In Defense of Boredom: Why it is Essential to a Healthy, Happy Childhood

Over-tested and over-scheduled. That's how the recently released documentary, Race to Nowhere characterizes today's youth. One grim shot after another shows children and teens rubbing their eyes in front of computer screens, falling asleep at their desks, and staring listlessly out car windows as they are rushed from one activity to the next.

And to what end? As one articulate youth puts it, it's all just a "race to nowhere."

According to the Institute for Social Research, between 1981 and 1997 kids lost 12 hours of weekly free time while time spent in structured sports doubled. Time spent on homework increased by 50 percent. And young people's daily screen time now hovers around 7.5 hours per day.

Adults are cramming as much as they can into their children's days under the misguided notion that boredom is a bad thing. Then, in the precious hours of free time they have, kids turn to TV, computers, and video games to keep themselves entertained. The result? A generation of kids who are adept at following rules -- whether in a classroom, on the soccer field, or on their PlayStation -- but who are at a complete loss when it comes to innovating, designing, tinkering, or doing anything that requires drawing from their own imaginations.

No wonder research indicates that we're in the midst of a "creativity crisis."

Dr. Richard Ralley, a psychology lecturer who has conducted studies on boredom, tells The Guardian, "Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional... It's the same with boredom, which also has a bad name."

So how does boredom serve a purpose in childhood? It essentially tells a kid: Think of something to do. Use your own resources. Use your imagination. Go play!

The recent Newsweek article on our creativity crisis notes, "In the space between anxiety and boredom [is] where creativity flouishe[s]."

Yet childhoods these days are all anxiety and no boredom. Kids in elementary school are already worrying about their grades, feeling pressure on playing fields, and failing to get their recommended nine to 11 hours of sleep. And they are increasingly isolated, interacting with friends more and more online, and playing alone in front of screens.

As Paddy O'Donnell, a professor of social psychology , points out in The Times, "Boredom shouldn't last long if children are in the right environment where they're dragged off either by curiosity or the desire to socialise. It continues only if there's no one to play with or the environment's too restrictive."

In other words, boredom serves its purpose if children have both the time and space to play -- and preferably, some other kids to play with.

"Productive boredom" may sound like an oxymoron, but under the right circumstances, boredom will lead to child-directed activities that promote creativity, hone life skills, and enhance physical health. The problem is that kids can't foster these "right circumstances" on their own. Here's what we need to do:

  • Schools must provide recess daily and cut down on homework. (Some even advocate for eliminating homework entirely, and they make a compelling case.)

  • Parents must cut down on scheduled activities, limit screen time, and encourage outdoor play. While supervising, parents should learn to step back now and then to let children direct their own course of play. Providing kids with a few simple battery-free items, like a jump rope or sidewalk chalk, can lead to hours of imaginative fun. (Check out these "Top 8 gifts for playful children.")
  • Communities must unite to provide children with safe places to play. If space or resources preclude a park or playground, try petitioning the local government to periodically close off a street, like these folks did. A united community means a safer community, perhaps one in which neighborhood kids can freely roam around together as they used to do in the "good old days."
  • Kids need to stop racing. By granting them the privilege of boredom, we must let them start hopping, skipping, jumping, and wandering instead.

    Race to Nowhere website provides a number of other great action ideas under its "Take Action" section. What would you add to the list?