Listen: Collett Smart chats to Katrina Roe about the benefits of boredom for children.
Next time your kids tell you they’re bored, you can confidently tell them that it’s good for them.
Research shows that boredom, or ‘unfocus’, as experts prefer to call it, stimulates creativity, allows the brain to recover from periods of focus, and ultimately makes kids more resilient.
Family psychologist Collett Smart says boredom is in fact an essential part of a child’s experience.
Why is Boredom Good for Children?
“Boredom activates old memories,” Collett says. “You go back and forth between past and present and future, and you begin to become your most creative in your boredom time.
“As parents we often hear about focus and mindfulness, how it’s so important. But the problem is that excessive focus, for us and our kids, actually exhausts the focus-circuits in the brain. It drains your energy if you’re always focussing. It makes you more impulsive and less helpful, which is the opposite of what mindfulness is all about.”
She encourages parents not to fall into the trap of keeping their children constantly entertained.
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“In our society we can glorify busy-ness,” she said. “I think we fear boredom like it’s something bad, like it’s not being successful—we’ve got to ‘do it all’.
“But research is indicating that focus and ‘unfocus’, which is boredom, is really good for you. We need our brains to toggle between the two. To actually be the most creative and the most resilient, we need to have these ‘recovery periods’, in other words, boredom. It’s about restoring yourself. We don’t need to constantly provide input. It’s not bad for our kids if we don’t actually have the answers or schedule all their time.”
Scientific research has proven the benefits of having boring, mundane periods in our day. In one study at the University of Central Lancashire, researchers found that people were more creative after spending time on a very boring and passive task, such as reading the phone book. The more boring the task, the more creative they were afterwards. It’s believed that the more bored a person is, the more they daydream, giving their minds more time to rest and topping up their ‘creativity tank’.
Screens Not the Best Solution for Boredom
Be courageous enough to tell your children ‘No’ when they want to turn on the TV, smartphone or ipad to cure their boredom—because screens stifle creativity, says Collett.
In fact when Collett’s own children complain of being bored, she tells them, ‘You’re responsible for your own fun’, and ‘It’s good for you’. Her teens may roll their eyes in response, but she’s not deterred.
“We know that when children have nothing to do, immediately they want to switch on the screen” she told Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe. “But it actually overstimulates your brain too much. We need to not use it as our default. We should balance that.
“And not just the screen; I think overscheduling and always having activities out for our kids, coming up with ideas for them all the time, can stifle their creativity too.”
Healthy Responses to Boredom
There are a number of positive ways to respond to boredom. Collett Smart suggests the following activities.
1 – Daydream
Psychologists have a technical term for ‘doing nothing’; they call it ‘positive constructive daydreaming’. That’s when you find yourself staring blankly at a wall, lost in your thoughts. Collett says this kind of ‘standing and staring’ is good for us, children included.
“If your children are just looking like they’re aimlessly wandering around the garden or staring into space, their brains are actually working hard at that time, and it’s actually really good for their brain,” she said. “Let them have times when they don’t do a whole lot.”
2 – Do an Easy Task, or Play
If you’re stuck for something absorbing to do, settle into a task that doesn’t take much effort or brainpower.
“For adults, knitting or gardening, unpacking the dishwasher, doing just basic things, are good solutions,” says Collett. “For our kids, send them off to just figure out something in their room. A good thing for kids to do is pretend play. They have to get into their room, pretend, dress up. All of those are actually downtime, unfocussed times when their brains come up with new ideas.”
3 – Rest
When you’re bored, a simple, quick powernap might be the best solution.
“Our children need nap times and so do adults; that stimulates creativity,” says Collett.
When you think about it, our brains get a reset when we put our head on the pillow every night.
That period before you fall asleep, when the lights are out and the screens are off and you’re just thinking, is the kind of time when your brain is ‘unfocussed’, and some of our most creative ideas happen.