Category Archives: Preschool

Escaping the Trap of Time Confetti at Preschool

Posted January 12, 2021

by Amy Lemieux

The winter solstice has passed, but ironically, on one of the shortest days in possibly our darkest year, I made an unexpected and welcome mental shift that has made my days brighter. I can nail down the change almost to the moment. Rushing into one of the classrooms in December, I glimpsed a little girl wearing fluffy slippers. Her slippers stopped me in my tracks. Looking around the school, I noticed several students wearing slippers, pajamas, a Batman costume, and a cozy robe. It was not pajama day, but a regular winter day. Notably, each child was deeply engaged in her own chosen activity. This particular girl sat with her friends, intently arranging colored tiles in a wooden frame, occasionally stopping to make an observation. It was the picture of contentment.



My frantic and fragmented day decelerated and then stopped altogether. Doing one thing while thinking about the next was a trap I had fallen into without any awareness. The phrase “Live in the moment” sounds clichéd, but that day I found it extraordinary that these children’s parents and teachers had made the decision to let the children be so visibly in the present. My suspicion is that the associated adults live like I do; in frantic, splintered moments. But everyone had intentionally made an exception for the children, and it occurred to me that even in the depths of a pandemic when society had necessarily slowed down, I had not. I was still a prisoner to time confetti and our preschoolers, thankfully, were not.

According to Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, “We have more time for leisure than we did fifty years ago, but leisure has never felt less relaxing.” Never have we had more interruptions; this has become our unhealthy normal. Whillans says that while disruptions might take up to ten percent of our time, they fragment our time into five to six- minute chunks of “confetti.” These splintered moments have made our lives less rich and less satisfying.

Reading that article and a little girl’s slippers that caught my eye have, at least for now, inspired me to set my phone down. Since that day, I have cut my phone time in half. The “do not disturb” setting is on much of the time. Like the children, I am finding contentment in focusing on my immediate environment rather than other people’s demands or what I need to do at a later time. While I have not worn my pajamas to school, I freely settled into an exploration of water colors at the light table with little consideration of what I had to do next.


Sensory Play

Posted December 22, 2020

Sensory Play
By Calley Roering

This is my first year teaching preschool, and I want to make sure that I give my kids ample opportunities to explore through sensory play. Sensory play is naturally exciting for children because they are able to use all their senses to begin understanding the world around them. Starting as early as four months of age, a child is able to engage with sensory activities. Depending on their age, there is a wide variety of sensory materials and experiences they can explore. Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a child’s five senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing, seeing – plus balance and movement. Sensory play encourages children to make observations, ask questions, and experiment. (Yes, genuine experimentation can start even at preschool age!)

What I enjoy most about observing children engaged in sensory activities is watching how they notice characteristics of the materials they are exploring. I typically prompt them with questions while they are exploring, asking, “What does it feel like? Does it smell like anything? Does it remind you of anything? What does it look like?” I ask open-ended questions to prompt their use of descriptive language and support their language development. In addition, sensory activities advance children’s willingness to discover and try new things, like food. Furthermore, sensory play encourages the development of gross motor and fine motor skills by allowing children to practice big body movements and handle small objects (like picking gems out of slime or melting ice cubes with a pipette filled with water). Lastly, sensory play fosters positive social interactions between children and adults in the classroom. Children are learning how to share, accommodate others, and work together while they check out a sensory activity side by side.

In my class, some of the kids’ favorite sensory activities include exploring “glurch,” painting, playing in the water table with funnels and buckets, experimenting with musical instruments, and using play-dough. Here are some sensory recipes that you can try at home with your child:

1. Equal parts liquid starch and white glue. (For my class I used two cups of each.)
2. Add these two ingredients together and mix. The texture will first feel like string cheese; leave
it alone for 30 minutes and then come back and mix again.
3. If the texture is still not slime-like, leave it alone for a while longer.
4. Continue to mix until it looks smooth and shiny
You can add liquid watercolors or food dye to give it a pop of color.
Adding essential oils is another way you can stimulate your child’s sensory experience with scents.

