This week’s question is from Alexandra,
“How do I guide my 9-year-old, only child, to play independently with something other than his iPad?”
In this episode I will address the dreaded, “I’m bored” complaint parents hear so often outside of screen-time. I will share creative ideas for non-device activities that your child can do independently, why boredom is actually healthy for development, and how to properly react to a child when they are upset with the boundaries and expectations that are set for them.
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It is healthy for kids to experience boredom occasionally
- Kids are bored less and less of the time due to devices and packed schedules, which can actually be a problem
- Boredom is an important and necessary part of brain development, growth, problem-solving skills, and emotional regulation
- Research shows that kids need to have periods of time on a consistent basis where no one is directing their activities from the outside for proper development
- One hypothesis to the increased behavioral and emotional regulation problems in kids today is that they don’t have enough downtime
- Parents should not feel guilty if there are periods of boredom for their child or if they are not constantly stimulated
Anticipate children will complain about screen time rules
- The job as a parent is not to make sure the child is feeling a certain way about a rule/expectation/boundary, but instead, to give the child the space to have whatever feelings they are feeling
- Kids, just like adults, are allowed to feel how they feel
- It is important for parents to allow and acknowledge those feelings but not let it dominate the environment
Engage kids in generating ideas for device-free time
- Together, create a “menu” of screen-free activities
- Place the menu in a useful place that the child can easily access themselves when they are bored
- The list may need to be in picture form for those that are not of reading age
- Remember that some kids may need help; some struggle with self-generating ideas of what to do, especially those with ADHD, Autism, learning disabilities, and other neurodevelopmental issues.
- Sometimes too many options can be just as overwhelming
- Make sure the activities on the menu are easily accessible for the child, especially if independent play is a focus
How to keep activities fresh and novel without spending money
- Rotate activity or toy options over the week(s)
- Utilize the library for new books, activity kits, music rentals, etc.
- Download free printable online resources such as puzzle games, coloring sheets, etc.
- Keep bins of miscellaneous supplies for kids to look through (can even be “junk”/recyclables found around the house) to make crafts/collages
Addressing incessant whining/complaining
- When the child doesn’t want to do any of the options given, it is completely okay for them to have that attitude. They can also choose the option of not doing anything specific/productive/structured
- Boundaries around their attitude may need to be placed, that if they choose to do nothing, that they are not allowed to be in your space to whine and complain. Let them know: “It’s not an option to follow me around and complain to me about it”
- Boredom can lead to kids discovering things when given the time to not do anything and can build the skills of confidence and competence
Children with developmental issues may need additional support at first
- Certain skills may need to be taught first before independent or semi-independent play can be expected
- Start with teaching simple play skills, through guidance and adult support until the child has built the skill set needed. Then put those activities on the menu for them to choose from
Episode intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s question … 00:00:52
Boredom is healthy … 00:01:33
Complaining about screen time rules… 00:04:00
Ideas for device-free time … 00:07:38
Keeping activities new and fresh … 00:12:00
Addressing incessant whining … 00:14:24
Children with developmental issues … 00:18:52
Episode Wrap up … 00:20:22
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from one of you. I get lots of questions each week, and this is a great way to provide answers that many of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question, which comes from Alexandra. She writes: “How do I guide my 9-year-old, only child, to play independently with something other than his iPad?”
Well, Alexandra, I think this is a question that many, many parents ask at various points in time, whether they have an only child or several children, so it’s a great one to answer, especially with the summer months upon us, at least here in the United States, and kids having more free time and gravitating more towards the devices, as opposed to other things.
So, let’s talk about a big picture idea around this first, and that is that boredom for kids is okay. Not only is it okay, it’s actually important and necessary for their brain development, for their growth, for their learning, for their emotional and behavioral regulation, for all of it. Boredom is actually necessary, and one of the problems that we’re seeing in kids nowadays with so much technology, so many devices and apps available, is that kids are bored less and less of the time, which may seem like a good thing. It seems like a good thing to them, right? And it may seem like a good thing to us as adults, they’re keeping themselves busy, they’re not complaining, they’re not coming to us whining about being bored. But in the big picture of their development, it’s actually problematic, because the research shows that kids need to have periods of time on a consistent basis where no one is directing their activities from the outside. They have to self-generate ideas and activities, and where they just have the time and space to think, to be aware, to be mindful of the present moment, to not have some kind of stimulation going on. And there are actually some pretty good hypotheses that one of the issues that we’re seeing that’s driving increased behavioral and emotional regulation problems in kids today is that they don’t have enough downtime where they just have blank space to be bored.
