Boredom

A little history about boredom, the word boredom did not appear in the English language until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution (1850). There are many philosophical thoughts wrapped around its arrival. Erich Fromm was firm in his belief that the evolution of the Industrial Revolution required man to engage in alienated labor which eroded the traditional structure of meaning, thus creating the feeling of wishing to do something but unable to define what. Bertram Russell recognized boredom as a useful tool that the human race needed. He felt boredom was a stimulus of change—allowing for time to think up better ideas and develop higher ambitions and should not be ignored. How fascinating that boredom continues to bath the landscape of the human mind into the 21st century—as technology advances and we have more time to be idle, freeing the mind to explore. One needs to ask, should we fear boredom? Can we cultivate a healthy appreciation of boredom within our children when the moment arrives?

Whether adult or child, experiencing something that you have done before with no new results can be tag as boring. When we move from one stimulating activity to the next then leave to enter the quiet of home—we feel a dullness that we label as boredom. When your children come to you and profess their boredom, should this enlisted worry or concern? The tedium of idleness is what entices a child to exclaim their boredom. As adults, we recognize the emotion and redirect ourselves,but children need help to develop the ability to convert boredom into possibility. Cultivating and modeling that boredom is temporary and solvable, trains children a self-soothing technique that opens a world of possibility to them. The best part of helping children understand the solution for boredom is that it’s a conversation about imagination.

Most of us can remember what our parents said when we voiced our own boredom. The response… “Go outside and find something to do”. At the time, little harm could come to a child milling about the garden, thinking, imagining and creating. In current time, this type of freedom may be difficult for a parent to offer but if your home boasts a place that is considered the children’s domain that is where they need to go. Fostering the understanding within your child that this place allows them a level of autonomy is powerful. Noted child psychologist Neel Burton explains

When a child is bored and free from stimulation, their mind begins to wander and daydreaming begins. Boredom teaches a child that they are able to create their own entertainment, and that they are fully-capable of creating incredibility enjoyable ways in which to stay busy. Being bored is an uncomfortable feeling, and through experiencing boredom and letting it in, children are next propelled by the need to be productive. The result is often imaginative play, hands-on learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and/or a creative expression. (Psychology Today)

Technology then, as now, brings about freedom from the daily routine of survival, which means that there is more time for our children to feel the creeping sensation that is identified as boredom.However, this emotion is only tedious if we don’t teach them to understand the benefit of the moment. As we move toward summer and the less scheduled day, parents brace themselves for the phase–“I’m bored”. Although you are their parents, it is not your duty to solve this crisis. It is your responsibility to help them become comfortable within their own minds, allowing them to embrace the autonomy that will convert boredom into enjoyment. Their sense of self will be encouraged by expanding their ability to self-sooth and allowing them to test their own thinking.Not only can these moments encourage their imagination but they can also help them develop introspection.

A good start to helping your child understand their boredom is to ask what boredom means to them? A preschooler will most likely answer “nothing to do”, which then opens the opportunity f or you to show them paths that they can freely explore. Direct them to the place in your home were they are allowed to play without your observation. Almost any idea you offer can start them on their journey. After a short period of discussion, tell them that you will be in the next room or somewhere at a distance so they feel free to allow their imagination unfurl and take flight.

The person who is aware of themself is henceforward independent; and they are never bored, and life is only too short, and they are steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. – Virginia Woolf

Supplemental Material

Children

It’s always great to find a book with a title that pinpoints the subject matter exactly.

I’m BoredBored
Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

This is a wonderful book. Of all things, our little heroine must talk a potato into believing that she is not boring. Who knew a potato could be so hard to persuade? Our heroine digs deep to prove how interesting she is, thus forgetting about her own boredom. Why the potato believes that a flamingo is truly interesting is never addressed.

Over-ScheduledAndrew
Andrew Ashley Spires

This is the opposite of boring, but being the antithesis is the point.After rushing through all of Andrew’s activities because of his inability to say no, you start to think that Andrew could really use some boredom. He never has time to think, reflect or unwind. Before we reach the end of story, we are panting and anxiety-filled like him. Andrew finds balance and downtime by the end, which allows him to enjoy the things he enjoys most and his friends!

Parents

Setting out to locate research on boredom was far from boring. Boredom is a rich subject that lends itself to philosophy and psychology.This means it is easier t o locate opinion papers rather than subject focused literature. There are many creative writing books that proclaim the importance of boredom within the creative process but boredom only takes up a chapter or two.

