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“I don’t know what to do!” In Praise of Boredom for Children

posted this in Childhood, Free Play on 30/07/2015

Like all children, mine rail against boredom when they encounter it. They want it stopped or solved as quickly as possible by an adult or anything easy to turn to, like a screen.

I understand. Boredom can be a frustrating and uncomfortable state for any of us and children can experience it intensely, feeling cross, upset or even panicky that nothing in the outer world matches what they want inside. If only they knew what that was…Boredom blog 3

Yet every time mine complain they’re bored and there’s nothing to do, I want to say: you have no idea!

When I was little – and maybe it was the same for most of you – boredom was a daily experience we had to wade through.  In the long summer holidays in particular, it knocked around with us constantly. And it’s not that we didn’t find it uncomfortable, or cry and whinge to adults to be relieved (we did). It’s that nobody helped us out much and there were no easy escape routes.Ingrid boredom blog rain-on-window

I can remember, when I was very small, being so bored sometimes that I watched rain drops hitting the window pane and running down the glass. Or lay on my bedroom floor and pulled up bits of fluff from the carpet. Or picked wood chips from the wallpaper in my bedroom.

When I tell my children this, they are horrified and say, “Wouldn’t you have loved to have what we have?” Well yes, I would have been amazed at that chance to watch, listen to, play, and see things all from a screen in my bedroom.

But now, today, I can see that out of that state of boredom some very important things emerged for me. And extrapolating outwards, for the world!

Out of Boredom…

On the one hand, when fighting boredom went on too long and I was tired out, I would sometimes give up and sink right into it, falling into an almost peaceful reverie where my mind wandered and imagined; or where I was simply present, watching raindrops or picking fluff…

Looking back, it was an acceptance of external circumstances and a going inside instead; a quiet, inner time that was sometimes about being present exactly where I was. These can be important inner resources for adults when faced with the stresses and challenges of life.Boredom blog 1

At other times, the frustration of being so unbearably bored would eventually drive me – via action – to find a way out of it. This might mean playing with people I didn’t want to play with: the annoying four-year-old boy next door; making up with my sister after we had badly fallen out. Or I turned to an old activity, something normally considered too young, too hard, or too – previously – boring: a forgotten colouring book or puzzle, playing the recorder, or tidying my room.

Or it might mean that me and my gang (boredom is also a collective experience) would suddenly have an idea or an invention; something we would not otherwise have thought of. Like the infamous ‘Sleeping Bag’ game!*

And so, in small ways, boredom also created a reason to develop or mend social relationships.  And it led to perseverance, resourcefulness, creativity, invention and innovation – again, all inner resources that we as individuals need in life, and that the world badly needs us to have.

But if you are always surrounded by your own easy entertainment bubble, or an adult is always on hand to find something to do or take you somewhere new, why would you be driven to do any of these? The fact is, you sometimes have to go through the seemingly pointless pain of boredom to get to them. And we parents have to go through the pain of our children going through the pain, in order to make that possible.

Time and time again I have found that when I let my children experience boredom – because I am either too busy or fed up with entertaining them – good, unexpected and often wonderful things emerge. Eventually.Boredom blog 4

And these experiences remind me not just that boredom can be good, but also that children already have their own inner resources, and can be trusted to use them, solve things, find their own way and get on.

So as the summer holidays are upon us and the pressure to keep children occupied is on, maybe we don’t have to all the time (especially when their daily school lives are so incredibly busy.). Maybe sometimes it’s just about holding our nerve, and getting busy with something else. And of course, creating more chances for freedom, being outside and mixing with others helps children to find their own way out of boredom.  Whatever your approach to boredom, good luck! And let us know how you get on.

* “The Sleeping Bag Game”, Cousins Gang, 1977:  the first person lies on their tummy in the bag at the top of the stairs, feet first, looking up at all the rest on the top step. Their descent in the nylon tube (and the smaller they are the better here) is fast, juddering, terrifying, and their face is hilarious to watch.  Hilarious, that is, until it is your turn…

How bored did you used to get when you were young? Do you have any experiences with your children getting bored, good or bad?  We’d love to hear about them…

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