My best friend and I joke that when we were kids we never knew what our homes looked like in daylight. As soon as we got home from school; as soon as we changed our clothes (yes, I know that’s a quaint idea these days); as soon as we had maybe a glass of milk, it was expected we would be out until dinnertime. The only permissible reasons to go inside were to go to the bathroom, to get a toy, or to get a sweater. Anything that lasted more than 3 minutes was suspect and quickly earned “the look”that look from a parent that means “What are you doing inside and do I really have to speak to you?”
Weather didn’t matter. Short of a hurricane or a nor’easter, it was “Out you go!” from the adults. No matter the season, we roamed the neighborhood and the adjoining woods with the other kids. In the winter, we made snow forts and snow angels. In the warm months, we made stick forts, played with a hose, and climbed trees. On rainy days, we splashed in puddles and made mud creations.
After school and summers, we hopped at least 6 variations of hopscotch, jumped rope and played tag and hide and seek. We rode our bikes and roller-skated. We pretended we were pioneers, astronauts, and princesses. We caught tadpoles and turtles and watched them for hours. We traded baseball cards, popbeads (does anyone else remember them?) and marbles. All this occurred without adult suggestion, guidance, or supervision.
What did we learn? We learned that if you want to have enough people for two teams, you don’t leave anyone out. We learned how to negotiate conflicts so we could keep everyone in the game. We learned how to create our own fun and to listen to the ideas of others. Sometimes we learned how to follow. Sometimes we learned how to lead. We learned how to turn what could have been an endless afternoon of boredom into active adventure or quiet imagining.
So much for nostalgia. Did my own kids raised in the 1980s and ’90s have the same run of the neighborhood? No. Do my neighbors with young families send their kids out into the world on their own now? Also no. The reasons are multiple and not without merit. Over the last 30 years the world has changed and parenting has changed with it. In times of Amber Alerts and the increase in single-parent and two -earner families, we find ourselves both more fearful and less available.
When the adults of the household are all working, no one is home to be backup if a kid gets sick or injured. Programs with structured activities and adult supervision have therefore taken the place of neighborhood free play in that time between the school dismissal bell and dinner. In a world that feels less safe, most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of kids being out of sight and out of touch for hours at a time. Those who can afford it enroll the kids in programs. Those who can’t sternly instruct kids to stay home with the doors locked.
Further, when our kids are home, chances are the neighbors’ kids aren’t. When we are home, many of us want to spend time with our children so we’re often involved in their play, whether at the playground, in the yard, or on a vacation. When we’re exhausted, we, and the kids, go to the TV, the video game, or online to relax or just to zone out for awhile.
An unintended result of the changes in family life and parenting style is kid dependence on adult involvement and outside structure and stimulation. No one intended to raise kids who can’t figure out what to do with a summer day. None of us meant to create a world where kids need to be supervised or isolated and kept busy to be kept safe. Few parents you ask will say (at least out loud), “I’m glad my kids are happy in front of a TV or computer when I’m too tired, too busy, or too stressed out to deal with them.”
Nonetheless, the unintended but very real consequence of so much parental involvement is a big part of a generation of kids who can’t function for very long without being told what to do, how to do it, and how to get along with the kids they have to do it with. When these kids have unscheduled and unstructured time, they quickly run out of ideas. “I’m bored” is a code phrase for “Tell me what to do.” And we adults oblige. Search “boredom and kids” on the Internet and you’ll come up with dozens of sites like these: “Boredom Busters for Kids.” 100 Craft Ideas for Bored Kids.” “Travel Games to Relieve Kid Boredom.” “Summer Boredom Relievers.” The message is clear: If the kids are bored, it’s our job as parents to fix it.
Bored Kids Are Creative Kids
Fortunately, researchers are taking a new look. It turns out that boredom is good for kids. When kids are allowed to have nothing to doincluding being cut off from the ubiquitous screensthey start to feel restless. When adults kindly refuse to fill the gap in the action, they get frustrated. When they can’t turn to the external world, they start to turn to the internal one. Restlessness + Frustration + Inner reflections are the ingredients of Creativity. The kids start to look around on their own for something to occupy their minds and their bodies. Since most kids are good kids, they usually don’t resort to mischief. Instead, they invent, they make art, they explore, they read, and they look for other kids to interact with in person instead of on a screen. This creative play is the much-needed rehearsal for kids to become innovative, creative, socially adept adults.