The Magic of Boredom Part 2: How to Foster “Boredom With a Purpose” for Your Family

We recently discussed the often-untapped magic of boredom, especially for children. We know that time for self-directed play increases emotional regulation, executive function, and physical literacy in children.

(read Part 1 here if you missed it)!

But if you are anything like me, you crave some practical application of all the evidence-based information out there about topics such as this.

I have compiled a few quick tips below to help us as parents foster the experience of boredom.

Remember that boredom, while temporarily uncomfortable, is not inherently negative

Boredom itself is not a bad thing. What if we chose to view it as an opportunity instead of a bother? It is an opportunity for your child to practice self-guided decision-making, emotional regulation, and creativity. What a joy! Well, your child may not see it that way—but you as a parent can help them by easing them into curing their own boredom without doing the work for them.

But firstly, is boredom really what your child is experiencing? Or could they be hungry, seeking connection, satiating curiosity about what you are doing, or experiencing another emotion that they are trying to avoid?

Modeling emotional language in your house and helping your children know how to recognize and voice emotions can help them (and you!) rule out something that could be going on other than boredom.

And if they really are hungry, give that child a snack! Better yet, have a stock of “mom-approved snacks” they can choose from at any time to build further autonomy and confidence in decision-making.

Before the boredom hits, prepare for it.

Consider making a list with your child of the things they most like to do (not including screen time). When they express boredom, direct them to the list. Remember to validate that they are capable of making fun and creative choices for themselves, and that you have every confidence that they can find something to do. Sometimes kids are so used to having their days structured by their teacher or other adults that boredom can feel overwhelming. Giving them the reigns to work through the boredom teaches them more skills than you simply creating a new activity for them each time they are bored.

https://pathways.org/independent-play/

Spend time playing with your child, and let them take the lead.

This will prepare your child to feel more confident in choosing their independent play activities in the future.

After all, your child should not be engaging in independent play all the time. Connection with YOU and other family members is still a vital part of their day and development. From a young age, take time to play with your child in a way in which they are able to “take the lead.” Join them in imaginary play. Let it be open-ended. The more actively and excitedly you join them in this pursuit, the more likely they are to approach independent play time with confidence in the future, because you have modeled for them that it is okay to play with imagination and freedom. They learn that playing without an adult-lead purpose is not only okay, but encouraged in your house.

Through these play times, you are silently communicating to your child that:

  1.  You delight in them
  2.  Their play is important
  3.  They have good ideas and are imaginative
  4.  They are capable and confident

Play therapy professionals who utilize CPRT (Child-Parent Relational Therapy), also known as Filial Therapy, suggest that as little as 30 minutes a week of this type of “special play time” with your child can make a significant difference in your relationship with them and their confidence in their own play.

If you would like to have more in-depth training in how to provide this kind of time with your child, what toys to have available, and how to best respond to them in a nurturing way during playtime, ask a play therapist for information about CPRT!

https://pcsintensive.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Special-time-enough.pdf

https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.a4pt.org/resource/resmgr/telehealth/8_-_CPRT_Pages_from_Treatmen.pdf

How much Independent Play Time (IPT) is appropriate for my child, anyway?

The short answer to this question is that every child is different. It is also important to remember that “independent play” does not necessarily mean that your child is playing alone. In fact—babies and toddlers absolutely should NOT be left alone. Until a child is almost 2 years old, IPT time is still under supervision of an adult in the same room or sitting beside them depending on age. The time is “independent” because you are not leading the activity or guiding the play.

For example, my 9-month-old usually participates in some self-directed play time in her playpen in the mornings while I do some cleaning or fold laundry in the same room with her. Sometimes she is able to attend to herself for upwards of 20 minutes, and other times she seeks connection with me after 5 minutes. That connection could range from exchanging smiles with each other to me moving into the play area with her, to her needing snuggles or increased nearness. She is able to feel safe and connected while still learning to self-direct her play time in these ways.

This is a skill that can continue to be built upon as time goes on and her development continues.

