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How my kids learned to live with boredom

Allowing my children to get bored during the school holidays let them devise ways to entertain themselves

Published on Jul 6, 2014 11:54 AM

I felt the first pricks of doubt as a few of us mums shared our holiday plans. 

It was the first Wednesday of the June school vacation and we had arranged to go bouncing at a trampoline park with our boys, who are classmates.

So what are you guys doing this month, someone asked. 

Some travel plans were outlined, some holiday classes tossed about. Then one of them revealed her son's schedule: a Lego workshop lasting a few days, followed by a week-long science camp, then a Chinese enrichment programme. 

Uh oh, I thought. Am I letting my son down with my usual laissez-faire ways?

Besides a planned family road trip to Kuala Lumpur and a visit to Legoland Water Park with his cousins, our calendar was wide open.

I've always thought that was the beauty of school holidays. As a kid, I revelled in the thought of having a full four to six weeks stretching ahead, beautiful blank days just waiting to be filled up. 

Besides a short driving holiday with our parents, usually to Cameron Highlands or Genting Highlands, my siblings and I passed the rest of the time reading, playing, cycling or simply chilling.

There might be the occasional sleepover at a cousin's place, the odd trip to the zoo and swimming on weekends, but we were mostly happy to be left to our own devices and go with the flow.

Of course, parents then did not have the slew of child-minding options that today's mums and dads enjoy - smart devices and holiday programmes galore.

But neither were they expected to engineer endless days of fun and/or learning, which were limited only by how creative and/or industrious we were.

By the fifth day of the recent school holidays, I had grown to dread the constant carping from my two kids: "Mama, it's so boring, we have nothing to do. What game can you play with us? Where can you take us?"

The job of chief entertainment officer is an exhausting one. It requires you to have a bag full of tricks and ideas out of which you can pull a sure winner from morn till set of sun. 

After switching to part-time work last year, I've had the luxury of being able to work from home two days a week, which lets me tackle the daily school runs and clock more face time with my kids.

But this privilege can feel like a burden sometimes. 

It is bad enough during term time, when they often look to me to keep them amused in the afternoons. The fact that I have to work on some days is always lost on them: As long as they can see me, it means I'm available.

With no school to take them off my hands for part of the day, my workload felt like it had doubled. 

When I tried, belatedly, to arrange play dates with their two cousins, I was told the older girl already had gym and science camps lined up. 

I rued my lack of foresight.

Now in Primary 1, my son is old enough to identify his interests and attend the relevant workshops without me having to be within hand-holding distance.

And with her brother for company, my four-year-old girl would likely have been game to give some of these sessions a shot too. If only I had scouted out the appropriate holiday classes earlier.

The experts must be right, though: Kids need room to be bored so as to fire their imagination.

Last year, education expert Teresa Belton told the BBC that society has "developed an expectation of being constantly occupied and constantly stimulated".

But the academic, who has previously studied the impact of television and videos on children's writing, noted: "Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them."

Armed with this solid defence, I turned a deaf ear to my kids' pleas to be entertained on days when I ran out of ideas or energy.

"Go read, draw, colour or play. Do anything or nothing. Use your imagination," I would urge, before trying to disappear into my room with a book and a hopeful heart, willing them to do as told.

Of course, they clung to me like two mournful shadows.

But after being ignored enough times, they turned, as usual, to each other for solace. 

They mastered a new board game called Sorry! and played old-fashioned card games such as Snap and Happy Family.

They took turns zipping around the patio on the skate-scooter. They stood and stared out the windows, side by side. They squabbled. Endlessly.

They also made up rhymes, stories and games.

Their favourite, ironically, was playing school. My son always assumed the role of teacher while his sister played teacher's pet, ever attentive and ready to tell on (phantom) misbehaving classmates. 

They had such fun with this particular role-playing game that they would shoo me away whenever I poked my head in to see what they were up to. 

It became my favourite game too, for it soaked up many idle hours during which my presence was not required. 

The month flew by and my son came back with homework on the first day that school reopened. Chinese spelling was scheduled for the first week too.

"I wish it was still the school holidays and I could just do nothing," he lamented. 

My kids may not have mastered any tangible skills or forged any new interests over the month-long break.

I'm not sure if they managed to "assimilate their experiences through play or observation" from those boring spells either.

But I'm certain they have come to grasp a few realities: boredom is a part of life, and they are their own best antidote to ennui.


How do you help your kids to deal with boredom? Write to suntimes@sph.com.sg