Do children need to be bored?

Children need a little boredom, writes Nigel Farndale in The Telegraph.

 With more toys than ever, children are overstimulated and unable to focus their attention.

 How can a jigsaw puzzle that might take hours to solve compete with a PlayStation game that has the synapses fizzing within seconds?

We did succumb to a Wii last year, however, and I regret letting it into the house. Not only is it the rival of den-making, football-kicking and tree-climbing, it is the enemy of reading. But ordering your children to turn the Wii off and read a book instead hardly sends out a positive signal about the pleasures of reading – which is a shame, because a child who has discovered the magical world that lies between the covers of a good book is rarely bored. I have a feeling our Wii is going to meet with an accident any day now, and will take several months, possibly several years, to repair.

There’s no such thing as overstimulation, counters Amanda Marcotte on DoubleX. Farndale is just a curmudgeon, she writes.

Constant stimulation may annoy curmudgeons, but it helps work those growing brains into the sort of brains that parents supposedly want for their kids.

. . . After all, a good video game is a rapid-fire series of problem-solving situations. Shouldn’t we want kids to spend their leisure time working on that? (Scientist friend on hand wants it to be known that video games are used as therapy for ADHD kids, to retrain their brains to concentrate.)

Do kids need the stimulation provided by gaming? Or would they be better off spending the time with a jigsaw puzzle, a book, a ball or a tree? I’m pro-book, but I have almost no experience with video games.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Boredom inspires creativity.

    Boredom means trouble. Usually in a good way.

  2. Funny. Interesting title, especially. I thought I was the only one who thinks that boredome can be very good. Imagination needs time to ruminate and overstimulation (especially by ideas dreamed up by adults somewhere and sold to families) can be overrated.

  3. I don’t know of very good data one way or another on this.

    My impression is not that kids who watch a lot of TV, play video games etc *can’t* pay attention, it’s more a matter of their expectations. They expect that things they interact with to do something on their own, that small actions on their part (or none) will lead to dramatic actions. Hence, long study of the inner structure of a lily, for example, is boring because nothing happens.

    But surely it’s important for parents to model for children the kind of resourcefulness we expect from them when “there’s nothing to do.”

  4. First of all, anybody who thinks there is no such thing as overstimulation obviously has little to no actual interaction with real children. I would like to set up a babysitting date wherein those people would accompany my six-year old to one of their friends’ birthday parties, jack the said six-year old up on sugar and active play, and /then/ that person can tell me whether or not overstimulation exists.

    Second, if the author of the opposing view is this Amanda Marcotte, then I would say considering the source is a really good idea.

    Finally, boredom isn’t necessarily good or bad — it’s just a state in which we all enter at some point — but learning how to cope with boredom is a very good skill to learn early and review often. Parents can and should teach their kids how to cope with boredom through a variety of means, none of which should be taken to excess.

  5. dangermom says:

    Nope, boredom is definitely good. It can inspire creativity and independent play. I think that a kid who is constantly doing something that someone else designed is going to end up not knowing what he actually wants.

    I don’t object to video games—in *very small* quantities. The trouble with video games is that they’re so overwhelmingly stimulating that a lot of kids can’t tear themselves away, and everything else IRL pales in comparison. (My own 6yo girl is hypnotized by anything with a screen, so I worry about her and strictly limit such things.) Real life isn’t as intense and requires more hard work, so no, that is not the sort of brain I want for my kids. To use some hyperbole, video games can be a bit like cocaine–making everything else look boring and too hard. IME many kids also get cranky afterwards, in a sort of reaction to the weird brand of stimulation screens provide.

    “Rapid-fire problem-solving” is not necessarily what I want my kid to learn–most of the time, after all, the game’s solution is to shoot the problem. Video games are very reactive–you don’t think too hard, you don’t ponder implications or anything like that, you just react to what’s on the screen. You’re not creating or expressing your thoughts or working your way through a complex set of propositions to come to a conclusion and an opinion. Sure, some video games involve tricky puzzles (I was a Myst fan myself), but it’s still not as good as real life or books.

