Boredom vs. Structure: Is One “Better” for a Special Needs Child?

There is a lot of parenting buzz about letting your kids be bored because only then will they tap into their imaginations and learn to be self-reliant. Childhood boredom can lead to many wonderful things like invented games, improvised plays and backyard expeditions. Then again, many children with special needs need structure. Some get very anxious when they are unsure where to go and what to do. Others get lost in time and distractions in ways that are not beneficial or can get up to activities that are destructive or unsafe. Throughout this article please understand that when I refer to unstructured time I never mean for it to mean unsupervised time. Safety is crucial! Also, this is not about boredom in school – this is about the summertime, weekend, hanging out at home type of boredom. So how do you balance your child’s need for structure with the healthy benefits of downtime?

I was faced with this dilemma of schedule vs. free time on only the fourth day of summer break, when my special needs child dramatically threw herself on my bed and sighed, “I’m bored.”

As always, take the unique needs of your child and your family into consideration. If you work, if your child is in a summer program or camp or if your child has a caregiver this may not all be up to you. You will need to get input from your child’s team to see how he or she tolerates unstructured time before you can decide how much boredom to allow at home.

Even when it seems like I am letting my kids hang around the house doing nothing, I always have a secret schedule in my mind and am always watching the clock and listening to the sibling rivalry. Sometimes I have to step in and redirect, sometimes I can let it play out. Sometimes I have to force them all to unplug, or go outside or read.

If your child needs structure and scheduling, try building some imagination time into the daily agenda. Start small, maybe ten minutes, and build the time up as your child can tolerate it. Knowing there is an end time may also help the child feel less anxious about free time.

Some children have trouble making choices. In this case you can schedule something like reading time or art time, but allow your child the choice of what book to read or what art materials to use. If that is too overwhelming, you can give your child two or three options and let them choose. Then stop giving the options. Eventually you can work up to giving your child bigger choices, like reading time or art time. Even using the phrase “play time” instead of “free time” may offer the child a hint about appropriate choices during this time. If the idea of unstructured time is very overwhelming to your child, brainstorm a list of things they could do during free time, then post it somewhere or keep it in a notebook so you can consult it as needed. You may even want to make a Boredom Jar so the suggested activities will be randomized when your child pulls one out.

As always, if unstructured time doesn’t work for your child right now that is fine, but as our kids grow up and we try to teach them to be independent you can revisit it at a later date.

About the Author

Rosie Reeves is a writer and mother of three; including one with special needs. She works side-by-side with her daughter’s therapists, teachers and doctors. Rosie has also served as the Los Angeles Special Needs Kids Examiner. She can be reached at Rosie is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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