PARK CITY — The Greenwell kids have lots of toys and books and plenty of friends, too. So when one of them complains about boredom, their mom, Andrea Greenwell, isn't really knocked over with sympathy. And unlike a lot of parents, she's not prone to rushing to "fix" the situation, either.
"I am not one that constantly gives them things or lines up activities. I don't produce wonderful craft projects they can work on. When it's good weather, I say 'Go outside and play.' In winter, I tell them to put on their snow clothes and go sledding or do something," says Greenwell, a stay-at-home mom to four kids, toddler to teen. "We spend a lot of time in the car together getting them places and talking. I figure they can kind of learn to entertain themselves a bit when they get home."
Boredom is a vexing topic for parents, who may rush to fill the void or pack their children's schedules to head it off entirely. But research suggests that boredom is actually a good thing, as long as it encourages kids to come up with solutions. It can spark creativity and is a powerful tool for teaching kids to solve problems and to be comfortable with their own company — skills that will follow them into adulthood.
"Boredom is certainly not anything to be afraid of or try to solve," says Russ Isabella, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Utah. Having every minute scheduled to ward off boredom "does not necessarily equate to time well-spent or productive time or enriching time or any of the other positives we might want to associate with how we spend our time."
One cannot over-emphasize the importance of play in a child's life, says Isabella, whose expertise includes child development. Free time often motivates kids to be playful, creative and curious, all traits that benefit people across their lifespan, he adds. And down time can also provide a chance to regroup. It works for adults, too.
Greenwell sees those benefits regularly for her kids. "When they are left to entertain themselves, they tend to be more creative. They become innovative," she says of Dallin, 14, Lauren, 12, Jonah, 8, and Piper, 5.
Cost, benefit analysis
It has been a decade since two American Academy of Pediatrics' committees teamed up to issue a clinical report, published in the journal Pediatrics, on the importance of play in both healthy child development and in bonding family members. Besides documenting the value of "free," unstructured time, it examined factors that have killed play, to the detriment of children and families.
Those killers include "a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play."
Kindergarten has largely given way to structured activities designed to hone skills related to first grade and beyond. Nationwide, some schools have reduced or even eliminated recess — which typically offered a break in the routine when children could decide how to fill their time.
Less free time and fewer physical outlets or creative arts programs at school may exact a cost, the pediatricians warned in their report: "This change may have implication on children's ability to store new information because children's cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity."
They note while organized activities are good for kids, they also need unstructured time.
Experts say the fact that screens have arisen as a time filler that isn't always beneficial adds to the dilemma. It has become incredibly easy to fill spare moments with TV shows, game apps, social media and similar activities that may be the cyber equivalent of empty calories when it comes to nourishing young bodies and minds — and older ones, too. Educators, pediatricians and others warn that passive entertainment can be detrimental to childhood well-being, with effects extending into adulthood.
Isabella and other experts say challenges have only grown as parents increasingly sacrifice unstructured time for activities that they believe emphasize achievement.
"There's a lot more importance placed on kids doing stuff that's going to get them ahead related to education, performance and the likelihood of getting into a good college and making a lot of money," he says.
Benefits may not compensate for the risks. Exhaustive research shows that "virtually every aspect of development occurs through and is enriched by play," Isabella says. What's developed includes not just creativity and imagination, but necessary life skills like learning to negotiate, compromise and communicate, figuring out what behavior is acceptable, practicing teamwork and problem-solving.
"Those are really important skills and children who don't have those skills tend not to fare very well with peers. If you don't fare well with peers, it's a predictor of a lot of problems not just in childhood, but throughout life," he says.
Isabella includes adults, not just kids, when he talks about the value of unstructured time. Adults think they outgrow the need to play, which includes pursuing hobbies and passions to create pleasurable down time.
"They may convince themselves it's a frivolous waste of time that takes away from more important things they could be doing, but nothing could be further from the truth because it's a way to enrich your life," he adds.
Personal well-being throughout adulthood is enhanced by activities people love — many of those interests are discovered because someone had a gap in the schedule that allowed trying something new.
Warns Isabella, "Parents who have convinced themselves that for themselves play is a waste of time are probably more likely to take on that attitude for their children. It's a dangerous notion."