Consider for yourself:

How old is your child?

How structured is their regular environment outside of home—is it difficult for them to “switch on and off” their ability to participate in self-directed activities?

Does your child have a diagnosis of anxiety, ADHD, or depression?

What is the birth order of your child in question (oldest, youngest, middle, etc)?

All of these factors are important to consider in regard to how much independent play time is appropriate for your child. BabyWise, one of many different parenting programs that has spent its own time in and out of the parenting spotlight, has some tips and guidelines for this topic. But with any guideline, remember that you are the one that knows your child best. It is okay to “follow your gut” and ease yourself and your child into IPT. It is also important to learn how to identify the fine line between boredom and emotional distress for your children, especially younger ones. Consistent, forced IPT when a child is seeking connection with a caregiver can be detrimental to attachment.

Remember that you can also provide some connection without structuring their play for them! No chart or recommendation should EVER be a replacement for your personal understanding of your child’s needs—even when you are helping them practice self-directed play.

https://babywise.life/blogs/momtalk/independent-play-time-how-to-get-started

https://www.babywisemom.com/independent-playtime-lengths/

Introduce Independent Play Time in small increments.

It is suggested that school-aged children have 1-2 hours of independent playtime per day (see links above). But for children who are not accustomed to it, this can feel like an eternity.

Begin by introducing IPT in small increments, and with a mind for developmental appropriateness. Even school-aged children may feel more comfortable with you nearby during their self-directed play to begin. Maybe you read a book on the back patio while they play in the yard. Some encouraging smiles, waves, or even light conversation from you can support them in their play without you structuring it for them.

It can also be helpful to offer IPT after a particularly structured activity to allow them freedom of movement, exploration, and activity. Directly after school is a fantastic option!

For children who thrive in structure, make IPT (Independent play time) part of the expected routine.

For a child with anxiety and/or ADHD, or who simply could feel overwhelmed by this new addition to their day, maybe make IPT the same time every day, or make sure everyone in the house has IPT at the same time (this gives parents a little break to complete some tasks, too!)

Always remember to remind your child that they are capable of self-direction, and that you believe in their ability to guide their own play. You can encourage them with phrases such as:

“I am confident that you can find something fun to do. I love your imagination and creativity!”

“I enjoy seeing you excited when you do the things you love!”

“It is hard to feel bored sometimes. I bet it won’t take you long to find something fun to do.”

“Let’s look at your list of fun things! You can choose one of these or think of a new one! I love your growing brain and imagination.”

https://www.parentingwithfocus.org/post/why-your-child-needs-1-2-hours-of-independent-unstructured-play-every-day

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/06/20/kids-anxiety-can-spike-during-summer-heres-why-what-parents-can-do-help/

Especially during school breaks and summer months, avoid over-planning your child’s free time.

Avoid too many structured activities for kids during summer months. Free play is vital for growing self-expression and developmental skills that are more difficult to foster during the structured weeks of the school year.

Some parents find themselves over-planning to save their children (or themselves) from their child’s boredom. Try to find a balance between a healthy, semi-structured routine with ample time for kids to explore their own interests, creativities, and environments.

Be careful not to overschedule your child’s boredom time (or IPT) for your own devices.

This is such an easy trap to fall into! IPT does not need to be the bulk of your day. While a developmentally appropriate amount of independent playtime is helpful for parents to complete some tasks, family, peer, community, and parent-child interactions are not to be cast by the wayside.

Get Outside!

Honestly, this is my most simple and favorite parenting tip of all time that I have received, and it is one of my weekly goals for my little girl. Even when the heat index is 110 here in Dallas (like it is today,) we try to find just a couple of minutes to go outside to water the hydrangeas, look for our friends Mr. Lizard or Mama Cardinal (and peek at her babies), or pick a ripe tomato to bring inside (that Dad grows; we just do the harvesting).

Other times, we find ways for IPT to be outside, like on a blanket or in a kiddie pool, and she is able to explore her natural environment with supervision.

