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.