  6. False dichotomy, as there’s no reason to have to choose between the two.

  7. Also, it depends on the video game. It depends on the book.

    But I like Dan Willingham’s explanation. It’s worrisome that children EXPECT bells and whistles. There is a great deal of stuff in the non-digital world that deserve their quiet contemplation. I’ll support that kind of boredom any day.

  8. Math Teacher says:

    If you’re bored, your boring.

  9. Math Teacher says:

    If you’re bored, you’re boring!

  10. Marcotte doesn’t have kids, and thus, her opinion is meaningless.

    My son blew off his junior year of high school, thanks to online games. I wasn’t as vigilant as I might have been, and while I wouldn’t say he was addicted, it sure was a time-suck.

    Games can teach problem solving, but you’re still at the mercy of the game designer. No matter how many forking patterns are built into the game, it’s not the same as making up your own activity.

  11. An hour or two of WOW or a TV program is fine. 5 hours per day is a problem. My children are allowed screen time everyday; they still manage the time to read, draw, play outside, swim, bowl, and fence. But, ofcourse, we homeschool, so they have a lot of free time on their hands. Bordom is fine. Anythings that becomes a time-suck is negative, whether that’s gaming, TV, and, yes, even reading. My oldest will curl up on the sofa and read for hours. Reading can become too passive. Excercise, physical labor, and interacting with others is good for the soul.

    Balance, balance, balance.

  12. I think there’s a difference between the momentary boredom of someone being challenged to dream up a new activity, and the prolonged, enforced boredom of someone who is actually being prevented from becoming active.

  13. Quoting Ms. Marcotte on childrearing is like quoting Michael Vick on pet ownership. But I’ll chime in with others – video games can be fun but they’re addictive and they’re certainly not as good as fishing.

  14. Cranberry says:

    “Mom, I’m bored.”

    “Go clean your room, then.”

    (Child is no longer bored, either absorbed in cleaning his room, or finding something else to do.)

  15. If they’re climbing trees and throwing balls around, they’re being “constantly stimulated” by those actions.

    KateC: Isn’t the problem there that he preferred other things to his studies, not the specific identity of the other things?

    If he’d been playing basketball instead of studying and threw away his Junior year, it’s not like that’d raelly be any better than playing video games…

  16. While I’m a fan of the idea put forth in Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson (amazon link here that today’s media and diversions stimulate cognitive development in more advanced ways than previous media did, I definitely think that a balance is needed. I think downtime can be a welcome respite from any activity that’s been done for a while, whether that activity is reading, playing video games, or anything else.

    I agree, also, with Sigivald’s point. Again, balance is key.

  17. Sigivald:
    1. Different kind of stimulation, more under the control of the child and stimulation by the real world.

    2. Yup. But access to screen-based diversions is so much easier, and there’s so much of it, and they keep you sucked in more than activities where you keep having to exert effort.

    3. True. But again, most kids have less constant access to a basketball court than to a computer or video game set-up.

  18. I agree that boredom is not a bad thing. If you are bored you have a problem to solve: how not to be bored. That can lead to something worthwhile.

    We got our first game system a year ago and my kids are 14 and 16. I resisted for a long time because my oldest is very into screens, which have been limited to one degree or another most of his life (he is also a prolific reader, so one needn’t negate the other). However, we have found the Wii to be a positive addition to our lives. My kids spend most of their free time pursuing their own interests, but the Wii brings them together, and it is very social. They are constantly engaging with each other as they play. The teen years can be a little strange for sibs who might start growing apart, this has helped. Of course, we also enjoy many board games.

  19. Bill Leonard says:

    Hmm…Perhaps I am older than a good many posters here.

    However, while we didn’t have TV until I was almost ten, and then on a limited-availability basis for three or four more years (we’re talking the rural Midwest here), I was never bored as a kid.

    My cousins and I had climbed every tree of any size in the area reachable by bikes (balloon-tire bombers, the paper-boy’s friend, of course) by the time we were 11 or 12.

    Sports followed the seasons. Every kid somehow knew intuitively when it was football season; time for sleds and snow sports; marbles; softball/baseball (which lasted throught the summer and early fall); and basketball for what were generically known as pansies.

