By Dr. Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: Beware: a new trend shows our Micromanaged, Over-structured, “Plugged-In” Generation can’t stand boredom. Maybe it’s because we might be doing too much scheduling, entertaining and solving? Just a thought! 

There is a concerning new trend with twenty-first century kids. Perhaps because they’re been programmed and scheduled and micromanaged and adult supervised, many seem to have a tough time enjoying their own company and entertaining themselves. So when it comes to free time, they’re perplexed. Their solution: plugging into computers, televisions or video games or saying those dreaded words that every parent hates hearing: “I’m bored!” And then they expect US to entertain THEM.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. This is the time of year my email box is flooded with parent queries centering on one issue: “How do I entertain my kid without breaking the bank?” And it’s a legitimate worry.

Well, here’s a thought: Why not rethink your role and deliberately choose not be a social director and plan your child’s every waking hour? In fact, you’ll actually be doing your kid a favor if you don’t play, “Julie McCoy.”These after school moments or weekends can be a huge opportunity to help our kids learn crucial life skills like creative thinking, resourcefulness and problem solving that you can’t learn when everything is so programmed and supervised. (Hopefully that should alleviate a little guilt, heh?)

Why not see those unscheduled times as a golden opportunity to teach your munchkin to entertain himself and learn to handle that glorious commodity called “boredom?” After all, your kid is going to be in his own company for the rest of his life – and there’s no better time than now to help him learn to enjoy his own company. Depending on your child’s age and ability, here are tips to get you started that I shared on the TODAY show.

Tips Help Kids Entertain Themselves

Help your child learn to be alone

A word to the wise: if your kids come back after two minutes of alone time, you may need to first teach your kids how to enjoy their own company. The truth is some of our kids actually need to learn how to play alone. So start by thing of age-appropriate activities that your child could “do alone.” (For a young child: doing a puzzle; for an older kid: learning to play Solitaire).

Use the “Baby Step” Model: Teach your child the “solo activity using the baby step model: First show how to do the game together. Next, watch and guide to ensure he knows the rules. Finally, wean him from you being there until voila! – You step back and your child is playing alone.

Build ‘boredom’ in

The reality is you still have to be the boss of free play. At first your kids aren’t going to run off like Tom Sawyer. Put up a calendar where you and your kid mark in regularly scheduled weekend or summer activities (like days at summer school, camp, sports or swim lessons). Keep some hours open and point out that those are times when your kid is “free” and on his own. Ideally you want to find the right balance between “free play vs. adult supervised”; “outdoor play vs. indoor play”; “structured activities vs. unstructured.” Only you will know the right balance for your child, but keep an eye on what your child’s current weekend or after-school schedule looks like. Only then will you know which direction to alter that balance.

Set clear, unplugged rules

Set a specific limit for TV or video game viewing.

Keep in mind that the average kid aged 8 to 17 is plugged into some kind of electronic device at least 7 ½ hours a day, so weaning your kid away from those video games.

Your first step is to assess just how often your child is “plugged in.” This weekend take a casual assessment (without your kid knowing you’re monitoring). How many minutes is she watching TV or surfing the net or playing video games? Decide a maximum time allotment and then post those rules ASAP so your kid is clear of those expectations. If not, you may end up with Coach Potato.

Wean yourself from being your kid’s Chief Entertainer

Of course a toddler can’t occupy his time alone – nor do you want him to. But you will want to graduallystart your child weaning away from needing you 24/7 when you see he or she is ready to learn those independent skills–certainly by preschool.

Think “baby steps”: just wean him a little bit at a time by encouraging him to handle life slowly and confidently without you. But that goes for teens as well. I’ve never seen so many who expect to be entertained (I know I’m not describing your kid, but the neighbors’ children but there is a disturbing trend that today’s children don’t know how to enjoy their own company. Just saying.)

You gauge your child’s abilities, but remember your parenting goal is to help your child learn to someday live (and play!) without you.

Start with “I’ll be back in one minute—I can’t wait to see what you drew when I return. Surprise me!” Then keep your word, and keep increasing alone time. (You can still be in the room for a young child – just not always managing his every move).

Find activities to keep your child engaged “Solo Style”

Here are a few solo ideas of activities that will keep your kids engaged. The secret is to tailor the ideas to your child’s attention span, abilities and age when you start child-directed free play.

  1. Get a library card.  

Profound, eh? The greatest solo activity for a kid is a good book. So encourage your child to read! Enroll your kid an after school, weekend or summer library program. Or… Get your child a magazine subscription. Check out books on tape to listen to in the car. (And then discuss them. It’s a great way to boost vocabulary and auditory recall!) Download a classic onto your tween’s ipod. There are fabulous lists of free downloads on Kindle. I just downloaded The Wizard of Oz to pass a very long plane delay.

  1. Start a hobby

Weekends, after school or summer is a good time to start a child on a hobby. The right match with the right kid often turns into a lifelong love.

The trick is to find one that supports your child’s interests and ability—and is one that he can do alone.

You may have to teach him how to get started or enroll him with a tutor or class, but so be it! Playing a guitar. Knitting. Drawing. Photography. Cooking. Gardening. Coin or stamp collecting. Hobbies not only nurture a child’s talent, but also become a wonderful relaxer, and can last a lifetime!