So, that is potentially helpful to you, Alexandra, and to many of you listening, to know that “Oh, okay. I’m not a bad parent if my kid is bored”, or “I don’t need to try to feel like I have to fill every moment with some kind of meaningful or engaging activity. Actually, I’m a good parent if I’m allowing my child the opportunities to be bored.” And I think that reframing really does free us as parents up to think about how we handle this kind of thing differently. So I brought up the issues about boredom because typically, when people raise the idea of “How do I get my child to play independently with something other than the iPad?”, what they’re really getting at there is “When I don’t allow my child access to a device, they don’t find anything to do, or they complain that they’re bored, or they can’t find something to occupy their time.” So this idea that it’s okay and in fact necessary to be bored is really a good one to think about, first and foremost.
I want to touch on another big picture idea related to this, and that is that children are allowed to have whatever feelings they have around boundaries that we put on time that they spend on electronics, around the expectations that we put on them for coming up with their own activities or things to do. They’re allowed to have whatever feelings they’re going to have around us putting boundaries on our own time and activities, of how much we’re willing to engage with them or play with them. They are allowed to have whatever feelings they’re going to have about that. They may feel angry, they may feel disappointed, they may feel frustrated, they may feel sad, they may feel annoyed, they may feel a hundred different things, and it’s okay. Our job as parents is not to make sure that they are feeling a certain way. Our job as parents is to give them the space and the opportunity to have whatever feelings they want to have and to support them with that. “Oh, I understand. Yes, it is so frustrating when I tell you that it’s time to turn the iPad off to find other things to do. I hear you, that feels really frustrating to you, I get it. I like to have the things that I want to have too, and it’s frustrating when I can’t have them. I understand. That’s perfectly fine for you to feel frustrated. Here are your options for what to do. We are done with the iPad for now.” So this is an example of how we set boundaries but still allow kids to have whatever feelings they’re going to have. We can’t expect that when we put boundaries or expectations on them that they’re going to be happy about that. That is not a prerequisite for us putting boundaries in place. We can’t require that they’re going to feel a certain way. They’re allowed to feel how they feel. So that’s another important thing to keep in mind with this whole situation about setting boundaries on preferred activities, in this case, screen time, and expecting them to do something different.
The other piece here and I’ve sort of touched on it, but let me be specific about it, is that parents can and should set boundaries on their own time or activities. It is not your job as a parent, even when you have an only child who doesn’t have siblings to play with, to entertain them all the time. You should not feel obligated to do that, and in fact, it’s not healthy to do that. We need to be able to have our own activities and things that we do, and kids need to have their own time and activities that they engage in, and it doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t be a situation where if they’re not allowed to have their preferred activities, we have to be entertaining them. No, no. So as a parent, you’re allowed to set boundaries on your own time and activities. Also, very important to set boundaries on device use. And that’s part of the picture of this too. We’re not being the most effective parents that we can be, if we are allowing kids to spend all of their time on devices. We know that’s not healthy for them. While they might like to do that in the short term, in the long term, it’s not good for them, it’s not good for our relationship with them, it’s not what we want to be doing. So, it is also very appropriate to set boundaries on those things.
