How to prevent children from being bored

A smiling boy

Photo: Martin Yaffe

Angela is trying to be patient while her mother shops for a new dress. It is taking her mother a long time to make her selection. There is nothing for Angela to do. She tries playing hide and seek under the clothes racks but the salesgirl tells her not to do that. She sees the store as a potential obstacle course and tries to use it as a playground. Her mother keeps yelling at her. She feels miserable and doesn’t know what to do! She has nothing to do!

There’s no doubt about it children get bored more easily than adults. It doesn’t really make sense, does it? They have more energy than we do. They have more imagination. Why don’t they use it?

The answer comes from the work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist working about 50 years ago. He was interested in how we come to know what we know or the study of epistemology­ the study of knowledge. He observed his own children as they developed and discovered that children learn first through action– by doing, and then by thinking in pictures, or thinking action and then finally by thinking in words. The latter stage doesn’t come until we’re about 10 to 12 years old.

What I have observed in all the children that have passed through my working life is that before they reach the stage of thinking in words, they need to be active and busy. This is because if they’re not active and busy, they are literally doing nothing. If adults are doing “nothing” we are busy thinking, dreaming, fantasizing, day dreaming, which is, of course our favourite past time. Living in Toronto I love to observe the people on the subway. If you look at any adult on the subway you can observe them engaged in their favourite past time­ day dreaming, planning, thinking, or sleeping. The children are a different story altogether. If they have an attentive mother or father who has had the foresight to bring “something for them to do, they are happy doing it. If not, they are busy finding something to do, which is often another word for trouble­ running up and down the aisle, pulling something apart on the car, provoking a sibling into a fight, etc. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s something to do.

If you ask an adult what they’re thinking about and they say nothing, they are either censoring, editing, or they are in the Buddha state of consciousness. On the other hand, if you ask most children (there are exceptions) what they are thinking about and they say nothing, it is probably the truth. For adults day dreaming, listening to our interior ongoing train of thought is our favourite past time. It’s not that we’re better at doing nothing and not getting bored than kids are, it’s just that we have a built in drive-in movie that keeps us constantly entertained, whereas kids don’t. Can you imagine how long it would take us to get bored if we went to the drive- in and the only thing that was playing was a blank screen? I’d say we’d last ten minutes, if that. So we have the drive-in constantly playing something, while the kids have more of a blank screen. It’s not that they don’t have anything passing through their brains, it’s just that they are not as entertained by it as we are.

Ben and Jason are planning to spend their vacation on the family sailboat. The parents are dreading the holiday. The last time the kids complained constantly and they didn’t know what to do. The adults loved the boat but cranky kids put the adults in dreadful moods as well. While a sailing trip is heaven for adults, it is pretty close to hell for most kids. Gazing at the deep blue sea is not enough action for their concrete stage of operations minds. I suggested bringing along lots of them to do. Why do you think Game Boy has been so successful. It’s captivating, it’s action and it’s portable. But there are all sorts of puzzle books, game books. We discovered these Yes-No books, which the kids loved on one trip­ anything to keep the mind occupied. The kids will appreciate it as well. It’s as if you’re reading their minds, understanding their needs and taking care of them in the right way.

When children come to our centre, we have learned that works well is for every worker to have a basket of things filled with things for the kids to do. Most kids can actually sit and draw or put stickers in a book and participate in the conversation as well. In fact, they are much happier that way. Sometimes parents insist that the children sit, like adults, and participate in the discussion. When it is clear that this is a child who needs to be busy, this is the start of an unnecessary conflict.

It’s quite interesting to watch the transformation. At some point in most children’s life, they get to the point where they’re inner mental life takes over and they can sit and do nothing. That’s the point at which they stop needing to be busy all the time and they can just sit and do nothing like us. And we call that development!

The solution to children’s need for stimulation and activity is to provide them with it as much as possible. Do not expect them to function as little adults. Have a canvas bag filled with things to do and bring it with you everywhere. Then, whenever there is down time– waiting in lines, in the car, whenever you are talking and they are waiting, you have things in the bag for them to do. Service centers on the highways have lots of stuff to keep kids busy. Collect them. They are not just for trips. Use them at home. If your child is old enough consult with him/her as to what they would like. Make note of the things that keep them occupied and interested for more than ten minutes. Rotate things so that they don’t tire of them. Sometimes the puzzle or toy may not be right their age and developmental level. If these strategies don’t work and your child is still pestering you and driving you crazy consult a professional. There may be more serious problems.