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by Barbara Frank

When our family first began homeschooling, I wanted every day to be chock-filled with discovery and wonder for my children. I pictured incredible, mind-blowing unit studies, fascinating books and curriculum, and countless field trips to get them out of the house a lot. I intended to provide so many worthwhile educational opportunities for them that they would never be bored.

To me, bored children signified failure on my part: failure to hold their interest, to keep them engaged in learning about the world around them. I had often experienced intense boredom as a child trapped in a school room. I did not want my children to feel that way.

But no matter how carefully I chose learning materials and opportunities, I couldn't always find something that interested everyone. Sometimes, someone got bored. After all, people have different interests.

To make matters worse, there were also times when we weren't doing school that they were bored. I dreaded hearing someone exclaim:

"Mom, there's nothing to do!"

I felt it was up to me to keep them occupied and entertained, even though I had so many other responsibilities. When we first began homeschooling, my older children were five and six. We did school in the morning, and in the afternoons I ran myself ragged working at home as a free-lance editor, while keeping the house running and the kids busy. We had recently moved, so I also needed to unpack and organize everything.

This went on for about six months, and then I got sick, and not just for a day, either. I was sick for nearly three months. I had developed a chronic medical condition that was aggravated by stress. I put my editing job on hold, and my husband took over my household duties at night, after work. As for the children? They were forced to entertain themselves, and they did.

It was certainly messier than when I was on my feet, but they would dig out craft supplies and make their own projects. They invented games that they would play for hours. Sure, there were times when they were bored. After all, I was sick and couldn't take them anywhere during the day. But after a bit of complaining, one of them would come up with something to do, and then they were off.

At least once a day, they would get tired of each other. Then my daughter ended up in her room reading or playing with her dolls while my son drew very elaborate drawings, some so large they were more like small murals.

While I was sick, they learned to take ownership of their time, to make their own decisions about what to do instead of relying on me. The boredom they experienced was so much more productive than the boredom of being trapped that I experienced as a public school inmate. Since then, the free time homeschooling affords has allowed them to grow so much that now, as young adults, they don't have enough time to do all the things they'd like to do. They have many varied interests, and are always open to new experiences, too.

As for me, I am no longer the Entertainment Committee, and that's good, because we now have two more children and a home business. My younger children learned to entertain themselves much earlier than the first two did, because I wised up. My older two children taught me a very important lesson:

Kids must be allowed to get bored. Sounds scary, doesn't it? What's worse than a bored kid? Whining, following you around, not doing anything productive or I.Q.-raising. Why on earth would you want a bored kid around the house at all, much less make a habit of it?

Most parents don't want their kids to be bored, ever. Today's moms and dads spend many hours and dollars keeping their children busy with sports, music and art classes after school. Homeschooling parents often see the field trips and classes offered by homeschool groups as necessities. They're afraid to have their kids in the house with nothing to do.

But kids who are allowed to experience boredom occasionally will survive and even thrive, for several reasons:

Boredom forces children to be creative. Sure, at first she pouts, complaining there's nothing to do. But then, out of desperation, she makes up a game using her imagination, or finds scrap fabric and creates a doll quilt. Would she have done that if there'd been a class to go to where the teacher would tell her what to make?

Recently, I watched my younger children playing with their neighborhood friends in our back yard. At first they were content to swing and slide on the play set, but after a bit they got bored with that. They asked me to take them to the park, but I was in the middle of a project and couldn't leave the house. So they moped a little bit and paced around the yard a while, until someone came up with the idea of being pirates. Soon the play set became a pirate ship, and six kids spent almost two hours using their imaginations and having fun.

Boredom can make a child desperate enough to read. Some children love to read from the time they are small, but an active child has a hard time sitting still long enough to discover the joy of reading. He will only read if there is nothing better to do, and when that happens a few times, he will discover how fast time passes with a good book, and how pleasurable reading can be.

Boredom helps children become more observant of their surroundings. A child rushed from one activity to the next becomes oblivious to her surroundings, but a bored child is looking for something to do, and will pay more attention to her environment. I remember as a child wandering around my grandfather's garden one day, bored because he was busy, and so I started looking at the different plants. While he worked, I asked about them, and learned a lot that day.