    Fireworks were illegal in Iowa (though there was always an older cousin able to make a run down into Missouri for skyrockets and the other really good sutff), so we made our own.

    You’d be amazed how much fun can be had out of toilet paper tubes loaded with match-headson top of black powder, set on a 3X3 plywood base and fused by black powder painstakingly dribbled into toilet paper, then carefully rolled into a fuse. Of course, most of the fun was in the contruction and prep.

    And when it all went off, nirvana! (Truth to tell, I think my dad and my uncles all knew whatwas going on, and allowed it, while making strategec and tactical moves here and there to make sure no one lost a hand or an eye, or got burnt.)

    We also made our own sligshots and bows and arrows (cut quarter-inch strips to desired length, cut a notch in one end, put the other end in a pencil sharpener).

    And in and around that, we listened to the radio, read or played traditional board games (in those days, checkers, parcheesi, Monopoly, perhaps a few others).

    All in all, a pretty good and non-boring childhood.

    Perhaps huge doses of electronic games or anything else is boring in and of itself?


  20. Isn’t the term OVERstimulation inherently negative?

    Also, no one seems to have addressed the disconnect between the stimulation of video games and the way 99% of schools operate today. Whether you agree with the way schools are run or not; whether you think video games overstimulate in a good or bad way; the way that video games cause the minds of young people to develop is disconnected from our current education system.

    Stimulation in school is not, and in my opinion should not be, handed to students in the way that video games engage students. It’s expected that students will make an attempt to engage in material, which in my school happens all too rarely. Video games certainly stimulate many parts of the brain, though they really don’t seem to help students to be self-motivated and willing to problem solve by going out and finding solutions rather than picking one form a few presented them by the creator of a game.

  21. Sigi–you can’t, even as a high school male, play basketball endlessly. There’s a certain point of exhaustion. Games, not so much. You can sit there for hours, and you don’t need anyone else.

  22. Soapbox0916 says:

    I have to disagree with your statement that “Marcotte doesn’t have kids, and thus, her opinion is meaningless.” This is really not aimed at you, but your statement struck a raw nerve of mine today.

    As a single female with no children, I still have a valid opinion on kids and I have some very good advice to give to parents from a neutral experience. I am very analytical and I do pay attention to what is going on with both the adults and the children. I am hesitant to give advice to anyone, but when I do, it is because I have a very strong reason to do so and I have based my advice on a lot of thought and research.

    Most of the time I am “blown off” by parents because I am not a parent. I don’t claim to always be right, but I have seen the disasters that have happened when my advice is ignored simply because I am a non-parent and then often these same parents follow the horrible advice of a fellow parent just because the other person was a parent.

    I hear constantly from parents that non-parents just don’t understand. I am 39 with non-parental experience with kids and I am not some young inexperienced person in life. We non-parents understand more than many parents think we do, and sometimes we understand the truth that parents will not admit or accept.

    If Marcotte is wrong, say why she is wrong and attack on logic. (Jumps off my soapbox)

  23. My kids have have mostly unlimited access to the TV, computers and many video game systems in our house. I haven’t noticed much in terms of negative effects. Those choices generally compete with board games, books, outside play, Lego, etc. and very often don’t win.

    Both kids have more of an attention span then most kids I know, my daughter especially. Both are also homeschooled which I sometimes suspect is a more important factor for them in terms of their attention span then video games.

  24. My children also have a lot of access to computers and video games. And surprisingly, they are not a bunch of idiots unable to entertain themselves without outside stimulation. They love creative play and have no problems interacting in intelligent ways with other children when not playing guitar hero.

    I think people who were big readers as children tend to think narrowly about other ways to interact with the world. There are unlimited positive ways to live out our lives and to raise our children. I’m always suspicious of any claims to one right way.

  25. Cranberry says:

    I’ve been reading reports in the press about brain research. It seems that the brain is never idle. It is always active. Thus, I’m not impressed by the argument that video games are good because they “stimulate” the brain. The brain is always “on”.

