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Boredom – not always the enemy of play

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing on 09/04/2020

We first published this blog in 2015. Little did we know the challenges that children would have to face in 2020, where for several months being outside was so limited, seeing friends was impossible, and schools were closed. As we emerge, so many things are still not possible for children, or that clear ahead. But ‘boredom can be good’ still stands. We hope it’s helpful for this summer.

All children rail against boredom. They want it stopped or solved as quickly as possible, by an adult or by anything easy to turn to. It’s understandable! Boredom is a frustrating, uncomfortable state for any of us and children can experience it intensely, feeling cross, upset or even panicky that nothing on offer fits what they want.

Yet every time my children used to complain that they were bored when they were younger and that there was nothing to do, I wanted to say: YOU HAVE NO IDEA!

Boredom 70’s / 80’s style

When I was little – and maybe it was the same for 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.

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

When I tell my children this, they are horrified: “Wouldn’t you have loved to have what we have?” Well yes, I would have loved that chance to play, learn, see and connect with the world, all from a screen.

At the same time, I can see that out of that state of boredom came some very important things.

Inner resources…

On the one hand, when fighting the boredom went on for too long and I got tired out, I would sometimes give up and sink right into it. I would fall 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 dreaming into imaginary worlds, and sometimes about being present exactly where I was. Both of these can be important inner abilities to develop for coping with the challenges and stresses of life as we get older.

Outer activity…

At other times, the frustration of being so unbearably bored would eventually drive me to somehow find a way out of it, via action! This might mean making up with my little sister after we had badly fallen out. Or turning to an activity previously rejected as being too old, young, hard or, well, boring. For example, a forgotten colouring book or puzzle, trying to play the recorder, or even tidying my room.

Or it might mean (because boredom can also be collective for children) that me and my sister would suddenly have an idea for a new game or activity. Like our infamous Sleeping Bag Game! (don’t ask) or variations on The Taste Game (*see end).

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.

The boredom pain barrier

This is all very well. But if you are always surrounded by your own easy entertainment bubble, or an adult is always on hand to provide something to do, why would you ever get to any of these invented things? 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 found that when I let my children experience boredom – because we’d had enough of screens, or I was either too busy or fed up with entertaining them to think of anything – good, unexpected and often wonderful things sometimes emerged. Eventually.

And these experiences reminded me not just that boredom can be good, but also of the hopeful truth that children do have their own inner resources, and that they can be trusted to use them to – eventually – solve things for themselves; to find their own way and to get on.

 

* “The Taste Game” is a classic funny/tortuous game of my and maybe your childhood and can be played with adults too if other children are lacking. One child is blindfolded. The others then choose 3 nice things and 3 horrible things from the kitchen cupboard to feed them a dot of on a tea spoon. They have to guess what they are. It’s kinder (but less funny watching) to give the warning ‘this one’s horrible!’ before they taste the mustard. Ah the glee of choosing the things to taste! Until… the excited horror of it being your turn! 

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