Why boredom might actually be good for us (and our kids)

Living Well | Blanche Clark | Posted on 11 September 2020

It turns out there’s an upside to down time. Here’s why being bored isn’t always bad.

Monotony has become one of the greatest challenges of lockdown. After keeping ourselves busy baking bread, playing board games and binge-watching TV shows, many of us are fighting to keep boredom at bay.

Cognitive neuroscientist Peter Enticott says boredom is typically expressed as a negative emotion, but it can also be a useful prompt for creativity.

Bored teenager watching TV on laptop

Let your kids come up with their own ways of beating boredom.

“In terms of evolutionary theory, it basically keeps us on our toes,” says Peter, a professor of psychology at Deakin University. “If we’re not engaged with what is going on around us, that’s a threat to survival, and the brain tells us that this doesn’t feel good,” he says. “The positive aspect is it does motivate us to come up with new ideas and novel solutions.”

Peter says some studies suggest males are more easily bored than females and boredom is a bigger problem for young people. He advises parents to let children find their own solutions to boredom, especially during the school holidays.

“If your kid is complaining that they’re bored, don’t rush to get something for them to do,” he says. “You can talk to them about solutions, but it’s actually useful to get them to think their way out of it and develop some independence.”

Allowing the mind to disengage from focused attention from time to time is now believed by neuroscientists to be good for mental functioning and wellbeing.

Peter says grabbing our phones or devices every time we are bored also stops us engaging with our surroundings and family. “If you’re sitting on your phone all the time, even when you’re talking to your kids or eating a meal, your kids will take that on board and start mimicking that behaviour,” he says.

Author of Happier People Healthier Planet, Teresa Belton, says some people actually welcome having no demands or stimuli so that their minds can be idle.

“Allowing the mind to disengage from focused attention from time to time is now believed by neuroscientists to be good for mental functioning and wellbeing,” says Teresa, a visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning.

She says contemporary life tends to bombard us with sensory stimuli, which can be stressful, even if we don't realise it. (Plus, how to talk to your kids about COVID-19.)

“If you can let go of the negative feelings and just stay with the lack of mental engagement, it can let the mind wander – daydreaming, imagining, planning, observing the world around you, wondering, remembering, assimilating learning and experiences and reassessing thoughts and feelings,” she says.

Young child making bubbles with dishwashing detergent
Two young grils drawing on shed wall with chalk.

Allow children the freedom to use what they find around the home to create activities.


Teresa’s tips for helping children deal with boredom

Encourage creativity    

Instead of buying children new toys to keep them amused, allow them the freedom to use what they find around the home to create activities. Depending on their age, that can include building dens, marble runs, producing plays and inventing board games. Simple materials such as string, wool, wood offcuts, sieves, old wires and plant pots can spark all sorts of ideas. Here are 21 device-free ideas to keep the kids entertained at home.

Give them chores 

Getting children to do chores it a great way to let their minds wander. Washing up, pairing socks from the laundry, untangling string, making neat piles of papers, weeding, peeling or chopping vegetables are all calming and satisfying activities in their own right, as well as being useful.   

Challenge them

Sometimes a challenge can get the ball rolling: How many blue things can you find in the house? What new plants can you describe or draw, and flower names can you invent? Can you set up a treasure hunt with clues and treasure at the end?  What can you discover if you look at things through a magnifying glass? Can you plan a family treat/feast/games afternoon? How many ways can you use paper, pencil and scissors in half an hour? Can you write a poem about what you can see from the window?