Many twenty-first century children live highly structured lives with their waking hours carefully allotted between improving activities. Pre and post school care have effectively extended the school day, and many children move straight from school to evening clubs. There is barely a spare moment from waking until bed. Down time which might be considered ‘boring’ has been squeezed out of the week day and fares little better at weekends with busy children being ferried from parties to sports clubs, and from swimming to brownies. Any ‘boring’ moments in the back of the parental taxi being driven between improving activities can be filled with ‘virtual’ learning on the ubiquitous iPad.
Of course children benefit from such a demanding and diverse range of stimulus activities. Through such activity they acquire knowledge and skills, make friendships, develop confidence and gain lifelong hobbies. Boredom is bad; it is evidence of underutilised mental capacity and is often a precursor to mischief. Its demise is a cause for celebration.
Or is it? Research suggests that boredom is not all bad, and a little bit of “nothing to do” may actually be important for balanced child development. Boredom encourages creativity. Many children lacking external stimuli create their own internal interests inventing games, characters, and activities to fill their time. Children’s bedrooms littered with bears receiving medical treatment or dolls circumnavigating the turbulent ‘carpet’ seas are everyday evidence of how boredom fires the imagination. Such imaginary thinking stimulates neural networks and encourages children to think outside narrow literal boxes.
Boredom doesn’t just spark creativity it also encourages the development of emotional intelligence and empathy. Studies have shown that bored children are often day dreaming about human relationships. As children twiddle thumbs and gaze vacantly into the middle distance, many are replaying social interactions. The day dreaming brain is trying to piece together patterns of social behaviour to see what lessons can be learned. Do teenage boys impress girls by understated kindness and consideration or by extrovert acts of physical strength? Do mum and dad respond better to flattery, or are they more likely to give in to dogged determination and the wearing effects of argumentative attrition?
Singapore and Shanghai regularly top the PISA world league tables of educational attainment. However, their educationalists worry about the lack of creativity in their classrooms. Traditionally, the creativity deficit has been put down to overly didactic teaching with an emphasis on right and wrong answers and the need for perfection. Pedagogic practice in the Far East is changing, but creativity can still be in short supply. This may be down to the highly regulated and programmed lives of Far Eastern children. Even more than in the UK, such children are dragooned from dawn to dusk through a series of improving activities with occasional down time being filled with computer games and children’s television.
In such packed prescribed routines there is no space for the nothingness of boredom. However, sometimes only when external stimuli are switched off do children switch on their inner creativeness. Experience shows that from monastic silences to Steve Job’s retreats, the stillness and calm of inactivity can be inspirational.
Even teachers benefit from being bored. Staff returning from external training days will often report the course they attended wasn’t much good, but as they tuned out of a speaker’s monotonous presentation in an overheated basement seminar room, their brains became creative and new school improvement ideas were born.
Occasional periods of boredom transfer children from passive consumers of other people’s creativity to lively original thinkers. Boring can be good and schools and parents should promote portions of ‘unstructured’ time so that children can invent their own activities.