Just these simple, tiny activities that take about a total of 3 minutes increase her language development, expose her to sunshine and fresh air that benefit her in several different physical ways, and lower future

predictions for mental health concerns. It also instills the idea that exploration and self-direction is encouraged in our home.

For a couple of blogs from our archive about the benefits of being outside for children and adults alike, read Wilderness Therapy and 1000 Hours of Wonder. I also recommend the following resources to help you and your children find ways to explore your own backyard (literally!).

www.1000hoursoutside.com

Last Child in the Woods: book by Richard Louv

https://www.childrenandnature.org/

“Kids are born scientists. They’re born probing the natural world that surrounds them. They’ll lift up a rock. They’ll pick up a bug. They’ll pull petals off of a flower. They’ll ask you why the grass is green and the sky is blue, and they’ll experiment with breakable things inside your house. I think the best thing a parent can do, when raising a child, is simply get out of their way…Exploration can become a fundamental part of what a growing child requires to become a thinking member of society.”

Neil Degrasse Tyson

The Magic of Boredom (Part 1)

The Magic of Boredom: Part 1

I notice the magic in myself, sometimes—in the moments of calm-despite-the-chaos of new parenthood, where I find those precious moments when I can steal away to the delightful space of mental wandering.

This is where magic happens.

Often, I wonder if my creativity has waned in adulthood. Maybe this is true. Or maybe the space for creativity has been drastically reduced under the weight of naturally-occurring responsibilities that snowball with each new season of life.

Boredom, or at least some stillness of the mind, begets creativity. Adults must often carve this space out for themselves or seize the moments when they come. But for children, a little boredom is absolutely essential for healthy development.

“Children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves” – Dr. Vanessa Lapointe [3]

My daughter is only 8 months old, but I have already found myself falling into the cultural trend of over-structuring her playtime. As her “wake windows” first began to lengthen, I remember telling a friend, “I am running out of content to entertain her this long!” Luckily, the constant pressure to entertain my child is not part of my job as her mother. Facilitating her safety and opportunity to explore her world, is.

I don’t need 3 different sensory bins a day to create a Pinterest-perfect childhood for her. Her world already is a sensory bin in itself! Allowing her to explore that world with my support helps build executive function and physical literacy.

Let’s slow down and define those terms for a moment.

Executive function refers to the brain’s cognitive control system that allows us to manage things such as the connection between our thoughts and actions, planning and decision-making, self-control, and task management [1].

Children learn executive function through practical application and opportunities to use these skills.

Physical Literacy “is defined as the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person” [4].

Children best learn how to use their physical bodies through activity (no kidding), and thus strengthen the parts of the brain needed to support balance, flexibility of physical tasks across different environments, and hand/eye coordination.

Both of these developmental areas involve a little child-lead exploration and opportunity to make decisions for themselves without adult instruction. As you may guess, some children may experience these opportunities as “boring” if they are used to having most of their days structured for them.

But remember, “if you don’t give kids the chance to manage their time, they won’t learn how to manage their time” [5].

I am sure most of us can think of a time in childhood in which boredom turned into a rich imaginative experience, or the creation of a new game, or a challenge to overcome a new task. For my brothers and me, it was learning how to walk with the stilts my grandfather built for us, or creating an in-depth game of pretend that could last hours upon hours.

Research overwhelmingly suggests that children need ample time to practice physical and cognitive skills without specific directions from adults. That, my friends, is where the magic happens for children.

A 2014 study determined that executive function was higher in children who spent time in less-structured activities, demonstrating better self-directed control than their peers who spent more time in adult-directed activities [1].

Unfortunately, however, most children live in an adult-structured world completely unsuited for their need for developmentally-appropriate exploration. School-aged children especially sit for long hours at a time, and the few times they are offered a chance to move, such as in PE class at school, it with a purposeful game or teacher-lead activity. While these structured activities are certainly beneficial for areas of growth and relational skills, research tells us that children also need opportunities to decide on their own tasks, game, or activity to independently nurture key skills of cognitive and physical development [1, 7]. Open-ended play is where these skills are fine-tuned and given room to mature.