    I would be more worried about excessive stimulation robbing a child of the opportunity to be contemplative and self-directed. Some of my children’s friends spend a great deal of time playing video games. In my opinion, the games’ challenges are fairly simplistic, when compared to the challenge of manipulating sand, for example, or mastering a piece of music. A little bit is fine. Too much time spent on video games robs a child of the chance to interact with the complex, 3-d, non-programmed real world.

  26. I’ll never forget the story of the Vietnam POW who built a house piece-by-piece in his mind. It took him two years to finish it, but he was never bored. I have little sympathy for whining kids that claim to be bored.

  27. I personally believe that anyone who was a child during an era when video games or television competed with books, non-electronic toys, and similar has the right to an opinion on this issue. I grew up during the 80s and 90s, during which parents and educators certainly did panic about whether TV and games were causing children to “lose their attention span,” if what I read in the newspapers of the time was any guide. TV was very much a part of my life from the time I was born, and there were quite a few shows I just couldn’t stand to miss, growing up (which had, to be fair, been the case for many children for at least three decades; and judging from relatives’ accounts, probably even before that, as plenty of children in the radio era had favourite programs they never missed either). My brother and I were also avid players of video games, & would sometimes get quite upset when forbidden to play them, etc.

    I never experienced television and games as having any kind of hypnotic, brain-numbing allure which made the likes of building blocks, Legos, books, digging holes in the backyard, climbing trees, exploring the woods, etc, seem dull and unappealing. On the contrary, they all co-existed very peacefully for me. I was also an aspiring writer from a young age, and would frequently watch TV and movies with an eye to ideas that I might want to use in stories of my own. When my brother and I played video games, we’d make up stories about them together, and use those stories in our own fantasy play later on. They were an addition to that fantasy play, for us; an enriching element, not a substitution.

    One complaint that frequently gets bandied about among gamers, from what I’ve seen, is that many people who criticize video games for being detrimental to children and teens don’t actually know that much about modern video games at all. And this isn’t a baseless complaint: many critics of video games seem to believe that video games are universally violent shoot-em-ups or Grand Theft Auto, or don’t realize that game technology has advanced since the days of Pac-Man, and still believe that all games are nothing but crude sprites mindlessly eating or shooting things, to the accompaniment of electronic bleeps and bloops, with no rhyme or reason behind any of it.

    While I won’t deny that there are video games which are quite graphically violent (though those are generally sold with warnings and “mature” ratings, and parents need to take responsibility for keeping an eye on what their kids are playing to make sure it’s appropriate for them), there are a lot which aren’t, and a lot which require patience, concentration, and attention to detail. Japanese RPGs in particular often have fairly complex stories, with detailed characters who grow, develop, face personal conflicts, and confront their own fears and hangups. While they generally still don’t quite have the depth of the plot or characterization found in a good novel, players whose primary interest is in shooting and blowing things up usually don’t have the patience for the relatively large amount of text and dialogue in these games. (The fact that some of them sell extremely well, though, like the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series, seems to suggest that there is a substantial market of gamers who enjoy games with lots of text and in-depth plots.)

    In fact, there are some contingents of game players who complain about the unbalanced ratio of story to gameplay in some games– some think that certain games or certain series are too much like interactive books or TV shows, at the expense of fun gameplay. Contrarily, other factions within the gaming community will deride such critics for having no attention span, being unwilling to think in depth or to spend time on anything that doesn’t provide immediate gratification, etc. There are games which don’t, in fact, provide much immediate gratification, if you just pick them up and expect to have fun right away– not just because some of them take you through long story segments before you’re allowed to play at all, but because some have complex mechanics and strategy and rely on getting the hang of a complicated skill or level system (sometimes to a degree mandating in-game tutorials) before you can really get into the “good parts” of the game.

    As for the technology, I’ll say only that graphics and music in games have advanced to a point where I’ve run into quite a few people who were inspired to pursue studies in computer animation or music composition, because they were so inspired by the visuals or music of particular games.