Boredom teaches patience. When my children were small, they took afternoon naps. I learned to use that time to do something just for me, like reading or sewing. (Sometimes, I used it to sleep.) Once the kids outgrew naps, though, I didn't want to give up my "peace and quiet" time. So we started calling nap time "rest time". The kids didn't have to go to sleep, but they had to stay quietly in their own rooms until the clock reached a certain time. They learned to occupy themselves by reading, playing or drawing, and they also learned to be patient until it was time to get up.

Boredom didn't hurt us when we were kids. Back in the mid-20th century (doesn't that make you feel old?), we didn't have the plethora of television shows, toys, and electronics that exist today. Did it hurt us? Not me. Some of the hobbies I have today, like sewing and gardening, are interests that I developed during childhood.

Boredom doesn't necessarily cause kids to get into trouble. One argument I hear often for putting kids into as many activities as possible is the "It keeps them off the streets" theory. And I agree to a point: If you combine a bored kid or two, an empty house and some matches or a liquor cabinet, you are asking for trouble. But when you homeschool, there is usually at least one adult around, and the environment is usually safe and wholesome, and the responses to boredom are naturally restricted to approved responses.

Boredom allows time for introspection, for getting to know oneself. This is the best reason to allow your child to experience boredom. A child with nothing to do is forced to think about what he likes or dislikes, and where his interests are. He'll learn to do things because he wants to, not because his mom signed him up to do something, or because a friend was doing it. Boredom gives him time to think thoughts that teach him about himself.

(Sometimes I wonder if people my age have mid-life crises because they jumped into the hectic pace of adult life without ever having time to really get to know themselves and what they wanted to do with their lives. The high school - college- work progression sucked them in too quickly.)

So how do you bring boredom into your child's life without inciting mutiny? And what about the little ones? How can they be trained to entertain themselves constructively?

It starts with your attitude. As a homeschooler, you're already "educating" your children, and that's a full-time job right there. You can't do that well and keep up with the house and other family responsibilities if you're the Entertainment Committee, too.

Begin when they're young. Babies can be taught to entertain themselves in their cribs. Don't run in when the baby first wakes up. Unless he's hungry or crying, let him lay there for a few minutes. Keep some baby toys and board books in a little plastic basket in the corner of his crib, where he can find it and dump everything out of it. I remember listening from the hallway to my babies cooing in the morning as they roamed the crib, chewing on toys as they found them. Don't wait too long, though; you want to catch them in a good mood. If you don't get them out of bed until they cry, they'll learn to cry for attention. You want to reinforce positive behavior.

Since children learn through their play, it's important to have good toys for them. But while good toys inspire creativity, having too many toys actually stifles creativity. If toys are scattered all over the house, the child becomes overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and just kicks them around. By packing up most of my children's toys and handing them out sparingly, I found the kids played better and more creatively with them.

When your child receives new toys for birthdays and holidays, spend a little time together playing with them. Then pack some away for a rainy day. They will seem like new to her when she sees them again.

Be sure to have art supplies available at all times, especially for older children. We have many books about arts and crafts, and they serve as springboards for ideas. Keep Legos and other building toys handy, too.

Don't let your children settle into a pattern of watching television whenever there's nothing to do. If you put time limits on electronics, there will be time left for other things that require more active participation.

Finally, make a conscious effort to limit your children's organized activities, like sports, scouts and art classes. We found that one activity per child per year worked well, as it allowed each child to have something of his own, but still left us with enough time to have a family life, and each child with plenty of downtime.

"We also decided to eliminate most field trips. Unless it tied in to something we were studying, or was so unique that we couldn't pass it up."

My husband knows I tend to take on too much, and he taught me to weed out the good pursuits and to only go after the best, leaving more valuable time for family dinners and spontaneous learning, and other good things that come to the homeschooling family.

By allowing my children to experience boredom, I have seen them find their creative sides and develop interests in depth. The two kids that taught me the value of boredom are now 16 and almost 18. Between their jobs, their social lives, and their other interests, they are always busy, and it has been years since I've heard either of them say "Mom, there's nothing to do!"

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