Winning the Bored Game

Media Parenting by Michael Mann

Winning the Bored Game

When I was a boy I remember saying, “Mom, I’m bored”. She would respond, “Are you bored because there is nothing to do or because you can’t think of anything to do?” If I said that I could not think of anything to do, she would take a moment and help me generate a list of things I liked to do. If I made the mistake of saying I had nothing to do she was most happy to give me something from her own “to do” list, like weeding the garden. I learned quickly to carry an “I’m bored” list around in my head and accept the fact that avoiding boredom was my responsibility.

The Bored Game

All children try to play the “I’m bored” game at one time or another. What is different today is that children are exhibiting more frequent and more intense feelings of boredom. What’s more, they seem less creative and less able to solve problems than 10 or 20 years ago.

Professor Dianne Levin, Ph.D. describes a disorder often seen in school children today as children who say they are bored, flit from activity to activity, have trouble figuring out how to play when giving open-ended activities and have a sense of helplessness and few resources for solving problems they have with other children.

Jonathan Plucker, associate professor of educational psychology at Indiana University says, “Finding things to do when bored is the way kids learn to be on their own, to find out what interests them and what isn’t boring. That’s the problem we see with college students. The ones who have a hard time adjusting are those whose parents never transitioned into giving them more responsibility. In the end, we want kids who can entertain themselves, pick up a book or find something they want to volunteer for.”

All of these trends point to a problem much larger than childhood boredom or the inability to solve a schoolroom word problem. They point to a deficiency in the skills necessary to form mental images, and to use those mental images to think creatively, visualize outcomes, solve problems and develop self discipline. Members of the Cygnus Research Group, a coalition of educators, artists and researchers have termed this larger societal problem an “Imagination Deficit Disorder”

Winning the Game

Professor Plucker, who has conducted studies of boredom among schoolchildren, advises parents to use a scaffolding approach, to slowly build up a child’s own sense of resourcefulness, rather than suddenly announce “you’re on your own” when a lull hits. One approach is to help kids write a list of “boredom buster” activities. Eventually, Plucker says, they’ll write the list on their own or not even need one. Wow, my mom was ahead of her time!

Elaine M. Gibson, a parent educator who coaches parents raising kids with learning disabilities and behavioral challenges, agrees with Plucker that children need to practice being creative — that creativity and imagination are not only traits from birth but skills each child can develop. Dr. David Walsh, founder of the MediaWise Movement and author of “No, Why Kids – of All Ages – Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It” adds that learning such a skill leads to self discipline, which is the single greatest predictor of school success.

On the other hand, some children who are simply told to “find something to do” will choose to play video games from dawn to dusk, rising from the couch only for bathroom breaks and snack attacks. House rules on screen time are essential. Dr. Walsh suggests a maximum of one to two hours a day of total screen time, including TV, computers, video games and hand-held electronics such as Game Boy.

Researchers at the National Institute on Media and the Family report that children who spend a lot of time with electronic media most often take part in “imitative play” where they act out what they see on the screen rather than in “creative play” in which they make up their own stories and play activities.

The next time you hear “I’m bored,” follow my mother’s example and don’t give in to the ease of turning on the electronic babysitter. Give your children a chance to practice being creative. It’s a healthy choice for their future.

Michael Mann is a training consultant with the Media Wise Movement, a founding member of the Cygnus Research Group , an award winning storyteller and father of four.

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