  1. Embrace the great outdoors

While that sounds simple enough, sometimes kids need a push to get out the door. (Or in a snow blizzard – try the basement or the garage).

Keep a basket filled with fun things that keep kids entertained (bubble blowers, rubber balls, sidewalk chalk, scooters, shovels and pails).

Set up a basketball net.

Give your kid a bag and tell him to go collect something (bugs, leaves, flowers, rocks—collections are great).

Provide a kite building kit.

Hand out plastic cups, spoons and bowls and encourage him to go dig (dirt and water and kids just go together).

Fill a can with water and tell your little kids to paint a fence. (I don’t know why that one works, but it kept my three boys busy for hours).

The truth is many of our kids are “Nature and Play Deprived” which is a tragedy! Thirty years of research proves that outdoor free play is crucial for our kids social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Open the door – show your child the great outdoors!

  1. Think boxes…boxes…boxes (did I say boxes?)

The Smithsonian voted the cardboard box as the absolute best toy – ever. I’m with them! They are glorious substances for creativity.  Stock up on them – and in every size from small jewelry boxes to refrigerator crates. They’re not only free, but also can provide hours of imaginative play. Give your kids marking pens and masking tape and they can make igloos, forts, villages, castles, garages, storefronts and hotels. Provide flashlights and they can turn them into caves. Put sheets over the top of boxes and chairs and there’s a whole new dimension: indoor forts! Fun, fun fun! Exactly what kids need, need, need.

  1. Teach unplugged games.

love Bobbi Conner’s great book, Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. It’s a parent and teacher must because it’s chock full of fabulous outdoor ideas. It also has dozens of great childhood games like Mother May I, Duck, Duck, Goose, Round Robin that you can teach your child. Just teach it once and your kid can teach the rest of the neighborhood. And while you’re at it, why not marbles, jacks, and hula hoops? Playground games are great and kids can play them anywhere!

Now the absolute last thing I’m suggesting you do is all this stuff. But why not just trying one new thing this weekend? Just one.

Stick to a realistic plan that works for your family. And then if one of your kids just dares to say, “I’m bored!” tell them you have the perfect solution. It’s a list of household chores that you just happen to have posted on the fridge. I bet you anything he’ll find something to do.

There! Isn’t it ironic that we even have to teach kids how to play and occupy “alone time”? Childhood is being redefined, and it’s not always positive. Even in preschools, research has found the children get only 48 minutes a day for free and active play.

I’m a big one for kids and lemonade stands, cloud gazing, daisy chains and ball bouncing. I’m also convinced just a little more time in the dirt and water and unstructured adult activities would reduce a lot of stress and produce happier, self-reliant children.

How to Create “Boredom Boxes” to Help Pass the Lull Time 

Start looking around your house for recyclable items and put them into shoeboxes. Save things like tin foil scraps, paper towel tubes, bubble wrap, and popsicle sticks (just keep a bag under your sink). Or clear out your drawers of extra pens, paper clips or scarves.

Put a few objects that might go together and the box becomes an instant “mini entertainment centers.”

When your child says, “I’m bored, just point to a box. The best thing is it doesn’t cost a dime, takes you five minutes to put the objects together and keeps your kid occupied for hours!

Here are a few Boredom Boxes (and there are endless possibilities–be creative and get your kids involved!):

Picasso Box: Glue, empty toilet paper rolls, popsicle sticks, paper clips and sheets of tinfoil. (Great for kids who like to do things with their hands)

Frank Lloyd Wright Box: Hammer, nails, wood pieces, sandpaper  (For your more active one-and not for wee ones or kids who do need supervision!)

Frida Kahlo Box: Paper, crayons, pencils, paint, paintbrush

Coco Channel Box: Hats, scarves, old shirts, torn sheets, bath towels (for capes) for dress up and pretend.

Louisa May Alcott Box: Paper, pencils, or a journal.

Nathan Lane Box: Draw out your kid’s singing, dancing, writing, or acting talent and suggest they write, direct and perform plays (for the neighborhood, their family, or certainly grandma and grandpa.

Paul McCartney Box: Make musical instruments out of paper tubes, wax paper and a rubber band or put a kazoo inside. Look around your house for any kinds of objects that make fun sounds.

Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally recognized expert and author on children, teens, parenting, bullying and moral development. She is an NBC contributor appearing over 100 times on the TODAY show and is the regular parenting expert on Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers. Her work has been featured on Dr. Phil, Dateline, The View, The Doctors, Fox News, The Early Show and CNN and well as in Newsweek, People, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, Washington Post, The New York Times and The Globe and Mail.  She was an MSNBC contributor to two televised “Education Nation” specials. Dr. Borba is the awardwinning
author of 22 parenting and educational books translated into 14 languages. Titles include: Don’t Give Me That Attitude!, Parents Do Make A Difference, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday
Challenges and Wildest Worries, and Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me!, No More Misbehavin’, Building Moral Intelligence (cited by Publishers’ Weekly as “Among the most noteworthy of 2001”), and Esteem Builders used by 1.5 million students worldwide. She writes as the parenting expert for Dr. Oz’s website, as well a daily column for her blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check: www.micheleborba.com Twitter: @micheleborba