Play Dough:
Combine in a saucepan: 1 cup flour, ¼ cup salt, 1 tsp. cream of tartar.
Add and whisk until smooth: 1 cup water, 1 tbsp. oil, 1 tbsp. food coloring.
Cook over medium heat until playdough is nearly set. Add 1 tbsp. vanilla extract or essential oil, if desired. Stir until vanilla or essential oil is blended, then remove and knead when cool. Store in Ziplock-type bag or airtight container.

Sensory play is not limited to the indoors. There are many sensory activities that children can dive into outside. Some of those include: digging for worms, making “bakery items” with loose parts found outdoors (water, sand, leaves, gravel, mud, etc.), feeling and tasting the snow, viewing the colors of the trees, listening to the sounds of various animals outside, running, and walking. Whether indoors or out in the natural world, sensory play sparks children’s natural drive to discover.

A Chance To Try

Posted December 8, 2020


A Chance To Try
By Sarah Kern

It was a mild December morning on the playground. Our toddler class of two- and young three-year-olds was busily exploring. A child had found a tennis ball and was rolling it down the hill. It reminded another child of when we had created a ramp on the hillside several months ago.

“Want to do that again?”


As the teacher, I immediately looked to see where the ramps were, wondering how I could support the children’s idea. There they were, on the very top of the shed: several lengths of plastic guttering, each about ten feet long. My first instinct was to grab them for the children; they wanted to make a ramp and I wanted to make it happen! But I stopped myself, and I’m so glad I did.

A child carefully climbed up the ladder to the top of the shed, with others cheering him on.

“He made it!”

Another child raced around to the other side of the shed and climbed up the steps. Another followed. The children began to maneuver the ramps towards the steps and send them sliding down. The ramps stopped when they hit the ground at the bottom of the steps. Now what? Another child had approached and was near the bottom of the steps.

“Can you help me?”

She picked up the low end of the ramp and carefully moved it away from the steps. They repeated the process with another ramp. Once all the ramps were down the steps, a child tried to pick one up on his own. It was tough to move it alone.

“I need some help!”

“I can help!”


With two, it was easier. Children worked in pairs to carry the long ramps to the top of the hill. Once they were in position, the children sent their balls down with squeals of delight.

This experience didn’t last long. It took maybe five minutes, but it was rich in meaning, challenge, and success for the children – and learning for me as the teacher. Perhaps what amazed me most of all was that they never asked me for help, despite my eagerness to take over. I had to wonder how many times I’ve taken over when the children would have benefited from the chance to do it themselves.

It was the same week when we visited the Pines. There the children played in the giant bird’s nest that was built by the school-age Outdoor Club. A child was on the hunt for “eggs” (golf balls) and noticed a collection of them tucked deep within the branches of the bird’s nest. This time, they did ask for help.

“Hey, can you get these?”

I almost did! (As a teacher, sometimes my learning is slow.) But I stopped myself.

“I think you can figure it out.”

And sure enough, they did.

Gratitude – Even in 2020

Posted November 24, 2020

Gratitude…Even in 2020

By Rita Thoemke


Thanksgiving is upon us, coming at the tail end of a year that has challenged and changed us in ways we never thought possible. Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the idea of a day set aside to do nothing but be with loved ones and be grateful. It is an easy day with no expectations. The challenge is taking this spirit of gratitude and weaving it into daily life. It takes conscious effort. Almost like exercise, the more I practice it, the better I feel.

When I was very young, my mom made up a bedtime prayer that I still say. It was a simple prayer of thanks for every family member. “Thank you for Mom and Dad, Tommy and Laura, Brian and Rita. Thank you for Grandma and Grandpa S. and Grandpa H.” As the years went by, the family dog was added. Then friends, neighbors, in-laws, coworkers. My mom had taught me to take a nightly inventory of everyone and everything I am thankful for.

I have learned that the magic really happens when you express your thankfulness. I stumbled upon this as a young child. My bike had a flat tire that my dad took time to patch. Before riding off on my bike, I thanked my dad for fixing the tire. I thought nothing of it. Later that night before bed, my dad told me nobody had ever thanked him for fixing their bike before. He very honestly told me how good that made him feel to know I appreciated him.

