Dr Helen Street
How often, as parents and educators, we hear the words “I’m bored!” Or “I can’t think of anything to do”. All too often children given free reign to come up with an activity or an idea will falter within a matter of minutes. Rather than believe boredom is a problem state to be in, it is time we revisited the true value of being bored as a necessary step in every creative process.
‘I have no idea what to do…” is a statement designed to fill us adults with anxiety and spur us into action to rescue our frustrated children. In today’s world the idea of boredom is associated with ideas of teachers and parents abandoning their children’s needs, being inadequate providers of ‘interesting things to do’ or simply being unable to keep up with the short attention span of a younger person.
Our children know this all too well.
They proudly announce boredom as a means to be given permission to change activities, be given access to easy entertainment or extra adult attention to ‘solve the problem’.
In line with many other parents, I often counter expressions of boredom with a suggestion that my children help with the housework or other chores that need doing. Looks of horror come back in response. When I suggest other solutions such as ‘go play with your sisters, or, read a book’ I am generally met with disdain, as if I just don’t get it. It seems that being bored, means being uninterested in doing much at all.
In contrast, on the rare occasions when I suggest TV or a movie as an anecdote, my children’s eyes light up as they run towards the remote control. Being bored equates to a desire to be passively, easily entertained. Woe beholds the household when even the lure of TV becomes boring.
I have spent most of my recent professional time becoming increasingly excited at the launch of the Positive Schools 2014 conferences. With a major theme of next years events around technology and mental health, my attentions have been turned to both the role of technology in supporting youth wellbeing, and the dangers of technology in creating mental health issues. The co-existing theme of creativity complements these ideas well, and asks what technology can do to promote or hinder creativity in young people. It is this question that leads me to revisit current thinking about the concept of boredom in our technologically driven society.
Increasing access to modern technology provides us with numerous avenues for easy, passive entertainment in addition to numerous ways to communicate with others in an informal way. No longer do I have to stare into space while waiting at the check-out, I can check my phone messages, text messages, email, Facebook or Twitter (if I so choose!). At home I can turn on the TV anytime, browse on Google or pick up my ipad for a whole entertainment system on my lap. How easy it is ‘not to be bored’.
My husband and I limit the amount of screen time our children have access to, however, they too have definitely learnt that the wonders of technology can stave off boredom with very little effort required. But is this a good thing or a bad?
Although it is certainly true that home based technology can offer a means for all sorts of creative pursuits, the use of technology for entertainment frequently results in the offering of passive, easy ways to pass the time. The many options available may stop immediate cries of boredom, but they also stop kids actively seeking out purposeful, creative activities in the long term. If you never have to amuse yourself or develop your own ideas or passions, then you will never learn to be self-reliant or self-directed in your behaviour. Thus, one of the biggest problems of access to passive entertainment at the tap of a screen, is the dampening of self-directed and intrinsically motivated behaviours. Without these, creativity is also severely limited.
Unlike popular movies would have us believe, creativity is not some magical quality that descends on the chosen few. It is a skill that can be developed and nurtured with time and opportunity.
Creativity not only helps us to define our humanity, it is strongly linked to both our wellbeing and academic competencies. If we continually rely on being passively entertained, creativity is a precious skill that we lose. If we lose creativity, we diminish our academic, social and emotional competencies. We put our wellbeing at risk.
The instant appeal of technological entertainment means we might start to believe that we don’t have to concern ourselves with being creative or ‘suffer’ the frustration of being bored. Yet creativity is a vital skill and boredom a vital step in the journey. Having time to be bored means having time to develop creatively. What’s more, passive entertainment is only ever a band aid for a lack of self-determined action. Ultimately, everything becomes boring if we are not actively engaged in it.
If I am strong enough to ignore the cries of Sunday afternoon boredom from my children, I can guarantee that they will creatively and happily be involved in an activity within twenty minutes. When you are used to instant entertainment twenty minutes can seem a long time however, a self-directed creative pursuit may then engage a child for a whole day, a whole week or even a life time.
We know that many great ideas have stemmed from having the opportunity to actually think about things, or in fact, to think about nothing at all; ie having the opportunity to be bored. If we are constantly structuring our attention with the passive process of gazing at a lit up screen, we are never giving ourselves opportunity to actively seek out our passions in life or to develop creative ideas of our own.
If children are not used to addressing the benefits of boredom, then begin with easy steps. Guide them to some suggestions for age appropriate activities. Offer lots of support and encouragement for ventures that stem out of boredom. Know that as kids become better at being self-directed learners, the time taken to ‘stop being bored’ will decrease. Know that as creative skills develop, the level of creativity achieved will increase. It can seem a brave and almost radical move to allow kids to be bored, stuck without an idea. It is also important that we keep a check on our own impatient, technologically driven selves and not rush in to save them too soon.
Next time a child lets you know that they are horrendously bored, cheer in celebration and let them know that this means they are going to create something wonderful very soon… Boredom needs to be redefined as a positive step in every creative learning process, as a means to positive self-development and enhanced wellbeing. How brilliant it is to be bored.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools (Helen.Street@uwa.edu.au). Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (positiveschools.com.au) launching this month Australia-wide.