Summer vacation seems like a gift this year. Covid has kids’ stress levels at historic highs. School and schedules have been crazy. Friendships have been disrupted. We finally have relaxed downtime, yet we see our kids scrolling their phones, sighing with boredom, and annoyed and resentful when we suggest they do something “fun.”
What to do?
Why is Leisure Important?
Let’s start with a premise: using leisure well is a skill, Like all skills, it’s easier to develop if it is taught and improves with practice.
Leisure is critical for well-being. It’s when we relax and blow off stress. It improves creativity by freeing our minds from pressing problems and allowing us to return to them with fresh eyes. It allows us to build new abilities and gain new information. It can help us form and maintain social bonds and relationships. It improves our physical health directly–because we engage in physical activity–and indirectly–because it reduces stress.
Leisure is a time for us to try on new roles and use our imagination and problem-solving skills. For many of us, it’s what defines who we are. We camp and make music and are gamers, artists, bakers, tinkerers, or run the church market or quilt. And that’s much more important to our sense of self than our jobs.
It’s play. And it is critically important to us at all developmental stages–from the cradle to the grave.
Boredom, Leisure, and Flow
People are motivated to stay at an optimal level of arousal: we want to be interested but not stressed. What that means depends on where our heads are at. Sometimes that means staring into space. Sometimes that means hurtling down a ski hill. It depends.
Flow is the state where we are so immersed in what we are doing that we have achieved that optimal level of arousal–completely involved, forgetting ourselves, and happy. Adults often experience this at work or doing complex tasks like sailing or playing an instrument. Kids most often experience it during play (gaming!) or in social activities. Social interactive games are great sources of flow and one of the reasons they are so popular.
When we relaxwe are not being challenged, but we are content with our current stimulation level.
Boredom is more complex. When kids say “I’m bored,” they may mean that they are under-stimulated–their mind is looking for something to do. It may also mean that they don’t want to do what they are asked to do–they refuse to engage. Resistant to becoming interested and emotionally involved.
Why Are Kids Bored?
Like all emotions, boredom has a purpose. When we are understimulated–bored–we start looking for things to do. This is where individual differences and skills come into play.
The experience of boredom prompts us to increase our level of stimulation. We pick up our phone, scroll or flip on the TV or laptop, and watch a video. It’s easy and solves the immediate problem–we have increased stimulation. Sometimes that’s enough.
It may not, ultimately, be satisfying if it doesn’t fulfill other needs that are more effective at relieving boredom–it doesn’t allow us to be creative or to deeply engage in imagination or lose ourselves and move into a flow state.
Identifying those other needs and learning to fulfill them is a skill.
Psychologist Linda Caldwell of Penn State University has argued that the last several cohorts of children are under-prepared for using their free time in ways that make them happy. We learn to find things we enjoy through experience–by doing things we like, by noticing that some things make us feel better than others (we like playing kickball or playing video games or reading), and by choosing to do the things we find fun (making a video rather than scrolling Tik Tok).
In other words, it follows the same model of behavior that Bandura argues underlies all our behavior: To choose good leisure, we have to want it, know what to do to get it, believe we can do it, and think it’s worth the effort .
One problem, Caldwell has argued, is that often kids don’t know how to create leisure activities for themselves. Many have spent their early years in group settings where their daycare providers and preschool teachers have created fun activities for them. They move to schools with scheduled activities afterward. As teens, they are either scheduled (and don’t need to create leisure for themselves) or dumped into situations where they have lots of free time and don’t know what to do with it. So they fall back on things they know–and things we sometimes do. They scroll and text. They watch videos. They hang out. Good things–but usually effective boredom controls over the long haul.
What to do?
Parents can help scaffold effective leisure activities by using boredom as a prompt for more effective behavior.
- Help them notice their emotional state. When you see them lost in a video game or enjoying playing with the cat, help them notice that they seem to be having fun. When they seem bored with an activity or unhappy scrolling–one more time–through Instagram, tell them they seem bored and suggest an activity or three they may like better.
- When we see kids are bored or over-using certain forms of leisure that don’t seem to make them happy, we push them a little. Help or encourage them to make short videos instead of just watching them. Nudge them to write a character sheet instead of just finding one.
- Nudge them towards a hobby or club. Art materials include coloring books, painting rocks, playing pickleball, bird watching, journaling, dog training, reading, and vlogging. There are a surprising number of summer activities out there: scouts, church groups, volunteer opportunities, and libraries, Cosplay has huge online communities. It’s not just preschoolers who like to dress up.
- Have them call a friend and help them get together. Offer to take them someplace or help them do something. Teach them to make a cake or make a special salad. Let them cook dinner or make chocolate fudge sauce.
- Pull out old toys–legos are infinitely flexible. Give them an ironic teenage twist.
My brother, the teacher, thinks that most kids learn to become fluent readers because they are so bored they are stuck with a book that is better than nothing. I know that’s why I spent a lot of time picking up new musical instruments and drawing or riding my bike. It was something to do.
Use boredom as a spur to action. Figuring out what to do that makes you happy is a skill that can last a lifetime.