One Saturday afternoon, my 6-year-old son, Patrick, flung himself on the couch and announced that he was bored. He quickly added, "And don't say 'Good.'" Since Patrick anticipated my usual response, I told him, "That's wonderful, honey," and continued straightening up the house.
Sure, I play with Patrick, but usually not when he pleads boredom. Child-development experts say that rather than rushing to relieve your kid's doldrums, it's best for him to figure out something to do on his own -- or just be nudged ever so slightly in the right direction. "Seemingly boring situations can be a fabulous opportunity for kids to stretch their imagination," says Christopher Willard, Psy.D., a child psychologist in Boston and author of Child's Mind. "In fact, some kids aren't motivated to be creative unless they're bored."
Good thing, because boredom season is upon us. "Five- and 6-year-olds are used to the structured routine of school," says Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Nanuet, New York. "When their schedule loosens up during summer break, many won't know what to do with themselves." Instead of signing your kid up for an endless stream of classes and camps, help him grow accustomed to a day where there's often a dull moment. Experts provide ways to make it easy.
Stretch Her Imagination
Kids who are passionate about playing make-believe are good at entertaining themselves, says Dr. Willard. "Children aren't going to be able to toss a ball or ride their bike in every boring situation, but they'll always have their imagination," he says. Try these games to build on your child's fantasy life: The next time you have a lot of errands to run, suggest that your kid pretend she's an alien who's tagging along with you for the day to find out what Earthlings are like. Or when you're in the checkout line at the supermarket, tell your child to make believe she's a TV chef buying groceries for her show. After a few times, stop supplying the scenario and ask your child what she should pretend to be. "With practice, you can get to the point where she's comfortable with staring out the window on a long car trip because she can create an elaborate story," says Dr. Willard.
Reward Playing Alone
At school, your child has 20 or so possible playmates. At home, he may be by himself -- or just with a sibling. Making that tough adjustment is often a reason why he resorts to the "B" word. To head off the problem, in the few remaining weeks before school lets out build in time for your kid to hang out solo -- doing a puzzle, building a fort with Legos, and looking through picture books are great activities for kids this age. Suggest them if your child needs a jumping-off point, but otherwise let him come up with something on his own.
Start with just 15 or 20 minutes of by-himself time, and add five or ten more minutes each week, eventually working up to an hour. (Of course, you shouldn't ever leave your child unsupervised anywhere there could be a safety issue, such as the kitchen or garage.) A clever twist: Child therapist Jennifer Kolari, author of Connected Parenting, gives her daughter a puzzle piece every time she plays alone in her bedroom for a certain length of time. When the puzzle is completed, they go out together for a special date.
Think Outside the Toy Box
When Patrick's boredom escalated after kindergarten graduation last summer, I would defensively respond, "Look at all these toys you have in your room. Why don't you play with one of with them?" Problem is, experts say that when kids are feeling bored, a Tech Deck or a Barbie won't perk them up. "They're craving something unique to play with," says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., a child psychologist in San Diego.
Make sure your child knows that regular household stuff -- a paper-towel holder, a giant cardboard box, dried noodles and other fun-shaped pasta, paper bags, extra buttons of all colors and sizes -- is up for grabs, as long as she asks for your permission first. But resist packing up the supplies into a "boredom box" because it takes away from the sense of discovery. Says Dr. Epstein, "Suppose your child got the idea to make a hand puppet out of materials around the house. She'll build more problem-solving skills by searching from room to room to come up with what she's going to use for eyes than by opening a box and finding everything she needs right there."
Focus on Creativity
It's okay to suggest a solution for kids when they're bored, especially if it's been at least ten or 15 minutes and they haven't been able to come up with something on their own. But the most common distractions -- turning on a TV show, popping a movie into the DVD player, or even handing over your iPhone -- teach your child to expect instant gratification. In the short term, they will likely keep your kid occupied for a while. "But in the long run, those fixes will make your child less tolerant of quiet time because he'll feel that he always has to be responding to something," says Dr. Epstein. "Plus, there's usually nothing creative about them."
A smart project that will last all summer long: a vegetable, flower, or windowsill garden. Five- and 6-year-olds can water, weed, sow seeds, pick food and flowers, and even sketch the progress of their plants in a journal. "Within reason, let them decide what to plant and where to make the garden. Sometimes it will work out and sometimes it won't, but giving them freedom helps promote creative thinking," says Dr. Cuneo.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.