If children are not offered time to explore their own creativity, they will do so when teachers least want them to. This is an age-old scene. I mean, surely I am not the only one who wrote fictional stories or drew doodles during history class, right? That type of boredom absolutely leads to creativity—but not at the time or place that the presiding educator wanted us to be daydreaming.

Boredom, facilitated through less-structured play time, is a better space for this than history class.

Stephanie Lee, PsyD, and director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, agrees with these assertions and states that practicing boredom, while not always initially pleasant for a child, helps him or her develop distress tolerance for when a situation is not going the way the child would prefer. Boredom creates an opportunity to “manage and regulate” emotions, a skill that Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an education specialist at the Child Mind Institute, states that children who are often used to highly-structured environments may not develop as optimally.

But what is it about boredom that is so magical for actually developing these skills?

Well, when children have to decide how to spend their time, they must use executive function skills such as planning, organizing, and problem-solving [1].

Now, I am not advocating for a completely laissez-faire style of parenting. Structure is both necessary and supportive for children (and adults) of all ages. As we all know, structure provides a predictable foundation for safety and support for kids to operate as kids without feeling pressure regarding meal time, sleep time, or playtime. Offering predictable, unstructured time (also known as “Independent Play Time”) gives a child ample opportunity to practice the executive skills that adults have been modeling for them throughout structured times of the day.

I recognize that it can be a little daunting to allow your child to be bored and work through the initial fussiness of their distress. Before they settle into their chosen activity, they will most assuredly tell you that they are bored no less than 34 times. However, knowing that the result of their boredom (and your momentary frustration) is increased creativity and executive function hopefully provides a positive motivation for your family to work through these times of boredom together.

Be sure to check back in with us next week for Part 2: Fostering Creativity through Boredom for practical ideas to make the most of your child’s boredom!

Resources:

1. Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014, June 17). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers. Retrieved June 19, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593/full

2. Belton, T. (2016, September 16). Want to be a great parent? Let your children be bored. World Economic Forum. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/09/being-bored-is-good-for-children-and-adults-this-is-why?utm_content=bufferb8f6b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

3. The benefits of boredom. Melbourne Child Psychology & School Psychology Services. (2016, December 19). Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://www.melbournechildpsychology.com.au/blog/the-benefits-of-boredom/

4. Gehris, J. S., Simpson, A. C., Baert, H., Robinson, L. E., MacDonald, M., Clements, R., Logan, S., & Schneider, S. (2018, August). Resource to share with parents: Helping your child develop physical literacy. Physical Education and Health Education-Shape America. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from https://www.shapeamerica.org/

5. Grove, J. (2016, September 25). Study suggests that kids suffer from too much structured activity. Active For Life. Retrieved June 19, 2022, from https://activeforlife.com/study-executive-function-structured-activity/

6. Hurley, K. (2019, June 20). Kids’ anxiety can spike during the summer: Here’s why, and what parents can do to help. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/06/20/kids-anxiety-can-spike-during-summer-heres-why-what-parents-can-do-help/

7. Miller, G. (2021, September 22). The benefits of boredom. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://childmind.org/article/the-benefits-of-boredom/

8. Plowman, V. (2021, February 24). Independent playtime lengths by age. Chronicles of a Babywise Mom. Retrieved June 19, 2022, from https://www.babywisemom.com/independent-playtime-lengths/

9. Scagell, J. (2021, February 12). This teacher’s viral ‘summer packet’ should be required reading for parents. Scary Mommy. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://www.scarymommy.com/teacher-summer-packet-focuses-on-life-skills

Cheers to the Good Ones

As a new mother navigating the changing dynamics of my own tiny family, I am so much more aware of this day than in previous years. While my husband has handled much of our recent changes with amazing resiliency and support for myself and our daughter, the postpartum journey has not been particularly easy for either of us. But really, is the postpartum journey easy for anyone? It is difficult by nature: a turning-on-end of everything a person once knew about the rhythms of life. Though beautiful in its own way, the months after bringing home a child are by far one of the most stark transitions a person can experience. With this transition brings a host of new internal and external challenges and conflicts.

