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Sam’s Story: How embracing boredom is helping my kids’ playtime

12 September 2022

We’ve produced a range of activities for parents and carers this summer that allow you to get creative, encourage play with your children and stave off boredom. But we should be wary of always seeing boredom as the enemy. Here dad Sam tells us how he’s learnt to embrace doing less, and why.

Have you taken the Family Action fun/unfun quiz yet? I did, and I wasn’t surprised to see that I was the fun one in my household. I’m that annoying type of dad who’s always involved. Whether it’s ball games or board games, dancing or drawing, I’m on board.

For those parents who don’t enjoy this stuff and would like to find out how to be better at it I’m sorry, as I’ve got no advice to give you. My secret’s pretty simple… I love this stuff too.

Until I had children I spent a lot of time bemoaning the fact that my friends spent too much time in front of the telly, or at work, or doing anything apart from engaging with the world and each other. I think the strong drive to DO is because I remember that as a child I always seemed to be on my own drawing or reading or making up imaginary worlds and, the truth is, I’ve always felt a little lonely, and that loneliness carried forward even when I was an adult with lots of friends. But then my boys came along and I never felt lonely again.

We’d be playing frisbee in the park, chasing paper aeroplanes down in a race, going for pizza or making our own films. It was, and remains, heaven. The only problem (which I’m sure is pretty common) is that they wouldn’t want to play when I wasn’t around. They’d want to watch TV or look at screens, which is absolutely fine in moderation but, like most parents, I felt responsible for them and wanted them to experience a healthy mix of activities.

I worried about their imagination. Even now I’m a daydreamer and I wanted them to have the powerful inner life I had as a child: it seemed to me that computer games and TV was robbing them of that. So I’d just play with them more. Until, one day, we had some other family stuff come up during the summer holidays at the same time as a huge work deadline… big stuff that meant my wife and I were around to keep them safe, but not as available and present for the first time in their lives.

It was tough, and doubly so as I felt like I was letting my boys down. I still didn’t want them to spend all their time on screen, however, so I’d shout through from where I was working to tell them that they couldn’t watch TV or look at screens, and needed to do anything else. Couldn’t I play with them? They asked, and I told them that I couldn’t right now. What an awful father, right?

And I felt that way right up until, one day, I finished a work meeting early and headed upstairs to their rooms to check on them. I was about to walk in and suggest we do something when I realised they were squealing with delight and giggling. They were drawing and talking about a story they were telling together. It was a story of their own creation, with fantastical monsters I knew they hadn’t seen on any screen or game – the sort of thing I always encouraged, and always moaned never happened in our play.
So I turned back round again, and headed downstairs, leaving their shared world intact.

I’d realised that the reason that sort of emergent, imaginative play never happened was, in some ways, BECAUSE of me. My imagination, enthusiasm; my way of doing things had taken over our play. It came from a good place, but I realised I’d overcompensated.

I thought back to myself as a child scrawling or drawing and realised that … I was bored stiff most of the time, and out of that boredom grew the fruits of imagination.

I thought back to myself as a child scrawling or drawing and realised that, although I see it as valuable now, the truth is that I was bored stiff most of the time, and out of that boredom grew the fruits of imagination. I’ve carried this lesson with me to this day and, though I still play with my children all the time, I also allow us all time to be bored, because sometimes boredom provides us with the time to reflect and generate the imaginative fuel we need to play.

This article is part of our Play Programme, which shares early years expertise, practical tips and simple activities for families looking for quick and easy ideas to build play into the everyday and help their children thrive.