Being bored is not a crisis to be solved. It’s an internal emotional state that needs to be regulated. You can give your child the time and space to figure out how to handle this sensation! The more practice they have, the more likely they will be to find something to do on their own.
When children play by themselves they develop inner resources. For parents worried about lack of play-dates during coronavirus social distancing, maybe this knowledge can help alleviate some guilt when your child complains, “I’m BORED!”
When can children play independently? (these are just guides; every child is unique. You may need to be in the room with your young child or at least aware of their activities in order to step in for safety concerns.)
12 month old children can play on their own for about 15 minutes.
2 year olds: about 20-30 minutes
3 year olds: 30-45 minutes
4-5 year olds: 45-60 minutes
What can you do to support your child?
Start small: if your child isn’t used to independent play they will need to build this “muscle.” You can start by using a timer set for 5, 10, 20, 45, 60 minutes, etc. as your child’s independent skills grow.
Offer a variety of activities and let your child choose. Boredom can lead to negative behaviors. If your child truly senses no options, has nothing to engage their attention, you will most likely see them resort to acting out. Having 2-3 suggestions that are fun will help and not overwhelm your child.
Guide them by offering some suggestions. Telling a 4 year old to “go play by yourself” is probably not going to work. But do not feel that you need to be actively engaged as their cheerleader-camp-counselor-babysitter-teacher all day long. Many children would play with their parents all day long if they were given that choice. That does not mean you have to be your child’s constant playmate.
Structuring the day can keep boredom at bay. Try to maintain a basic schedule throughout the day, with meals, outside time and rest times built in at regular intervals. When a child knows how to predict what will come next in their day, they feel more control. This can help them choose activities.
Try toy rotation: many parents can’t understand how their child gets bored when they have SO MANY toys, games, art supplies, etc. to choose from! Think of it like this: let’s say you just bought a really awesome new sweater. You can’t wait to wear it. It’s beautiful! But after a while the “newness” wears off. Sure, it’s still a great sweater. But you’ve been wearing it every week all winter. Then, seasons change and you pack away your winter clothes. Months later, when cool weather hits again, you pull out your sweaters–and there it is! Once again, you’re excited to wear it.
Many childcare centers rotate toys in and out of “active use” to keep children engaged. When you buy a new toy, take something out of rotation that your children haven’t been using lately (but is still age appropriate). You don’t have to get rid of it, just casually put it away out of sight. Every month or so, rotate old ones back in and take out some. Note: if your children do not re-engage with a toy that is brought back into rotation, then perhaps they have aged out of that toy.
Outside time: active movement outside and playing in nature can be an antidote when toys and inside activities aren’t working.
Schedule parent/child time as part of your routine. You don’t have to ignore your child, but you don’t have to engage with them all day long. Perhaps each day after they play outside, offer to spend 20 minutes doing an activity with them. Do a jigsaw puzzle, do an art project, read a story or listen to music together. But when the 20 minutes are up, you can go back to doing what you need to do as an adult during the day, and your child can go back to independant play. Using timers or an Alexa alarm takes the limit setting off of the parents shoulders and kids usually LOVE setting that reminder/alarm.
Additional suggestions for parents of toddlers: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/stop-entertaining-your-toddler-in-3-steps-2/