We made a coral reef out of packing peanuts and a small box yesterday. Or I should say, my daughter did. She also created an octopus to inhabit it, and has plans for a major ecosystem expansion, including a manatee host that I suspect will be named Jessica. Just before that, she had claimed to be bored and asked to watch TV. Animal Planet could only dream of such intrigue.
I was recently asked for advice about the best ways for young children to prepare for school, given their increasing academic demands. My first answer, of course, was lots of (real) book sharing and read-aloud, starting as early as possible. Next was to put away the flashcards and let them play, which is how children are wired to learn (recall they are not small, boring grownups). And finally, in a developmental photo-finish: let them be bored.
Not bored in the “I’ve already seen that SpongeBob episode like ten times,” sense. Pure, old-fashioned, free-range, organic boredom, fresh from artisanal springs. Wandering around the house boredom. Staring out of the window boredom. Sitting with a pile of computer parts in a Palo Alto garage boredom. The kind of boredom my daughter expressed before moving on to the box reef project.
Or maybe the kind felt by Google co-founder (and old-school-Montessori-educated) Larry Page, whose attraction to computers started when he was six years old not with a slick new learning app, but when he got to “play with the stuff lying around” his living room.
Boredom has negative connotations, invoking images of teens behaving badly, Dementors from Harry Potter, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. We’ve developed an irrational fear of it, increasingly acute as technologies to keep us constantly entertained explode, which ironically makes us feel bored more often, with ever-lower tolerance. Tried waiting in line and not reaching for the cell phone in your pocket lately?
When children whine for something to do, or even look vaguely uncomfortable, parental pressure mounts to do something about it. For boredom is a scourge of the analog Dark Ages – akin to plague, pestilence, inferno! Do we douse it with learning: quick, grab the Leapster! Escape in the car? Or do we apply the super healing, soothing, all-powerful salve that is electronic media?
(insert techy Gregorian chant: …deo iPad PBS Kids domini….)
Unfortunately, seeking to eradicate all traces of boredom, like overuse of antibiotics, mostly fosters tolerance and dependency, short-circuiting the opportunity for a child’s mind and body to adapt – a missed opportunity to learn. It also impairs their ability to focus on assignments and projects – many of them considered boring – later.
Of course, some boredom should be addressed. We can’t expect to just ignore our children and have them evolve into Steve Jobs, although being a child of the sixties, he spent a ton of time bored and unplugged. This is a healthy balance thing. Playing together is wonderful, but to an increasing degree as children become more independent, it is important to let them figure out how to handle down time. When they are old enough to say “I’m bored,” the time has come to say, “How wonderful!” Thus, we let them develop the inner tools to calm, focus, and create their own fun – and then, after a suspenseful span punctuated by odd banging, tape, and shuffling, to excitedly show you what they created.
“Boredom” is not toxic, nor is it static. It is a transitional state, a period of variable discomfort seeking release via finding something to do. Mental and physical energy in search of purpose. Suppressing or medicating it with media merely inhibits this energy, ultimately dulling the spark and requiring that the void be replaced by external stimulation. Boredom is the raw material for invention, where great things happen, like making coral reefs out of boxes, writing a book, inventing Google, or learning to play ball or ride a bike. It’s also how children figure out what interests them, requiring a long and wonderful series of trial and error (and success) otherwise known as childhood. Coping with and channeling this internal drive is perhaps the most powerful and critical skill a child could possess to thrive in school and life. It is a firm foundation, bedrock. The sturdy reef where the wondrous sea creatures live. And it requires practice!
As for ABCs, 123s, concepts, flash cards, computer skills, and test prep? These can wait. Young children are way to busy to fret about them. Because remember (a great book, BTW):
As a plugged-in example of an unplugged masterpiece, if you haven’t already check out Caine’s Arcade. As shown masterfully via a short video, a nine-year old boy in Los Angeles channeled his “boredom” in his dad’s auto parts warehouse into an amazing assortment of old-school arcade games, using spare parts and old cardboard boxes. It’s a perfect example of the hope and power of imagination, and is sure to bring tears to your eyes. And as ticket sales (including the popular $2 Fun Pass) and donations have spiked, he’s raised over $175,000 for his college fund (which, given the cost of education, should last just over 3 semesters). Engineering, anyone?
And speaking of boxes and zeitgeist, coming soon to Baby Unplugged (and the Unplugged Box at blue manatee boxes), in June…
Share your “boredom” stories! Post photos. Have fun!