Hearing somebody express appreciation for us can be transforming. “Thank you for putting your toys away, Leah. That really helps me out.” “Thank you for helping your sister rake the leaves. I know you would rather have been doing something fun.” “Thank you for putting the dishes away. What a wonderful surprise!” It feels so good to be appreciated.

I don’t enjoy cooking on a nightly basis. When I cook dinner for the family, my husband always thanks me for a good meal. On the flip side, when he brings take-out home, I thank him and let him know how much I appreciate it. I believe that most of us hold many thoughts of thanks in our hearts all the time. Expressing them can bring unexpected results. One day I found myself thinking about my best friend. I picked my phone up and sent her a quick text telling her I was thankful for her friendship. My phone rang a few seconds later and it was her, tearfully saying how much my text message meant to her. Lesson learned – never hesitate to tell people how thankful you are for them.

Modeling gratitude for our kids can help them be resilient when they experience life’s challenges. The more they hear us say things like, “Getting a flat tire stinks, but I sure am happy it didn’t happen on the freeway,” or “It’s sad we can’t see our friends right now, but family movie nights make me so happy,” they will learn to look for and find the silver linings in unfortunate situations.

I was young when my Grandfather died. He was my first experience with loss. I remember wondering if I should still be including him in my nightly prayer, since he was no longer with us. I asked my sister one night about it. She replied by asking me if I was still thankful for him. Of course I was. That might have been my first lesson that we can still be grateful in the midst of pain and loss. I was sad that I lost my Grandpa, but my goodness, were we ever lucky to have him.

Gratitude might just be the antidote for all that causes suffering. Michael J. Fox said, “Part of gratitude is acceptance. Accept the situation, put it in its proper place, and then you can see how much of the rest of your life you have to thrive in.” If we can accept that 2020 brought us some unexpected challenges and anxiety, we can turn our attention to all the wonderful things that happened this year as well. I have a long list of things I was fortunate to experience in 2020. The friendships, love, and support I continue to find at All Seasons is most definitely on that list.

Preschoolers and Gender Roles

Posted October 26, 2020


Preschoolers and Gender Roles
By Tracy Riekenberg

He, she, they, them, ze, zer, and more. One would have to be living under a rock to not notice that gender and how it is defined is being examined in the world today, even in preschool.

Preschoolers begin to notice their own gender identity around age 2. They will also begin to sort others into categories as they work to understand gender: binary groupings of boys and girls mostly. (Even adults are categorized as “boys” or “girls.”) Because these young children are using very basic physical attributes to categorize people, they often misname a man with long hair as a woman or a girl wearing blue clothes as a boy. The best we can do for children when they make these mistakes is to say something like, “That is a man; men can have long hair!” Or “Blue is a color for all children.”

Along with sorting of people into genders, preschool children also begin to desire to play with children of their own perceived gender. Children may seek out a friend of the same perceived gender to sit near, play with, or walk next to. Children may also begin “gender enforcing” what roles they think others should play. For example, a child may say something like, “Only girls play with dolls.” As with gender sorting, it is best for adults to warmly challenge these ideas by asking why the child thinks that, or assuring that all toys are for all children.

At All Seasons Preschool, I have observed that gender-focused or gender-exclusive play happens most indoors, where toys are a big driving factor for play. Generally, many girls are drawn to dress-up and baby dolls, whereas many boys are drawn to blocks and trucks. However, when we play outside, the gendered play dissipates and the entire group plays together. I think the absence of toys is one factor, but I also think nature itself is so open and broad that it invites children to think widely about play.

Stretching children’s thinking about gender roles and identities is a goal of mine, and I sprinkle seeds throughout our day. I am working very hard to use more gender-neutral language when talking to the children. Saying “guys” or “boys and girls” is so limiting in gender definitions, so I am consciously working to say “children” or “students” when addressing the group. I also encourage all children to play with everyone, and all children to play with all toys. Recently, I added baby dolls to the dramatic play area, and have been so excited to see all the children playing with the baby dolls. The children have created families, and girls are moms or sisters and boys are dads or brothers. All children have enjoyed dressing the babies, feeding the babies, carrying the babies, and – my favorite – taking the babies outside. Children climbing trees with a baby doll in their hands may be my favorite moment this fall.

