bucket of water, the cups, and the toys. Finally, I picked up a cup, filled it with water, held it high, and poured it slowly into the bucket. Then I handed her the cup, and stepped away. Within moments, she was splashing away on her own, tossing toys into the water, and dumping and pouring while chatting to herself in a constant (incomprehensible) monologue.
Our kids spent summers at our cottage with no TV, no iPads and no iPhones. We happily engendered just enough boredom to help them be creative.
Alex and his best buddy turned a commercial board game featuring Ewoks from Star Wars into daily adventures, changing the rules as they went along, adding maps, crayons, and complex strategies. Kate and her bestie Maggie played hide and seek, were treasure hunters (certain shells were highly prized), and held dance parties on the grass.
We wrote out lists of items for scavenger hunts. We had a costume chest for dragons and knights, pirates and princesses. There was a sea-quarium on the porch that the kids were invited to fill with sea creatures, seaweed, rocks, snails and shells. (At the end of the day, we emptied them back into the sea.)
When the kids said: “But what should we do?” — we let them figure it out.
Ruth Lambert is a family and parenting expert, and the author of the newly published book 101 Survival Tactics For New And Used Parents by New Collegiate Publishing. She and her husband have four children in their blended family, and six grandchildren. Ruth has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Vermont, and teaches a variety of adult education courses at the New Haven Library and Branford High School. She writes articles on child-rearing, and short stories featuring family relationships.