Can Boredom Be Good for Children?

When children lament that they’re bored, we, as parents, often jump in to try to solve the problem. Perhaps we rush too quickly: perhaps attempting to relieve our children’s boredom is not a good idea.

Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But children often declare themselves to be bored after only a few minutes. Ironically, today’s children have more toys to ward off boredom than ever before. And these toys, with all their bells and whistles, are more sophisticated that toys available to earlier generations. Is it possible that, contrary to what we usually suspect, children are bored because they are actually over-stimulated rather than under-stimulated?

Experienced teachers know that children who have too many choices in a learning project often spin their wheels, spending more time deciding what to do than actually carrying out the project. Having too many choices may give the child the nagging feeling that there might be a better choice. “If only I weren’t engaged in this current activity I could be doing something more interesting.” In other words, a child’s mind can shut down.

Videogames and television bring a myriad of choices. There are so many shows! When children turn on the television, they flip among hundreds of channels. Remote controls eliminate even the need to get up and walk to the television to change channels.

Children seem to find no rest for their minds anywhere, and we all complain about how children nowadays have shorter attention spans. Some educators believe that children who receive more stimulation and experience more choices grow into children who have less patience and poorer concentration. Jigsaw puzzles are out; PlayStation is in!

It is not that Wii is bad for children. Certainly, Wii engages children in activities on days when the weather is too bad for them to go outside. But in the wake of technology, traditional indoor activities—such as reading—seem all but forgotten. Interestingly, children who discover reading rarely seem bored.

Is being bored a crucial aspect of childhood? Does boredom encourage children to daydream and exercise their imaginations? British researcher Richard Ralley suggests that boredom is not only good for children but might also be the brain’s way of telling a child’s body that it is time to rest. Describing boredom as a purposeful “emotion,” Ralley believes that parents shouldn’t jump the gun to keep their children engaged.

Teresa Belton, another British researcher, became interested in daydreaming while reading stories written by children. She agrees with scientists who found that daydreaming boosts creativity and allows brains to create new associations and connections. Noting a correlation between tedious, unimaginative children’s stories and the schedules of the writers, she concluded that lack of imagination was partly caused by a lack of “empty time” during which no activities were scheduled. Jonathan Schooler, a University of California psychologist, also believes that daydreaming is valuable because it allows thoughts to flow freely.

But not everyone agrees. Amanda Marcotte believes that overstimulation does not exist and that those who talk of it are curmudgeons. She notes that constant stimulation helps to shape growing brains and that good videogames involve rapid-fire problem-solving situations. For her, children could do worse than spend their leisure time gaming. She also points out that videogames are used to retrain the brains of ADHD children and help them concentrate.

In his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson challenges the belief that videogames, television shows and popular entertainment slow children’s cognitive and moral development. Johnson argues that popular entertainment is intellectually complex and that today’s consumers of pop culture must do more “cognitive work” than ever. Such cognitive work includes decision-making, building long-term strategies (as in the case of role-playing videogames) and mastering virtual environments.

For Johnson, even such “low-nutrition” TV shows as Survivor and American Idol have more complex plot lines and need more information to understand than was the case with Love Boat or I Love Lucy. As a result, Johnson encourages parents not to worry about how much time their children spend playing videogames. Children are learning problem-solving skills and will probably do better on IQ tests than their parents did at the same age. Let children watch more television, too, because even reality shows are group-psychology experiments that stimulate rather than pacify a child’s brain. Still, Johnson believes in encouraging children to develop good reading habits.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, both points of view have merit. Although it may be true, as Johnson and others suggest, that videogames encourage children to grow cognitively, allowing children to overindulge in such games and presenting them with too many choices may cause them to become bored.

Can parents encourage their children to engage in highly-stimulating technological activities and, at the same time, provide time for them to rest and daydream? Thoughtful researchers and educators have never made the case that reading or rest is a waste of time for children.

For More Reading

Farndale, Nigel (2009). “Children Need to Be Bored, So I'm Smashing the Wii.” The Sunday Telegraph. London (UK): December 27.

Kids Internet Radio. Children and Boredom.

Jacobs, Joanne (2010). “Do Children Need to Be Bored?” January 7.