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The Benefits of Boredom

By Jeanine Silversmith

No, I don’t have a DVD player in my car. Yes, there are times when I really wish I did. Like on my way to my parents’ house a few weeks ago. My husband was working, so just the kids and I made the two-hour trek, smack in the middle of the day (gasp!).  We usually save longer drives for bedtime, when the kids fall asleep within minutes, allowing my husband and I to enjoy a few hours of uninterrupted conversation while listening to whatever music we want. It’s sheer bliss; I highly recommend it.

BenefitsofBoredomAbout seven minutes into this midday drive, Devin (my 19-month-old) has thankfully fallen asleep but Sierra (my 4-year-old) says, “I’m all done with the car.” Apparently she’d read all the books and played with all the toys we piled around her. My first thought was, “Why don’t we have a DVD player in this thing?” Then I thought about all of the road trips I took as a child, and we took a lot. No DVDs, no Game Boys, no CD players. Just me and my two siblings shoved in the back of a Datsun, looking out the window, fighting, singing, playing the alphabet game or counting different colored cars, fighting some more…

I’ll admit it wasn’t all fun and laughs. At times, it got a bit hairy in that back seat. Probably because it was boring. But that seemed to lead to some really cool experiences too. I’m reminded of a line from a Poi Dog Pondering song about walking: “You get to know things better when they go by slow.” We noticed things, asked questions, and best of all, we created our own games. We did these things around our yard and neighborhood as well. My mom’s favorite thing to say was, “Go out and play.” Not having too much to play with, we improvised.

Richard Louv speaks of “constructively bored kids” – kids who, when allowed a bit of time to be in the here and now, eventually create a game to play, an art project to work on, or find some interesting leaves to collect. Keep them safe of course, but let them go. Their games may seem silly, even strange, at times, but you’re encouraging them to develop creativity, social skills, and a sense of awareness.

Believe me, I’m not some fantastic, creative, super-patient mother – I’m really not. But when I get out of my kids’ way, when I stop directing and expecting things, they usually impress me. Even the little guy! Recently he played with a ball and miniature lacrosse stick for close to a half hour. He really checks out what’s in our garden (my laundry pile can attest). Sierra regularly uses her jump ropes to create “tree art.” I could go on and on.

As for the two-hour ride without DVDs? Well, it turned out okay. Sierra, bored out of her mind, started looking at clouds and noticed the shape of a dragon, a face, an ice cream cone, and more. We had a few conversations about things that make us happy, scared, excited, and frustrated. I asked her silly questions like, “What would it be like if your nose was on one of your hands?” And when Devin woke up, I tried out a bunch of my music on them. Who knew Sierra would dig Joni Mitchell? And Devin, well the boy just loves Perfect Thyroid. We played air guitars and made up kid-friendly titles for all the songs. It was a sweet road trip that I was actually sorry to see end.

Jeanine Silversmith is a self-described tree-hugging science-and-math geek whose love of nature, coupled with her absolute certainty that people, especially children, are happier, healthier, and wiser when they regularly spend time in nature, led her to establish Rhode Island Families in Nature. She loves to run, garden, bake, hike, and go camping, especially when accompanied by her husband, Ian, her 4-year-old daughter, Sierra, and her 1-year-old son, Devin. They live in Wakefield, RI.

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  • thank you for this!

    we do not have dvd players in our car, but we do bring our laptop along…just in case…when we go on long trips.

    many times we don’t need it but those times we do (when i have two non-napping, over-tired screaming kids in the backseat and my white knuckles are curled way too tightly around the steering wheel) i bow to the power of a dvd. 😉

  • Great topic, Jeanine. Reminds me of a parent talking about another parent of a very young child who said Nintendo was great for 15 minute car rides!

    There’s a lot of conversation lately about decreasing attention spans because we’re getting used to information in “sound bites” -YouTube videos, texts, tweets, etc. I feel like keeping kids entertained all the time instead of letting them get good & bored sometimes is only going to amplify those issues when they get older.

  • To be clear, I don’t think DVD players are, in themselves, bad. As I type, my two kids are parked in front of one because I’ve had enough for one day. And, by the way, my daughter is pretending she is in a car seat because she would LOVE to have one in our car! (She even constructed one out of our couch pillows for the full effect.) I just think we don’t ALWAYS have to rely on TV to get through. That’s all!

  • For long trips we stockpile podcasts of WAIT, WAIT, DON’T TELL ME and THIS AMERICAN LIFE on our iTunes. It’s pretty much like using DVD player, but has more snob/natural parent gods & goddesses/snob appeal.

  • I remember good times with silly songs, finding different license plates and lots of eye spy with my little eye games! My kids fall asleep in the car so I don’t yet have to come up with too many things to do. Love the radio…

  • I’m an only child who once took a five-day road trip with my parents in our Datsun hatchback. Only supplies: Yes and Know books, a travel diary, some books, the view out the window, and my parents.

    I struggle with the notion that I should get some electronics for my son in the back seat like a video game or DVD player. Haven’t done it yet!

    So in all ways, your post resonated with me. Thanks.

  • Another no DVD car here. We take a 14hr trip to Northern Ontario every year and survive to tell about it. Although it does include more “Are we in Canada yet?”s than I care to count, I am still happy with our decision. We have lots of goodies to pass the time, and I load up my ipod for the kids and put in a splitter for 2 sets of headphones. They each get an hour at the controls, and My husband and I get our music and conversation 🙂

  • Although there are times when I’ve wished for a DVD in our car, we have many fun memories of traveling without one. During our car trips we play games; Name that Tune, Find Letters and numbers outside on signs, 20 questions, Movie Trivia, etc. When my husband and I need a break, the kids always have a pile of books to read, listen to books on tape or bring along puppet or action figures…