There are things you can do at home, too. If you are reading a book about scientists and the book only portrays men scientists, I encourage you to challenge the book with your child. Ask “Can women be scientists?” Or “Why are there only men in this book?” And then find a new book with illustrations that show role models of all genders! Work to eliminate gendered job titles from your vocabulary. (This one is hard for me!). Instead of “fireman” say “firefighter,” instead of “mailman” say “letter carrier,” instead of “snowman” say “snow person,” and so on. I would also encourage you to have available toys that are traditionally marketed for the opposite gender of your child. Have some trucks available for girls or some dolls available for boys. Buy books that depict children of all genders and that feature both boys and girls as characters. Arrange playdates with children of all genders. Invite boys and girls to birthday parties.

And know that the binary gender sorting only gets more defined as your children grow. For my own children, I remember when they were in kindergarten and first grade and told me about playing as a large group of children at recess. But around second grade, I started hearing about “boys’ club” and “girls’ club” at school, where the children segregated themselves (mostly) by their genders. This is a normal part of development, but it broke my heart a bit.

So at All Seasons Preschool, creating a safe, gender-inclusive environment hopefully supports cross-gender play for as long as possible.



The Art Of Observation

Posted October 14, 2020

By Joanne Esser

Have you ever watched an infant lying on her tummy trying to grab a colorful toy just beyond her reach? I mean really watch, without intervening or commenting or helping her along? There is a depth of concentration that is fascinating to see as she coordinates her brain, her eyes, the muscles of her torso, her arms and hands to work together to raise herself up, focus her eyes, stretch out and reach her fingers toward the object she wants. It is action linked to pure desire, a natural process that is entirely self-motivated. You can almost see the neurons sparking across synapses in her brain to connect her will to her actions.

In the world-renowned preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, they describe teachers as researchers. The subject of our research is the child. Observation is the means by which we do this research. We step back, watch and listen to figure out a child’s aim, and study what actions he takes to try to achieve his goal. We know that young children are constantly engaged in the work of mastering their world – usually through play – whether that involves collecting information through the senses, practicing a physical skill, trying out language and vocabulary, relating to other people or using imagination to understand a concept. The teacher’s role is to observe the child’s actions and then to support the child’s attempts to accomplish their self-chosen task. It sometimes looks as though the teacher is doing nothing, since we intentionally hold back and wait rather than speak or interrupt. But that is often what’s required to allow genuine observation to happen.

As researchers, teachers continually take notes, paying attention to the child’s nonverbal as well as verbal communication, her actions, emotions and language, even recording quotes from the child’s own words. We take many photographs and sometimes videos to make a record of what children are doing with their hands, their eyes, their bodies and facial expressions. We use our knowledge of child development and our teaching experience to give context to our observations, to theorize what a child is working on.

For example, a teacher might watch as a child approaches a climbing wall for the first time. The teacher notes the child’s look of determination, or trepidation, or excitement. She begins taking photos as the child reaches up a hand or a foot, capturing the moment-by-moment decision-making. Perhaps another child comes over to give the climbing child a boost, or to offer some advice. The teacher jots down the conversation, recognizing the roots of a growing relationship between the two children. As the child struggles to manage the hand- and footholds, observation gives the teacher clues about the child’s persistence, stamina, resilience and physical skills. Later, the teacher might plan where the group will hike tomorrow, seeking new climbing challenges she guesses would be just right for the child.

Like any researcher, we make use of the information we gather. We ask open-ended questions; we imagine possibilities and offer children new materials and experiences, with the intention of provoking their responses and thinking. We gather more data and study it for insights and potential next steps. Then we invite the points of view of others by sharing our photos and notes with parents and with our colleagues, continuing the research cycle.

Parents can also be researchers as they practice the art of observation. Patient watching and listening often reveals the hundreds of small steps children take as they approach and eventually master a new task. It can be amazing and very satisfying as a parent (or grandparent!) to stand back and observe the miraculous way the young human brain constructs meaning, bit by bit.