    Many people are also unaware of the existence of a burgeoning “fandom” culture on the Internet, in which fans of particular books, TV shows, video games, etc, create “fanfiction” and “fanart”– stories, art, and comics based on the plots and characters of their favourite media. While the quality runs the gamut from abysmal to excellent, some of the best work is genuinely good and creative, shows at least an adequate understanding of the elements of art or of fiction writing, and (in the case of writing) impeccably spelled and punctuated. And while fandom has its own cliques and factions, some of these factions are quick to criticize and deride anyone who spells poorly, writes sloppily, mischaracterizes the characters they’re writing about, or plagiarizes others’ work– so quality of work is encouraged through peer pressure, not through the influence of adults.

    Children and teens who devote their free time to fanfic and fanart (speaking from the perspective of someone who spent a lot of time in fandom as a teenager) are obviously not responding to their favorite media by shutting down into a state in which they passively expect to be spoon-fed entertainment. Rather, they’re using it to fuel their own imaginations, composing new adventures for their favourite characters; or they find it a useful way to practice their own writing or art, if they aspire to create their own original work. And while the vast majority of the fanfiction I’ve seen could do with some editing, sometimes a lot of editing, a lot of it is obviously the product of very active imaginations– even if the author’s knowledge of grammar, spelling, etc, or of plot and style, isn’t adequate to doing their ideas justice.

    Some creators of fanart and fanfic also devote large amounts of time to their work, putting in hours at a stretch to complete a picture or finish a multi-chapter story. So for them, at least, the “quick” entertainment of a TV show or video game is clearly no bar to being able to put out the effort and focus required for a sustained creative endeavour.

    Personally, I’ve lost interest over the years in TV, and watch it only rarely, but I still do play video games. I can play them for hours at a stretch, but I can just as easily spend the same number of hours reading or working on a jigsaw puzzle. And I still spend quite a lot of time ruminating, thinking to myself while externally appearing to be doing little or nothing, going on long walks to think, etc.

    In fact, I’d suggest that we who grew up with electronic and traditional entertainment side by side need to be listened to and taken seriously by educators concerned about new media’s effect on children. Not just because of the personal testimonies we can provide as to how TV and games did or didn’t sway us away from books or personal creativity, but because we may be able to provide insights into how new media could be used to enhance the learning process– those raised without video games and similar can only conjecture as to what actually goes on in kids’ heads when playing; we can tell you what happens, from our own experience.

    (And BTW, I’ve played some games which were excruciatingly dull and boring; even some normally entertaining games can become wearisome when you have to spend hours gaining levels, searching for rare items, or trudging around mazes. There are times when shutting off the console and grabbing a book provides far more immediate pleasure and gratification.)

  28. Some level of “boredom” is fun I guess. When my kids report that they are bored, I retort that they must be boring. I don’t allow TV or video games before 4 (2 in the summer) since we homeschool, so they get plenty of time to read and otherwise occupy their minds.

  29. they keep you sucked in more than activities where you keep having to exert effort

    I disagree. You definitely have to keep exerting effort in order to continue to advance in a video game. Gamers can be unbelievably disciplined. IMO, the difference is that there is a much more rapid return on investment, with next to no risk.

    In a video game, there are very few surprises or unexpected consequences, and it’s easy to measure your progress toward a goal. Also, when you actually follow the story (instead of just moving on to the next objective), it can be really cool to see everyone in the village come out to cheer for you – the hero of Townsville! (Even the chickens.) The thing is, IRL, you don’t often have those luxuries.

    Video games certainly stimulate many parts of the brain, though they really don’t seem to help students to be self-motivated and willing to problem solve by going out and finding solutions rather than picking one form a few presented them by the creator of a game.

    Disagree here as well. A quest given in a video game might tell the player to “defeat the mighty dragon Xathrax,” but rarely gives much in the way of strategy. It’s up to the player to figure out what battle strategy will work most effectively – whether through trial and error, reconaissance, or online research.

    (And this is coming from someone who finds video games incredibly closed-ended.)


  1. […] more from the original source:  Do children need to be bored? « Joanne Jacobs tags: book-instead, child, discovered-the-magical, hardly-sends, lies-between, pleasures, […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kriley19, JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: Boredom: Is it good for kids? […]