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Boredom Can Be Great for Kids

Curiosity researcher Jamie Jirout shares her thoughts on why stretches of safe, unstructured time can benefit children.

Audrey Breen

“I’m bored!”

That is a phrase parents and caregivers work tirelessly to avoid hearing. But it might be the gateway to unleashing a child’s creativity, social development, and even life skills.

Jamie Jirout, associate professor in the UVA School of Education and Human Development, researches how curiosity impacts children’s learning. Her scholarship shows the benefits of creating space and time for children’s curiosity to thrive and how curiosity can lead to increased creativity. 

In a commentary, co-written with her colleagues, Natalie Evans and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jirout defines curiosity and creativity this way: “Curiosity occurs when a student experiences a gap in knowledge that motivates them to seek information to resolve their uncertainty. Creativity occurs when students generate novel and useful ideas or products.”

Stretches of relatively unstructured, screen-free time might sound a little scary—to both kids and adults. But Jirout suggests that those stretches can provide a great opportunity for kids to embrace their curiosity and creativity, as well as garner life skills. While the summer may bring weeks at home for some children, these opportunities may also come over the weekends or holidays. These breaks in routine can provide parents and caregivers the perfect chance to embrace this challenge.

Structuring Unstructured Time

Giving space for kids to be bored does not require no structure at all and it takes practice. Instead of asking kids to keep themselves busy for two hours or defaulting to screen time where kids are passively engaged, Jirout offers a couple of strategies for providing some structure to unstructured time as a place to start encouraging active, creative play.

If kids seem stuck about where to start, adults could and should suggest an activity or two, like building a fort, making an obstacle course, or creating a fairy garden. The idea, though, is to be as general as possible.

“You're not saying whether it's inside or outside, or what materials to use, or what it needs to look like, or anything,” Jirout said. “But you're giving a kid some ideas to start with.”

If they finish something and then return with, “Okay, now what?,” ask how they might think of different ways of doing what they just did. 

“Perhaps they used sidewalk chalk to make a track for their bike,” Jirout said. “If they can sit in that uncomfortable bored feeling, maybe they'll start to think, well, what kinds of things go around the track to make it more exciting, or to add some more dimensions of challenge or things like that.”

Another way to offer some structure to unstructured time is to have kids make up their own schedule for a few hours. They may write out tasks like eating breakfast, cleaning up the dishes, and then building a fort. Drafting their own schedule is an example of how stretches of boredom can offer kids a sense of control and autonomy they typically lack during a typical school or camp day.

“In general, kids don't get to do things of their choice very often,” Jirout said. “And they're going to be most motivated when they have the autonomy of choice. So, I think it is great to provide them the opportunity to figure out what they want to do.”

Skill Building

Even though these moments may not seem as enriching as more structured activities, according to Jirout, kids learn a lot about problem solving and thinking creatively from these types of experiences. 

“When kids have the agency to do what they want to do, they're going to be motivated to get into activities in a deep way,” Jirout said. “That motivation will then provide a lot of experience and opportunities for them to develop different skills that they might not get in school, or from more structured activities in general, because they don't have to create the entire structure themselves.”

If their ideas take them outside there are additional benefits, like physical movement or being around nature. 

“Building a fort outside means you might need to figure out how to get different sticks and how to build structures that stay up, learning all sorts of spatial and physical information from doing that,” Jirout said.

Being outside also might mean kids find and play alongside friends. And playing collaboratively, whether alongside siblings or neighborhood friends, builds social development skills.

“Everyone's likely to have different ideas about what they want to do,” she said. “They will likely be negotiating the decisions, what they’re going to do, how they're going to do it and how they're going to work together. They’ll also hear different ideas and learn from each other. These social skills are so important.”

For slightly older kids, unstructured time might include practical lessons in life skills. 

“The summer can be a great time to walk or bike to a nearby store, buy some ingredients and then return home to do some cooking,” Jirout said. “Or without even leaving the house, packing up a picnic for an outside lunch is a great skill for kids to learn.”

When beginning to embrace boredom, it will likely be a bit uncomfortable for everyone—adults and kids. But with practice, boredom can foster curiosity and creativity this summer and all year long.

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Audrey Breen