Is it just me, or are parents constantly nervous about their kids having unstructured down time? I know it’s not just me, because we’ve all become over scheduled, booked and busy. Starting as early as age three, there’s pressure to schedule your kid up for all the things - swimming lessons, dance, soccer, playdates, the list goes on.
We fear what will happen if we let the kids get bored. Will they throw a fit? Start following you around? Demand screen-time? Yes. The answer is yes, they will do all the above. But that’s okay, because boredom is worth it.
For kids, moments of boredom are absolute gold for their development. The sky is the limit when they have the space and time to follow only their giddy imaginations. These moments of self-directed play strengthen creativity, but also build a sense of confidence, teaching them they can rely on themselves to create fun. There’s nothing better than watching a kid get an idea or solve a problem on their own.
But our kids have definitely gotten used to us setting up activities, playdates, sensory tables, and art projects. So how do you break their addiction to having you as their 24/7 social and activity coordinator?
- Lead by example - it’s important that kids know that down time is an important part of self-care. So they need to see you sitting quietly entertaining yourself. Maybe reading a book, or doing a puzzle. And when you have downtime, this is a great time for them to play on their own nearby.
- Don’t jump in - when your kid huffs “I’m bored!” to you, don’t immediately problem solve for them. Encourage them to find something to do on their own. Remind them of some possibilities, but let them decide. Try “Oh fun, you have so many cool things to play with. Let me know if you need help getting something out!”
- Be present, but not directing - one thing that’s worked for me is being nearby with a book when my daughter is playing on her own. We can still enjoy each other’s presence, and I can still keep an eye on her and respond when she wants to show me something. But I’m doing my own thing!
If you have babies or toddlers, even better! You can build this habit earlier. Try getting started with by:
- Safe play zones - child-proofing can be annoying and some parents would rather try teaching their kids to avoid certain things. But if you want to see independent play, you want to at least provide one safe play zone where your kid can play and wander freely without direction. You still need to be nearby to supervise, but you won’t constantly need to redirect and play lifeguard.
- Open floor play - especially for infants and babies, open floor play in safe space where they can wander from toy to toes and back is highly beneficial for physical and cognitive development.
- Toys within reach - once you have a walking toddler, having toys, books and other activities within reach for them is important for them entertain themselves. Clever parents fill a safe floor-level kitchen cabinet with play-safe kitchen tools like plastic tupperware or wooden spoons.
Listen, parents were never meant to be 24/7 entertainment machines. You are not, in fact, a clown. So make this a priority, not just for your child’s independence and development, but because you need and deserve a break.