Through the experience of new parenthood, it has been obvious to me how much postpartum community support and attention is placed on mothers and babies, while fathers are also struggling to manage new mental and emotional tolls, re-evaluate their household roles, and support their partners who are experiencing massive hormone shifts and potentially problematic mental health concerns. Our empathetic fathers, bless their souls, are at particularly high risk for becoming silent sufferers of paternal postpartum depression or other postpartum disorders.

And yes, you read that right. Men can, and do, experience postpartum depression (PPD).

Even maternal PPD was not a formally recognized diagnosis until the early 90’s. Since then, the research has continued to develop in several directions on perinatal disorders, and with it a glaringly obvious recognition that men’s and fathers’ health needs more specific attention for the sake of the family at large.

With good reason, perinatal mental health disorders such as postpartum depression and anxiety are becoming more openly discussed. Women are screened multiple times throughout pregnancy and the postpartum experience for mental health concerns. Fathers, however, have been somewhat left in the dust in terms of research and treatment up until the past several years, despite there being an up to 25% prevalence of paternal PPD in new fathers [6].

Quick facts about paternal postpartum mental health:

– Paternal postpartum depression rates tend to be the highest 3-6 months after having a child [1].

– 70% of fathers noted increased stress in the first 12 months of having a child. 24% say that this increase was significant [6].

– Up to 25% of fathers will experience postpartum depression on some level. 18% will develop an anxiety disorder “during pregnancy or within the first year of parenthood” [6].

– Fathers’ bodies change during the postpartum period. In the first weeks after a child is born, a father’s testosterone is estimated to drop by 1/3 [2]. Some professionals speculate that this is to foster attachment and nurturing between father and child

Another thing that I have noticed thus far about parenthood is that Dads are an easy punchline, especially in the social media sphere. And while sometimes these jokes are warranted (Let me be honest, I have shared my fair number of laughs at my sweet husband’s expense), I cannot help but wonder what so much of the Dad-bashing is doing to the mental health of the world’s already-supportive and exhausted fathers. There are good dads out there, and they need a break from our constant criticism.

Anthony Nedelman, a psychologist, father, and writer who works specifically in men’s health, speaks bluntly about the mental and emotional weight placed on the modern father [3]. Men are taking on more non-traditional gender roles of household chores, childcare, and meal preparation in the modern age. Women, likewise, participate more actively in the workforce. And we love to see this! Studies even support the notion that fathers who are present and active in the rearing of their children are overall healthier and have increased longevity [2]. These changing roles in the home, however, place added pressure on mothers and fathers alike to fulfill entirely new areas of mental and emotional toll associated with parenting that previous generations were not navigating.

The Mental Health of a Father affects the entire family

We know that men in general are already less likely to seek therapy. Fathers whose partners are experiencing maternal PPD may feel increased pressure to support her emotionally and physically, provide for the household, and may even try to “fix” the new mother’s mental health. Their personal needs are easy to ignore or put on the back burner until the problem becomes more severe.

Paternal PPD impacts not only marital and partner relationships, but bonding and attachment with children in the home, and is a predictor of future “child psychopathology such as conduct and emotional disorders, hyperactivity, and anxiety and depression, as well as language delays” [1].

New Fathers are not the only Dads susceptible to mental health concerns

Fathers are not out of the woods after the risk of postpartum depression fades.

Nontraditional fathers in particular, such as stepfathers, are at higher risk for depression than biological parents [5]. As well, low-income fathers are at higher risk for depression [2].

Parenting brings a specific set of challenges that can affect a man differently throughout new developmental stages of his children, his marriage/relationship, or lifestyle changes. As an added complication, many men raised by fathers who were not active in their own childhood can struggle to feel confident in their role as parents.

