Many parents do everything in their power to entertain and educate their children – from books, art workshops and sports to iPads and television. But what would happen if children were allowed to get bored from time to time? How would this affect their development?
I started thinking about boredom and children when I researched the impact of television on children’s storytelling in the 1990s. Surprised by the lack of imagination in the hundreds of stories of children ages 10 to 12 that I read in five different Norfolk schools, I discovered that this could be partly due to watching TV. Indeed, the results of earlier research have shown that television does reduce the capacity of children’s imagination.
For example, a large study conducted in Canada in the 1980s as television gradually spread across the country compared children in three different communities – one that had four TV channels, one with one TV channel, and one that did not have a TV channel. Researchers studied these communities on two occasions, before the city got television for the first time and again two years later. Children in communities without TV performed significantly better in examining the “divergent ability to think” than other children, which is a measure of imagination. This was the case until these children also received TV – when their skills dropped to the same level as other children.
Boredom can be helpful
The obvious effect of stifling the imagination, resulting from watching TV, is more than worrying because the imagination is very important. Not only does it enrich personal experience, but it is necessary for empathy – for imagining oneself in someone else’s skin – and it is indispensable for creating change. The significance of boredom here is that children (and adults) often fall under the influence of television or – these days – digital devices, in order to keep boredom at a “safe” distance.
A few years after my research, I began to notice creative professionals stating that boredom has been an important part of their creativity, both in childhood and now. I interviewed some of them. One of them was writer and actress Meera Syal. She recalled spending her school holidays staring out the window at a rural setting, and doing various things outside of her “usual sphere,” such as baking cakes with an older neighbor. Boredom has also forced her to write a diary and this is exactly what she attributes her writing career to. “It’s very liberating to be creative for no particular reason, to feel free and fill your time,” she said.
Also, well-known neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, said that as a child she had few responsibilities and spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. They became a predictor of the interests of her later work, that is, the scientific study of human behavior. He still prefers to choose paper and pen on a plane rather than a laptop and looks forward to that limited time.
Children need time to daydream, to follow their own thoughts and occupations
Sports, music, and other organized activities can certainly be beneficial to a child’s physical, cognitive, cultural, and social development. But children need time for themselves – to disconnect from the bombing of the outside world, to dream, to follow their own thoughts and occupations, and to discover their own interests and gifts.
We don’t have to have a certain creative talent or intellectual inclination to benefit from boredom. Just letting the mind wander from time to time is important for everyone’s mental well-being and functioning. Research has even shown that if we engage in some relaxed, undemanding activities at the same time, the wandering mind is more likely to generate imaginative ideas and solutions to problems. That’s why it’s good to help children learn to enjoy pottery – not to grow up expecting to be constantly on the move or having fun all the time.
What if children get bored?
Parents often feel guilty if children complain of boredom. But it is actually more constructive to see boredom as an opportunity rather than as a disadvantage. Parents have an important role to play, but rushing with ready-made solutions does not help. Instead, children need adults around them to understand that creating their own entertainment requires space, time, and the ability to create clutter (within boundaries – which children will then solve on their own).
They will also need some materials, but they don’t have to be sophisticated materials – simple things are often reusable. We’ve all heard of a child who ignores an expensive gift and instead plays with the box that contained the gift. For older children, for example, a magnifying glass, some wooden planks, a basket of wool, and the like, can be the beginning of many happy hours of preoccupation.
Disconnecting from the outside world, doing nothing, and letting the mind wander can be great for adults as well
But in order to get the most out of potential boredom, actually from life in general, children also need internal resources as well as material ones. Qualities such as curiosity, perseverance, playfulness, interests and trust enable them to explore, create and develop the power of innovation, observation and concentration. They also help them learn that they should not give up if they fail at first and try again. By encouraging the development of such capacities, parents provide their children with something of lifelong value.
If the child has no idea, giving challenges can encourage them to continue to have fun in an imaginative way. This can be by asking them what kind of food their toy dinosaurs love from the garden all the way out and creating a picture story with friends with a digital camera.
Most parents agree that they want to raise independent individuals who can take the initiative and think for themselves. But fulfilling a child’s time teaches them nothing more than to be dependent on external stimuli, be they material in nature or fun. Providing nurturing conditions and believing in children’s natural propensity to engage their mind is more likely to produce independent, competent children, full of ideas.
In fact, there is a lesson for all of us. Disconnecting from the outside world, doing nothing and letting the mind wander can be great for adults as well – we should all try to get as much as possible.
Teresa Belton – Catholiceducation.org
Translated by: Vanja Nekich