IN DEFENSE OF BOREDOM: It Can Lead to Imaginative Play, Creativity and the Great Outdoors

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

boredom child
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Adapted from “Last Child in the Woods.”

Especially during summer, parents hear the moaning complaint: “I’m borrrred.” Boredom is fear’s dull cousin. Passive, full of excuses, it can keep children from nature — or drive them to it.

In summers past (at least through the fog of memory), children were more likely to be pulled or forced out of their boredom. In the late, hot afternoon, the Mickey Mouse Club might have been enough to pull you in from outside, but most of the day’s TV offered nothing except soaps and quiz games and an occasional cowboy movie — which made you want to leap up and head outside.

“Well, times have changed,” said Tina Kafka, a teacher and mother of three, when I interviewed her for Last Child in the Woods. “Don’t wax too nostalgic,” she advised. “Even if kids have all the unstructured time in the world, they’re probably not outside playing. They’re inside with their video games.”

She recognized how, in her own memories of childhood,  carefully-planned activities pale in comparison to more spontaneous experiences.  Like many parents, she wanted to make sure her own kids have such memories. But how? Here are a few suggestions.

• Recognize that boredom isn’t necessarily a negative. There’s a big difference between a negatively numbed brain and a constructively bored mind. Constructive boredom stimulates creativity. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball.

• Encourage outdoor play, especially in natural settings. Research shows that when children play in natural play spaces, they’re far more likely to invent their own games, than in more structured settings — a key factor in becoming self-directed and inventive as children and later in life.

• If possible, limit electronics. Geocaching and digital cameras used for outdoor photography can be great. Tech isn’t the enemy, but it can certainly be a barrier. Reduce access to computers, texting and TV part of the day — or have tech-free days — and children’s creative boredom can produce results. They may play slowly at first, then imaginatively, freely.

• Find a balance between adult direction and child boredom. Too much boredom can lead to trouble; too much supervision can kill constructive boredom – and the creativity that comes with it. “I structure some unstructured time for their kids, times when they can just draw or paint or read and dream, or especially to go outside, with no deadlines or commutes to lessons,” said Kafka. “I realize that sounds paradoxical – structuring unstructured time, but you’ve got to do it.”

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Sympathetic employers can help. Kafka has the summers off since she works as a teacher. Other parents work at home, either with home businesses or in the traditional stay-at-home role. Today, most parents don’t have that kind of flexibility, but they need more (flexible summer workplace hours, for instance) if they’re going to guide their kids to use boredom wisely.

Parents can also help push for additional funding for community-based summer recreation programs. Summer camps — whether outside of the city or in inner-city parks — are godsends to many working parents, especially single parents. “Adventure playgrounds” provide kids with a supervised (by an adult, at a distance) vacant lot filled with old tires, boards, tools – and places to build and dig.

Most of all, children need adults who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity, adults willing to spend time in nature with kids, adults willing to set the stage so that kids can create their own play and enter nature through their own imaginations.


Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter

Richard Louv

is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network and author of “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” from which this piece is adapted.

In 2012, Richard was Chief Outdoor Officer for the CLIF Kid® Backyard Game of the Year. Click here for more information about this year’s CLIF Kid® contest.

More Reading

The Hybrid Mind

Be a Hummingbird Parent

Here’s to the Parents Who Get Their Kids Outdoors

Don’t Tear Down that Fort!



  1. Great topic and very helpful suggestions. I wrote a post on my own blog a couple of months ago encouraging parents not to fear boredom in their kids, but to embrace it. I don’t know quite how we got here, but I feel as if my generation sees parenting more as being a cruise ship director than being a free play facilitator. I feel that it’s more important to let my children feel bored and find their own inspiration to the next great thing that lies just beyond boredom than it is to entertain and play with them all the time.

  2. Linda McGurk

    Great post! I honestly rarely get the “I’m bored” from my kids and they are amazing at playing imaginatively with very simple means. I think the fact that they’ve played outside a lot from the get-go has really helped in that regard. I don’t remember my parents coming up with activities for me when I was little, but they did give me the gift of playing freely outside whenever I wanted, and now I’m trying to do the same thing for my kids. The hardest part for me is sometimes getting the kids outside, and that’s when it’s sometimes handy to have a few suggested activities up your sleeve, in my opinion.

  3. Modern housing comes with smaller and smaller backyards in most cases. Apartment complexes have limited or no playground space. In one context children are being forced inside as there is no safe place to play. A function of population density and rising land value. To top it off the invasion of electronic devices has indeed become an addictive alternative to the outdoors. The brain is placid, connections in the brain are either lost or strengthened with use, especially in formative years. With continued use of electronic devices kids choose instant entertainment over marching ants.

  4. I know that when I was a kid a little boredom now and then was good for me. It got me outside looking for things to do. It got the cogs of creativity churning in my head. And when you put those two things together you can create entire worlds and find fun things that never even existed! In the words of Mark Twain, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” An occasional dose of boredom and a nudge out the door from my mom helped me focus my imagination, and oh the adventures I had! Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed it, and I shared a link to it on my blog. Cheers!

  5. I can’t believe the timeliness of this article. Recently, most of the teachers at our school attended a workshop with Donna Bryant Goertz during which she spoke about the pitfalls of constantly rescuing children from boredom. She encouraged us to allow for boredom because creativity is born out of boredom.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post!

  6. As one who spent (or wasted?) a good deal of my mother’s life with cries of “I’m bored,” it is not surprising I suppose that I became a landscape architect. My mother never tried to fix that boredom or assuage it in any way except to say “go outside,” and so I did. Since childhood, I have always sought nature as the one place that could heal my restless spirit. This is a wonderful article and I love your work. Thank you!

  7. I’ve been telling my daughters this for years! When the say they’re bored, I say, “Good! Now your creativity & imagination will lead you to do something besides TV or computer time. Usually, within a few minutes, they have pulled out craft materials to make something, they’ve headed outside to play, or they’re reading a book…all things that are much healthier for their bodies & brains.”


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