Health and wellness author Len Saunders tries to make sports and fitness fun for the pre-K to fifth-grade students with whom he works in Montville, New Jersey, but he encourages them to find their own activities, too. Previous generations of kids were often sent outside to play on their own "with little or no equipment or space" and managed to have a good time. He's kept those principles in mind as an adult. "When I get bored, I try to make myself a better person," says Saunders, whose books include "I Can Do That."
Not jumping in when a child is bored may be a bit of an endurance test for some parents, says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Flower Mound, Texas, who suggests parents not rescue bored kids.
"If you can let them sit with it long enough … this is often where the creative magic occurs in childhood. No electronics, no suggestions from parents, just kids left to their own imaginations. How often does that really happen in life these days?" she asks.
Still, she adds a caveat: "Just be sure you are still monitoring what your sweet kids are up to."
"In general, it's a good idea for kids to be bored on occasion," says Ais Her, director of schools at Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, California. She cites research about "the ability to self-soothe and entertain yourself that ties into experiencing delayed gratification — which leads to better outcomes for kids. If they are always entertained, they never learn how to keep themselves busy or always feel the need to plug in."
Her list of benefits includes self-expression, learning to self-motivate and independence. "To raise a child who seeks their own new experiences, the child needs to practice having autonomy, challenging their comfort zones and exercising a sense of control and responsibility." It should be encouraged, she adds, based on the child's interests and personality.
That's a point the school's executive director, Shandy Cole, emphasizes, since children who need lots of stimulation may find lack of activity overwhelming. Even so, Cole views boredom "in terms of a learned skill." Children who can't fill their own time and soothe themselves won't be adults who can manage it, either. Plus, it can lead to risky behaviors in the teen years, she adds.
When one of Kelly Cook's kids complains of boredom, the Park City mom chuckles. "I have learned to celebrate when I hear the word 'boredom.' It means unstructured time and an opportunity for them to find something they connect with personally rather than having it fed to them."
Hazel, 11, likes making slime — glitter slime, galaxy slime, foam slime. She names it by color, like the pink cotton candy slime in the plastic bag tucked neatly among the other types in her drawer.
Caroline, 15, spends a fair amount of time on social media, but she and her sister Ruthie, 18, are also both passionate about music. Ruthie collects records. The two like to go thrift shopping together, too.
The fourth Cook child, Nick, 20, is studying abroad. But his entire life, he's solved boredom by heading outside to explore, his mom says.
It is their unstructured, self-selected activities that provide their sense of self, says Cook. They learn to like their own company and it helps them figure out their passions, their talents, their interests and more.
Lauren Greenwell doesn't leave herself much time to be bored and her parents have had to rein her in a little because she has so many interests. She's a competitive swimmer and soccer player, and she debates and plays piano. Recently, she's been laid up with an injury, but it hasn't slowed her much. She is, says her mom, a master at finding something to do if she's bored — and she's more than willing to help her little brother and sister invent things to do.
"Some of my kids' best play times come from being told to go in their room and figure out what to do," says Amanda Ponzar, chief marketing officer for Community Health Charities in Alexandria, Virginia.
Her kids have access to everything from blankets that can be turned into forts to puzzles and clay, building blocks and art supplies. They have outdoor toys and cardboard boxes. But sometimes, they still "throw a fit and either whine for a playmate or ask an adult to entertain them. Or, if allowed, they will almost always default to electronic devices: video games, TV, tablet, computer, etc. — turning into little zombies."
She has them list as many ideas as they can conjure on what they could do to have fun. They return repeatedly to those lists.
Teaching kids to occupy themselves starts young, says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." She suggests parents set a 13-15 month old child on the floor surrounded by toys and play for a few minutes, then say something like, "Mommy is getting a glass of water and will be back in two minutes to watch you play." Come back in two minutes, as promised. A parent can gradually extend the time as the child grows, so autonomous playtime grows, too.Comment on this story
When a grade-schooler complains of boredom, she tells parents to empathize sincerely, but point out it's good practice to find ways to occupy oneself. "Parents need to understand that each experience of boredom is giving your child a chance to grow emotionally," she says.
"We need to reframe the concept for them so that when our kids say they are bored, we can show them that this opens up possibilities to make changes to this state all within their control," says psychotherapist Kelly Bos, who lives in the Caribbean and writes on this and other topics.
It works for adults, too.