Our practice of observation also means that each child is seen and known. As the wise teacher and author Vivian Paley said, “The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to know more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning and wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. ‘What are the ideas that I have that are so interesting?…I must be somebody with good ideas.’ “


The Joys and Struggles of Teaching Preschool On Your Own

Posted September 30, 2020

making play dough together


The Joys and Struggles of Teaching Preschool On Your Own

By Roxie Zeller

One of the things that drew me to preschool was the idea of teaching with another teacher: someone with whom to solve problems, to discuss challenges and to rejoice in victories. During my student teaching, I found being alone with a group of kindergarteners all day, although rewarding, was lonely. I often find myself this year wanting to talk to another teacher as the children play, to discuss what I’m seeing, what I’ve noticed, and to make plans together for the upcoming weeks.

Over the past few weeks I have discovered that teaching preschool by myself has unique challenges. Throughout the day I am constantly making plans and backup plans, in case children need to use the restroom or change clothes while the inside person is already busy with other children. A few times the children have even caught me thinking out loud to myself when I’m trying to figure out the best flow of the day. Along with constantly thinking about the plan of the day, I’m also thinking about the materials we will need and where to put them so they are accessible. This may be more due to the shift to teaching most of the day outside in response to the pandemic. You have to prepare more thoroughly than you do when you are inside in the classroom, with everything at your fingertips. At times I have had an idea to do a project based on what the children show interest in that day, but can’t gather materials while I watch the children play. I have also found that sometimes the children or I would like to add a few different things to the project to deepen the learning, but would need to venture inside to grab them, such as paper to make boats for the pond or riverbed, beads to add to the yarn and stick creations in the woods, and various materials to use to build dams. Through this I am learning to be more intentional about what materials I make available for an activity outside, and I’m figuring out how to make activities stretch from one day to the next by adding some novel, desirable materials.

One of the biggest struggles that I have experienced is taking photos. During child-led activities, it’s natural to take photos to document what is happening, but taking photos is one of the last things on my mind during teacher-led activities. I have found myself wishing I had photos of an activity that happened in the classroom only to realize that I don’t have another adult in the room who can take pictures of activities I’m leading. With a co-teacher, there is always someone else present to take photos of the moments your hands are full. In addition, a co-teacher tends to take photos of things I might otherwise miss, leading to a wider selection and variety in the photos taken. Although it can be hard to step back during teacher-led activities, I’m starting to learn when I can step back to take photos while still being present.

Although I’m looking forward to the day that we can all teach with co-teachers again, I am also enjoying teaching my small group on my own. It is so rewarding to see how close the group has grown over the past few weeks due to the fact that we do EVERYTHING together. We don’t have the option this year of splitting into groups outside based on interests or taking a few children off to work on a project. Because of the group being together all the time, I’ve noticed that the children look out for each other in a different way than I saw last year. When there is a problem, such as a stuck bike, they look to each other for help rather than to teachers. I have also really enjoyed the fact that because my group is all roughly the same age, we have been able to focus on some shared interest areas of the group in a deeper way than I have before. I also get lots of opportunities to simply show them what I love about nature and play on a personal level.

I’m excited to see how my little group continues to grow into a community this year. As the year passes we will be able to get to know each other very well, since in a small group, everyone’s strengths, struggles, and quirks come out and are accepted.

They Can Wear Their Pink Pajamas

Posted September 15, 2020

They Can Wear Their Pink Pajamas
By Amy Lemieux


As a new teacher fresh out of college, I remember the school principal telling me to be intentional with whom I surrounded myself. It did not take long for me to identify the colleagues in my building who would become my mentors as a young, impressionable teacher. Pat stood out immediately. She understood that for great learning to take place, the relationships within the classroom had to come first. In her classroom, she had created a community of emotional predictability, comfort and acceptance. The core values within her classroom were clearly defined and demonstrated. Notably, Pat had a boy in her second grade class who wore his pink pajamas to school. There was no doubt her classroom was a place of total acceptance.

