“I’m bored…..” The Importance of Unstructured Play


Oh, those dreaded words – they can make a parent’s heart lurch. Kids eagerly await summer vacation, only to discover (after just a couple of days) that they have no idea how to fill these long, unstructured hours of free time.

So what do we do as parents? All too often we jump to the rescue – we send them off to summer camp, we fill their hours with so many activities they drop into bed exhausted at night, or we plop them in front of a Disney movie or video game and let electronics take care of the entertaining for us. We fill up their time in order to be good parents… and yet, this is precisely what we should not be doing.

Boredom is good for kids.

  • It helps them become more creative: unstructured play is a chance for them to use their imagination as they invent their own activities.
  • It allows them to explore the world and develop self-awareness. Whether children build boats out of leaves and sail them in puddles, or organize the neighborhood kids to put on a play, or take toys apart to see how they work, they’re discovering their own interests and passions.
  • It helps them develop independence and learn how to manage their own time. When we overstimulate children and make sure every moment of their day is filled with activity, we stunt their development in this area.
  • It gives them time for reflection. Everyone needs the freedom to just hang out and let their minds wander. Too much activity tends to cause anxiety in children – a healthy balance between structured activities, outdoor play, and unstructured time is essential for mental health.

In spite of kids “being bored,” it’s important to limit their tech time. You can say, “No, sorry, you can only play on the computer for two hours. Now you have to find something else to do.” At first, kids will whine and fuss, but eventually they’ll learn to entertain themselves. If your children have a habit of using technology eight hours a day, transitioning to free play will require support. Don’t just pull away the gadgets and expect kids to amuse themselves instantly. They will need materials and ideas at first. Stock up on things like clay, crayons, Legos, scraps of material, beads, puzzles, glue, string, pebbles, and paint. Spend time with them and model creative play.

Even kids who are used to entertaining themselves may occasionally need a helping hand to get their creative juices flowing. Consider using an activity jar to help them come up with ideas. More activities to put in your activity jar can be found here and here. But remember: don’t come up with ideas for them all the time. Give your children the freedom to explore their world and use their imaginations as often as possible.

And then, since you know you’re giving them the opportunity to develop their imaginations and independence, you can smile and let go of your guilt the next time you hear the words, “I’m bored…”


  1. I’m in agreement with everything you say EXCEPT limiting tech time. I’m not talking about mindless video watching when I say this, but I think it’s important to recognize that electronics and mindlessness are no longer synonymous. It may sound revolutionary, but I challenge you to see the value of letting them plug in at will. When I stopped limiting access for my kids, I was amazed at the doors that opened to them; the avenues they explored and the winding paths of learning they found of their own accord. My youngest is a wealth of geological and botanical facts; his older brother spent hours mastering animal sketches, trapping, game-dressing, tanning and survival skills with the aid of YouTube; and their sister has learned to sketch portraits, play two new instruments, gleaned enough coding knowledge to secure a job moderating a web server and sufficient know-how in livestock care to feel comfortable “farm sitting” when local homesteaders wish to vacation. All these pursuits came to fruition without prompting or oversight. As parents, we need to be aware that our perception may be outdated, and take time to assess the skills and creative outlets that your children gather online.

    • I agree with you – I’m not at all against tech and I certainly would never say it’s mindless. But I think there’s a lot to be said for having a wide variety of experiences. Hands on play is important too. I see a lot of kids who spend all their free time on video games which don’t do a lot to expand the imagination. Of course, every parent will decide for themselves where to draw the line. My main point is that being bored can open kids up to solving their own problems and using their imagination.

    • Completely agree my kids tech time is not limited in any way and they are often that not shunning tech for imaginative play because we allow them to become bored of tech rather than obsessed due to restriction. Let kids self regulate trust them, how would adults like to be told they couldn’t look at Facebook or read an article or any other hobbies or relaxing activity.

      • I wish my kids would “get bored with tech time” They do not. I have 3 2E kids and the instant feedback nature of tech stimulates their brain in a way that is like a drug. Unless I put limits on it, it would be all they would do. They love crafts, science, reading, cooking, nature, etc and if tech is removed, come up with extremely creative and enriching things to do with their time, but if I don’t set tech limits they’d never move on to those things.

        • That was my experience too, Brenda. I’m sure some kids are able to self regulate, but many of them can’t. As an educator, I speak to many parents who don’t know what to do – their kids lose interest in everything outside of tech.

  2. Kristina Kossack June 13, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks for publishing this.’I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Can you source the studies that back this up? I’d love to delve deeper into this.

    • Hi Jacob, I’ve been a mother and an educator for over 25 years and have read every article and book I can get my hands on about the development of creativity in children. Plus my own observations of kids has shown me what happens when you let bored children figure out how to entertain themselves. There’s so much information out there. Example: “If intrinsic motivation is one key to a child’s creativity, the crucial element in cultivating it is time: open-ended time for the child to savor and explore a particular activity or material to make it her own. Perhaps one of the greatest crimes adults commit against a child’s creativity is robbing the child of such time.” From Goleman, Kaufman and Ray (1992) The Creative Spirit, 63

      A quick google search will bring up an incredible amount of research on the topic. This article is a great place to start: http://www.exquisite-minds.com/creative-learning/ I’m sure you’ll also find plenty of research that disagrees with my opinion, especially when it comes to my stance on tech. I’m not at all against technology, but I think it’s often misused as a babysitter. I limited t.v. and video games for my kids and don’t regret it. But each person will make up their own minds about what’s right for them. Happy researching!

  4. I do agree to you Carla. I was a trainer in popular ed…a licensed secondary school teacher and now a deputy school head…tech is useful to kids when at the start you can guide them to do only those useful prograns and not allow them to just play video games…I still believe that human interaction is more helpful esoecially in dicerning characters…these are my buts and ifs as one of my son was hooked in playing video games that until now that he is on his early thirties he still spend his gree hours playing games on ps4…

    • Yes, there are definitely pros and cons to tech – it opens a wonderful world of possibilities, but can also eat up free time and cut us off from others.

  5. Great article. It’s about finding the right balance of tech v free play I think and also bearing in mind that sitting down staring at a screen for hours on end is not healthy. Sitting is apparently the new smoking – interesting article here on this https://www.diygenius.com/your-desk-job-is-killing-you-the-truth-about-sitting-down-infographic/

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