Now, let’s talk about some specific strategies of how you can structure this, how you can help kids be able to play more independently with something other than electronics. I’m a big fan of creating a menu of options. Some kids genuinely do struggle with coming up with ideas of what to do, particularly if they have executive function challenges. So those are our kids with ADHD, Autism, learning disabilities, other kinds of neurodevelopmental issues, but also just some kids in general have a harder time with that, of looking around and self-generating ideas of what they could do. For some kids, that is not a problem, and for others, that’s really a challenge. And we might look at it and go, “What do you mean? You’ve got a room full of toys/We have a house full of things that you could do.” But in some ways, for some kids the more options that are available, the more overwhelming that is for them, particularly if they struggle with making choices or decisions or sorting through the options. So when we create a menu of options for them, that helps provide some structure and gives them some tangible things to choose from. I like to make these activity menus with kids, depending on the age, it might look different. But I like to include them in that, and say “We’re going to make a list here of things that you can do when you’re not on your devices,” or “When you’re bored, here are some things that you can choose from”, and have them engage with you in thinking about what to put on that list. Now, if you have a child who is like, “I’m not going to help you make that list! / I’m not interested in that”, that’s fine. You can go ahead and make the menu of choices for your child, but if they’re willing to engage, that’s great. Because they can come up with some ideas. You can take a pen and a piece of paper and go around to different areas of the house or the yard and say, “Let’s look around, what do we see here? What do we want to put on our menu of options?” and often, just that process helps remind kids of the things that are available. And then you write them down. If they’re a child who can read, then you’re going to make a written list. It’s very easy to make a written menu. If they’re a child who is not yet reading, you can make a picture menu. I’ve had families do that, literally taking photos of the various things that are available, or you can get clipart from online or whatever you want to do to show what the options are, but you’re going to make this menu board, and sometimes if there are a lot of choices, you may want to divide it up. You may want to have a couple of different activity menus or activity boards that you can put up on different days for them to choose from to keep things new and fresh, however you want to do it. But the idea here is to have that menu available in a place that they can easily access. Some families put it on the front of the refrigerator, some put it on the kitchen counter, maybe your child has a bulletin board in their bedroom. Wherever it’s going to be a useful place where your child can access that, so that when you say “Okay, device time is up, you need to find something else to do” or when they’re complaining that they don’t have anything to do or that they’re bored”, you can guide them to look at their menu of options and make a choice. And for some kids, just having the structure of that and being able to see the things to choose from can be very helpful. Another strategy that’s useful is to make sure that things are organized in a way that your child can easily access, especially if you’re focused on the independent play idea, you want to make sure that the parts and pieces or different things, that they can reach them, that they have all the materials in one place that they need to be able to do whatever it is that they’re going to do. This may look like putting things in containers that are labeled, maybe it means moving some things on different shelves so that they’re more easily accessible, maybe some games and activities and things have gotten all jumbled together over time, and you just got to have a good evening where you sit down and sort things out and reorganize things so that it is easier for your child to be able to access and then use the items. That can be helpful.
I think also, that some novelty can be good here, especially that our kids have been spending a lot of time at home over the course of the pandemic, and it may be time to infuse some new ideas or some novelty into the options that are available, and this doesn’t have to be expensive. I’m not talking about going out each week and buying new Lego sets or new toys or whatever. No, there are lots of ways that we can create some novelty which generates more interest and excitement in doing some of these activities. So for example, you may decide to rotate some of the toy or activity options and only have certain things out at certain times, and then every week or every few weeks, you might rotate the options. They forget what they’ve got and now they haven’t had these lego sets out for a while, and now suddenly those are out and available. You can do that with toys for younger kids. You can do it with craft materials, just to kind of rotate the options that you already have, to keep it fresh. Kids can go to the library each week to get new books out. The other thing is libraries often have other things that you can check out as well. Sometimes there are activity kits and all different things that you can get, music and different things from the library. That is a way to infuse some novelty, some new things that are available without having to spend any money on it. There are also lots of websites that you can go to and download things like free puzzle games and coloring sheets and mindfulness coloring sheets and mazes and dot-to-dots, and all kinds of things that are free, aside from printing it on paper at home. But that keeps things fresh too! Some new puzzle games that they can do, some new coloring sheets. Each week or every few weeks, you’ve got some new things in there for them to look at. Also, just bins of miscellaneous supplies that they can do arts and crafting with. This can just be junk items and things that you find around the house that kids can create collages or artwork or make projects with. And as you find new things or come across things as you’re sorting through stuff or even going through the recycling or whatever, you could say, “Oh, that would make something cool for a project or a craft”, throw it in that bin. A way to keep things novel and have new stuff around for them to be thinking about and doing. So that idea of novelty is another helpful one. Now, you might be saying to yourself, well that’s great.