In the beginning when the concept of All Seasons was only an idea, we had no defined boundaries. We started with…NOTHING. No location, no building, no teachers, no children or parents, no curriculum, no program, no schedule. While exciting, the lack of certainty was horribly uncomfortable. The only objective from the beginning: create a high-quality early childhood program that brought children and seniors together. In 2009 these missing components slowly materialized; some fell into place serendipitously and others were meticulously, sometimes painstakingly arranged. What was at the core, though, was a community of acceptance and familiarity, a joyful place for young children to grow and for older adults to age. All Seasons is a place where a little girl can (and did) tell the grandpa next to her, “I just wet my pants,” and he is comfortable to respond, “Me, too.” This is the type of radical acceptance I saw over twenty years ago in Pat’s classroom and remains the heart of our school community. An extraordinary early childhood community in which young children can learn and grow does not exist without teachers and parents who embrace this very nurturing environment. That quality remains and is the essence of what helped us move forward this summer and fall.

Reopening All Seasons in 2020 initially felt much like 2009. It felt horribly uncomfortable with many unknowns. The most difficult part was saying goodbye for now to the intergenerational component of our day, our grandmas and grandpas. But again, we started with what we knew. Already having a strong art and nature foundation as a springboard made building our schedule feel more natural. But first and foremost, seeing the children and talking to their parents this summer highlighted the most important component of our program: providing an emotionally safe and joyful environment with predictability during a time of unprecedented uncertainty. As we did in 2009, piece by piece, we are putting our puzzle back together. Your child is welcome to wear their pink pajamas to school. All Seasons is back, and we thank you for helping us along the way.

Last Blog

Posted June 9, 2020

by All Seasons Founder, Sarah Sivright

Sarah, always joining their world

I started writing a draft of this months ago, knowing it would take some time to decide just what to write. Now we are not at school; greeting each other in the morning, spending time with grandmas and grandpas, planting the gardens, listening to and writing stories, playing with friends, inside and out, telling the dreaded “knock-knock” jokes at lunch—hugging, so much hugging.

I thought I was going to be saying goodbye to all that in June, not in March.

Much of what I was going to write seems unimportant. But it’s not, it’s just not front and center.

I have to write about some of the things I’ll miss, so please indulge me for a few paragraphs.

I started in the early childhood field in 1985, as the “nursery school” secretary at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, watching and learning from great and awful teachers. But I’ve been lucky to be mentored by some of the best—teachers and parents—and landed back in Minnesota in 2001, with Amy’s children in my classroom at Dodge Nature Preschool. When she called to ask if I wanted to help her start All Seasons, I knew immediately I’d been offered something special.

Now I am ending my career with some of the best mentors I could ever have—Amanda, Amy, Jenny, Joanne, Kylen, Rita, Roxie, Sarah, and Tracy.

They love and care for your children in ways that inspire and humble me. They also make me laugh and cry, a tribute to the love and trust we have for each other.

And, of course, you parents. It can sound like a cliché, and the truth sometimes takes a while to sink in, but we are partners and need each other to be able to give these children the very best school experience.

Ah, the children. They are the teachers. And they are the ones I’ll miss most.

Helping that very last child get into snow pants on a cold day when they’d really rather stay inside, and learning what they need—physically and emotionally—to be ready to go out that door.

Watching that shy child peer at the grandma in a wheelchair–seemingly asleep–tentatively touch the wrinkled hand in greeting, and smile in surprise and pleasure, as the eyes open and the smile is returned.

Reading a story at group time, stopping for the questions and observations—always the best part of the experience.

Learning what each child needs to grow from reluctant, impatient, participant to eager, confident artist in the studio.

Laughing together at some silliness

Giving comfort to a child who has learned to accept help

Hugs–all the time—hugs.

I wouldn’t have all this to miss if Amy hadn’t held on to her vision for 20 years and asked me join her. I will never be able to thank her enough.

Sarah’s hard hat from All Seasons’ construction in 2009

It seems impossible to imagine not spending my days with all of you, yet it also feels right. All is well here, with All Seasons in good hands, and our new school about to open in the fall, carrying our powerful mission to a new community. We don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m confident that we will continue to be a resilient, loving community. And I will stay in touch.

I’m Bored!

Posted May 21, 2020

by, Joanne Esser

When my children were young and they said, “I’m bored,” I usually responded by telling them all the reasons they should not be bored. I reminded them of all the toys, books, art supplies, friends, etc. that they had, and said that they needed to use their brains to find something to do to get un-bored – basically telling them that if they were smart, they shouldn’t feel that way.

