Oh, those sweet words every parent longs to hear. Not. “Hey Mom! I’m bored. What can I do?”

Lucky for you, you probably don’t hear this from your early learner yet, but ask a parent who hears that over and over again and they will tell you those words are not honey to the soul, but more like lemon juice on an open sore. Some parents even have an ongoing list of really terrible household chores for their kids that they pull out at the hearing of “I’m bored.”

I’ve heard parents say they wish they could go back to the younger days and do something—anything—to prevent the boredom phase. Well, I think there is a way to be proactive with your early learners now to help them and you avoid this struggle later.

The secret came to me in an unexpected form, which I’ll explain in a minute. Here it is: intentionally leave unstructured blocks of time in your child’s day to be filled by them, not you. And do this starting out now, while they are still young. This exercises their “creativity muscles,” so to speak, and takes advantage of the marvelous developmental stage they are in now, where learning about their environment is their most sought-out pursuit. They are built to learn through play.

For some of you, this is easier said than done. If you believe, like I used to, that homeschool mom means something like cruise ship activities director or that it’s your job to keep your children entertained and happy all the time, what I am suggesting won’t come easy. This was the mind-set of myself and my homeschool peers years ago. So we saturated our kids’ days with seemingly endless activities, filling all the bits of the day because we believed the cry of “Mom, I’m bored” was an indictment of our parenting skills.

But what I discovered later (quite by accident) was that when children are given space while young to construct their own day, they become adept at entertaining themselves in productive ways when they are older. Perhaps the reverse is also true: when they have no pockets of space to create their day on their own, they develop unproductive ways to manage their time on their own when they are older.

Even though I honestly thought I was doing my children a favor by not having empty blocks of time in their day and never letting them out of my sight for too long, I ended up not being able to accomplish these goals because of a physical illness. Though it was not intentional, I did leave gaps in my young children’s days while my peers did not. And you know what happened? Our children grew up, and guess whose did not enter into the “I’m bored” stage? Not to say I never heard that phrase, but my children lived a lifestyle of knowing how to be productive. My peers often complained that their children’s creativity seemed to be hindered.

Looking back, I can see such value in unstructured play in my children’s lives. Child development research backs up this observation: it now suggests that children who are allowed time and space to explore their world on their own terms will develop strong creativity.

By “unstructured play,” I mean play without direct interaction from us. Sound horrible? I can relate. Oh, the potential for mischief, right? I know I was also fearful of possible physical injury if I wasn’t hovering over my kids all the time. But really, after we have baby- and toddler-proofed the house and yard, we can let them explore without us always being in the direct line of sight suggesting activities for them. Let it be known that I am not suggesting letting our kids roam unsupervised all day or even for portions of the day. And I am certainly not suggesting they be left to their own devices as in Proverbs 29:15. The goal here is to give our young children space to create their own activities so they develop a strong sense of adventure, which nurtures creativity, instead of them relying on us to fill their day for them.

Some moms might be concerned that without intentional learning crafted by them, their children will be left ill-equipped to compete in this fast-paced world of “the earlier the academics the better.” Rest assured: there will still be time for academics when they are developmentally ready. And if your own early childhood was heavily structured, it may feel uncomfortable to you to forgo even little bits of structure for your children because it is unfamiliar to you. So again, I’m not suggesting you dispense with all structure in your little ones’ lives, leaving them to raise themselves. Young children most certainly do need discipleship and connection with us parents; we are their very best teachers of life. Young children thrive on routines set by us, and they need to know what to expect of their day—even if the expectation is that every day before lunchtime, for example, they have free time to explore the backyard.

Though it happened by accident, I’m now an advocate for leaving space in a child’s day, not just as an antidote for the “Mom, I’m bored” phase when they are older, but also so they have the building blocks for gaining rich, creativity-enhancing experiences to spark interests in new areas. Regular and predictable schedules with built-in downtime build security in your young children. They thrive knowing life isn’t a free-for-all with no limits but that they can also explore their world on their own terms. We don’t need to control every part of their lives in order for them to thrive.

If you adopt this practice, you will see benefits in peer interactions too. All that wonderful one-on-one discipling you have been doing with your children, guiding them by your example to interact with others in a positive and God-honoring way, can be put into real life practice when you step back and let them take the lead in unstructured play. You will need to disciple them toward healthy relationships, because they don’t learn the how-to through peer interactions, but the way they learn to internalize what you have taught them by your example is to practice it with others on their own.

Children learn through play. Play is their work. Your young children will naturally find creative adventures to delight themselves, so use this developmental stage to their advantage. It’s the children who are older and have not had enough of these early experiences with free play, both by themselves and with others, who more easily succumb to boredom when they can’t come up with productive pursuits.

So don’t be afraid of intentionally leaving a little space in your children’s day now while they are in their most creative developmental stage. “Mom, I’m bored” becomes their challenge—not yours—to learn to occupy their time in activities that encourage their innate ability toward creativity and nurture their budding passions. Trust their God-given sense of adventure, and maybe all you will need to do now to prevent “Mom, I’m bored; what can I do?” later down the road is just to step out of the way a bit more and watch them create grand adventures all on their own. 

This article was published in the January/February 2017 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.

Gail Heaton and her husband Randy live in Missoula, Montana. Their seven children, ages 25 to 16, have been homeschooled from the start. Just when life starts to go smoothly with three in college and the teens now launching into young adulthood, along comes the toddler, grandbaby number one, reminding her how much excitement the early learning years can bring.