Okay, that gives me some ideas, but I could make all the news of available activities in the world, but my child is still going to whine and complain. “I’m not going to pick any of those. I don’t want to do that. There’s nothing to do.” Well here’s the beautiful thing about that: That’s completely fine, for them to have that attitude towards it. You don’t need to force them to do any of it. You don’t need to try to get them to be happy about doing those things. You are organizing things and laying out options in a way that provides them the opportunity to choose some of these things, but ultimately, sitting in your room by yourself doing nothing or wandering around outside in the yard doing nothing is always an option. And in fact, I like to put that on the menu of options that kids have. That’s a legitimate option. You don’t need to pick an activity. If you want to roll around on your floor and stare at the ceiling, that’s cool. If you want to wander around outside and just stare at the sky or lie in the grass or shuffle around and think about how unfair it is that you’re unable to use your iPad right now, that’s okay. And I’m not being sarcastic. I mean that in all seriousness. It is absolutely an option for kids to do that. And remember, that goes back to the initial point that I made about boredom not only being okay, but being beneficial. So if kids choose this option of not doing anything specific or productive or structured with their time, that is completely okay, and we can let go of our tendency to get into a power struggle or an argument or try to force the issue, or making them do something when we realize that oh, it’s okay for them to do nothing. Now you may need to put some boundaries around them being in your space, whining and complaining to you all the time. “Perfectly fine for you to feel like this is unfair, I understand you’re disappointed, I understand you don’t feel like doing any of these things on the list. That’s fine. You can go hang out in your room or you can go outside. It’s not an option to follow me around and complain to me about it.” So you can set some boundaries around how and where they are having their bored moments and expressing their complaints. You don’t need to allow that to constantly infringe on what you’re doing. So boundary setting there is important. But you can go about your business and know that even if they are choosing not to do anything that that’s okay. And here’s the good news about that: when kids do that, when they choose that, “No, I’m not doing any of this, I’m just going to be bored, I’m just going to lie here”, or whatever, what happens over time is they discover things. And 9.5 times out of 10, a kid who five minutes earlier was like, “I’m not doing any of these things, I’m just too bored, this is terrible”, you walk past their room and suddenly they have found a puzzle to do or they’ve got that block set out, or they are outside now riding their bike, or rollerblading, or making something out of sticks and rocks they found in the yard, whatever it might be. And that’s the really interesting thing about this: When you give them the time and space to not do anything, often, they begin to self-generate ideas and activities, and that’s a wonderful thing. The amount of competence that they get, the feelings of capability and competence that they get from doing that is profound and isn’t something that they can get any other way. They can’t get that same feeling of competence and confidence in themselves when we are structuring everything and entertaining them and externally driving all of their activities. The only way for them to develop that sense of capability and confidence and competence in themselves is to give them the opportunity to be bored and to self-generate ideas. And what a wonderful gift to give them.
So hopefully, that gives you some new ways of thinking about this issue, as well as some specific strategies to help get you started to be able to maybe present some options and do this in a way that is more beneficial. I will just say here at the end, as we’re wrapping up, that if you have a child maybe with some developmental disabilities or some challenges where the issue is really that they don’t know how to play with different kinds of activities or things, that that’s really the issue is that without adult support or guidance, they don’t know what to do with things, then one of the things that you’re going to want to do here is pick some activities, some simple things that you teach them to do, that you do in a guided way first so that they learn how to do them, then once they’re competent with it, then those can go on the list of things that they can do independently. It’s not fair to expect them to be able to engage with things or find something to do when they literally don’t know how to use it or don’t have the skills for that. So sometimes, especially when it comes to playing with different kinds of toys or building materials or activities or things like that, we need to teach some of those play skills in a guided way first, with us structuring it, guiding it and teaching, and then as they get more capable with it and it becomes an activity that they can do at least semi-independently, then that can be something that goes on their menu of things to do on their own.
I hope this is helpful for Alexandra and for any of you wondering how to help your kids do more independent play and activities when it is time to put the iPad and other devices away. Remember, if you have a question you would like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Podcast Question” in the subject line. Thank you, as always, for listening and for being here, and I will catch you back here next time.