When I was a young teacher of elementary school children, no one was allowed to use the word “bored” in my classroom. I provided plenty of activities for children to do, I reasoned, if only they activated their initiative. I did recognize that some children say “I’m bored” as code for “This is too hard for me,” or “This is too easy for me,” so I felt my job was to simply offer more tasks that fit their academic level of readiness. I was still not very sympathetic when they complained of boredom. 

Now, years later, I feel differently about the word “bored.” I’ve learned more about how our brains work, about all the emotional states we experience and how those states affect our learning and behavior. As a play-based early childhood educator, I have seen how a bout of boredom can lead children to make new connections. And recently, I have been studying my own experience of boredom during the isolation of the stay-at-home order.

Boredom is a real thing. And it is an uncomfortable feeling. Even as an adult, knowing full well all the choices I have, when there is plenty I could be doing, I am finding myself these days at a loss, feeling restless or numb or passive, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, a roller coaster of emotions. As I study my own reactions, I can better empathize with children who complain (or whine, or cry, or even have tantrums) as a natural reaction to this uneasy state of being. 

Children today are not as used to the feeling of boredom as children of past generations might have been, back when people stayed close to home, were not constantly on the go and played mostly with their siblings. The lives children are experiencing right now is probably similar to what our seniors grew up experiencing, and it is unfamiliar to the children.

The interesting thing about being bored, though, is that it is often leads to creativity. There is a surprising amount of research about the links between boredom and divergent thinking, imagination and creative energy. According to Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, boredom is, at its core, “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied. If we can’t find that, our mind will create it.” She conducted a well-known study in which participants were asked to do a boring task, copying numbers from a phone book, or just reading the phone book.  A control group skipped those tasks. Then each group was asked to solve a problem requiring divergent thinking: generate as many uses as you can for a pair of plastic cups. The participants whose minds were the most bored consistently generated the most creative ideas. Their boredom enabled creativity and problem solving by allowing the mind to wander and daydream. “There’s no other way of getting that stimulation, so you have to go into your head,” she explains. 

The idea that boredom can help generate new ideas has support from some famously creative thinkers: Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, said that “boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity.” Author J.R.R. Tolkien created The Hobbit when he was a professor bored of grading papers!

However, in our current culture, we don’t tolerate the discomfort of feeling bored very well. Boredom is a “seeking state,” says Texas A&M University psychologist Heather Lench. “What you’re doing now is not satisfying, so you’re seeking, you’re engaged.” The problem is that we don’t want to wrestle with those slow moments of seeking. We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives – often by reaching for our smart phones, video games, social media, and mobile devices. This gives us feelings of relief temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from facing boredom head-on. These habits also change our tolerance for boredom; we need more and more of those hits of dopamine – the pleasurable chemical that is released in our brain by the new and novel content that our phones provide – to stop the discomfort of being bored. 

Parents are often fearful of boredom, not only for themselves, but also for their children. They hurry to “rescue” their children from the uncomfortable feeling of boredom by immediately offering relief in the form of filling their empty moments for them, suggesting activities, handing them an iPad or phone to play with or putting on a video for them to watch. Even in “normal times” we seek to alleviate our children’s boredom, but these times are far from “normal.” It must add an extra level of stress to an already stressful time if parents feel they must drop what they are doing every time their child says, “I’m bored.”

But as we have seen, children with “nothing to do” will eventually invent some weird, fun game to play – with a cardboard box, a light switch, a pile of sticks, whatever they find. I remember how my daughter invented an entire hilarious story at a restaurant while waiting for our food to arrive, using the ketchup bottle, silverware, sugar packets and salt-and-pepper shakers on the table as the story’s characters. 

It is hard for us to allow children to be bored. We know how difficult it feels, and we want to be helpful. We want to give unsolicited advice, “solve” it for them, relieve them of that state. But I have learned that it is most helpful to acknowledge their boredom, empathize so they know we understand, and then stay out of their way. With time and practice, children will figure out what to do. The pleasure of discovering their own creative solution is their natural reward.