Something tangential that came up and caused me t o smile while I poured over the subject of boredom was the Romans’ opinion on idleness. Idleness was the closest thing they had to boredom in BCE time. They feared the idleness in young men on their single day off something about believing that young men need to be actively engaged at all times. Their solution was the creation of the gladiator competition, so began weekend sporting events. I can’t Hail Caesar for this because he did not begin the competition. It was Decimus Iunius Brutus Scaeva who set the wheel in motion.

Getting back on track, if you have interest, I can suggest two books on the subject.

A Philosophy of BoredomPhilosophy
Lars Svendsen

This is a compilation of essay primarily authored by individuals with literature and art backgrounds. It reads well and boasts many opinions, facts and thoughts on the subject.

Boredom a Lively HistoryBoredom
Peter Toohey

This book is written with a more philosophical approach toward understanding boredom as an emotion. Toohey points out

“… it’s something that children suffer, isn’t it? Yet boredom is one of the most unexpectedly common of all human emotions, and for that reason it shouldn’t be ignored, or trivialized. It’s part and parcel of ordinary life …”

Each book is very accessible. They present solid evidence regarding boredom and its importance within the folds of the human condition. Because of the essay format in each book, they can be set aside and returned to as time allows.

Educators

Question for Lonna

When a child comes to a parent professing their boredom, what they are really saying is that they are idle. This idleness is so tedious that it must be dealt with—they need something to occupy them. They are looking for parental decision making to provide a solution.At Playgroup, where children’s educational and play efforts are self-directed, have you had a child tell you that they are bored? What does the word bored mean to you as an educator and parent?

Boredom is such a dirty word in our culture. Parents spend thousands of dollars every summer to avoid hearing, “I’m bored.” Meanwhile, adults are never unconnected and away from our work or relationships. Being bored sounds delightful to most adults.

For a certain generation, Baby Boomers, summer meant leaving the house around 9:00am, returning for dinner (my mother had a cow bell she rang), then outside until midnight. We swam, played kick the can, built forts—all unsupervised. Food and the daily application of bug repellent were our only encounters with our parents. It would never occur to us that boredom was a part of summer. We were constantly engaged, social and physical.

We created our own worlds, we had our own skills we developed and dreaded the return to structure in the fall. Back-to-school ads still make me anxious, a too early reminder the luxury of being free will end.

Times have changed, parks must be pre-scheduled through the city fora casual baseball game, parents panic if every week of summer is not filled and back-to-school ads are a reassuring call to order.

In building Playgroup in the Presidio I had a vision of my own free range childhood. I wanted the children to feel free to run, play in sand, pretend to sail the boat far into shark filled waters while a lookout on the slide warned of dangers ahead.

The late afternoon is my favorite time at Playgroup. Two of our boys have the playground to themselves and they created an entire world.Their world is safe, they know the adults are watchful and will call them to snack, but they are in a world centered on building dinosaur traps or new garages for trucks or catching frogs that wander onto our grass. These two boys have never been bored.

Inside the classroom the children have the freedom to create their own extensions and in their own time. Perhaps more important is the freedom to do nothing at all. It is during those times of silence children can observe and imagine. Parent worry unscheduled time will lead to boredom,I think the phrase, “I’m bored” likely means “you haven’t told me what to do.” Playgroup children are encouraged to be self-directed and self-regulating. They can choose from a variety of activities, or they can sit and be still.

While I have never had a child say they were bored, I have plenty of parents speak for their children expressing concern boredom will set in. Playgroup is a typical Montessori school which provides the opportunity to experience the same class over a couple years. Parents worry the same class and materials will bore children. The opposite is true. Children learn to master activities and eventually teach skills they have mastered to younger children. The opportunity to linger develops skills and imagination and confidence. I will concede it is certainly boring for parents to hear the same songs and see the same activities return home, but I assure them each year builds a layer for their child.

Every day provides endless opportunities for children to expand their worlds. Everyday experiences are powerful. An adults idea of boring is likely fascinating to a young child. A visit from a plumber to repair a clogged water fountain was a most exciting event. The children pulled up chairs to watch, gasped when he opened the panel and cheered when the water ran freely. Think of Mr. Rodgers. Exciting man? Hightech visuals? He took us to a post office, explained how doughnuts were made, brought every day experiences, seemingly boring, into our young lives. He had the same ritual every day of sweater on, house shoes on. He opened his mail, he poured a glass of juice. These are the experience of our day which are unremarkably enchanting to young children.

I wanted Playgroup in the Presidio to be a world for the children. The children of Playgroup are never bored. They are delighted by their world, especially when a plumber comes around.