The National Institute for Children’s Health Quality states that “Father involvement, then, has significant benefits for everyone involved. But too often, social expectations about masculinity and structural barriers make it difficult for fathers to get involved, especially during the early years of life” [4].

So if we understand the importance of a father’s connection with his children, that it is an overall benefit for the entire family, why aren’t we better supporting fathers in this important role of parenting? Thankfully, there are groups doing just that (see resource list below).

But for us mothers, and women, and the general public at large, I would like to call us to a new way of speaking about the good fathers in our life—the ones who show up in heroic ways to support, encourage, and intentionally weave their children’s wellbeing into the fabric of who they are.

Just like us, they are going to make mistakes—probably very consistent ones. They will probably set glasses directly beside an available coaster and throw dirty clothes on the floor beside a hamper. Instead of nagging about these little quirks, what if we instead became intentional about speaking positively about the actions we are grateful for?

As I type this, my husband just entered the room to ask if he could take our little one on a Costco trip so that I could complete this article. Now, I get to choose: At the end of today, do I want to remember this moment when I think about his role in our family, or do I want to remember the beard trimmings in the sink? It is so very easy to focus on what frustrates us instead of what we are grateful for.

For the sake of our relationships, our children, and the world at large, today I choose to focus on my husband’s active role in our family—his imperfect, beautiful role that is helping sketch out a healthy worldview for our child. His treatment of me and of her is already helping her create a sense of self-awareness and connectedness to her surroundings.

After all, my role is just as imperfect and beautiful as his. As the world chooses to support me and nurture me as a new mother, may I remember that the man beside me is carrying his own share of emotional and mental burdens for the sake of our family that is not always recognized.

Let’s raise a glass.

Cheers to the good dads out there today. We support you and we love you.

Resources for new and experienced fathers:

List of risk factors for paternal postpartum:

https://psychcentral.com/depression/stepmonster-8-reasons-why-stepmothers-are-prone-to-depression#risk-factors

Postpartum Support International:

Help for Dads

– Phone Helpline, Dad support groups, discussion forums with professionals, local chapters of support

“Boot Camp” for New Dads:

https://www.bootcampfornewdads.org/

Center for Men’s Excellence:

Advice for New Dads – Videos and Interviews with Dr. Daniel Singley

A First Person Account of Paternal PPD:

https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/couples-vol10/i-wanted-to-cry

https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/couples-vol10/i-wanted-to-cry

https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/couples-vol10/i-wanted-to-cry

https://www.nichq.org/insight/promoting-fathers-mental-health-during-childrens-early-childhood

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2020/The-Mental-Health-of-the-Modern-Dad

https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-fatherhood-affects-men

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sharpening-some-iron/202201/how-men-s-mental-health-impacts-their-families

Resources:

[1] Musser, A. K., Ahmed, A. H., Foli, K. J., & Coddington, J. A. (2013). Paternal postpartum depression: What health care providers should know. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 27(6), 479–485. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedhc.2012.10.001

[2] National Fatherhood Initiative. (2015, October 15). How fatherhood affects men. Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-fatherhood-affects-men

[3] Nedelman, A. (2020, December 21). The mental health of the modern dad. NAMI. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2020/The-Mental-Health-of-the-Modern-Dad

[4] Promoting fathers’ mental health during children’s early childhood. NICHQ. (2021, June 16). Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.nichq.org/insight/promoting-fathers-mental-health-during-childrens-early-childhood

[5] Vogel, K. (2022, March 31). Why stepparents are more prone to depression. Psych Central. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://psychcentral.com/depression/stepmonster-8-reasons-why-stepmothers-are-prone-to-depression#risk-factors

[6] What most of us don’t know about fatherhood and mental health – sondermind. SonderMind Therapy and Counseling. (2020, June 20). Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://www.sondermind.com/resources/what-most-of-us-dont-know-about-fatherhood-and-mental-health