I’m bored! How boredom can help children develop creativity, critical thinking and emotional intelligence.Posted: 13/06/2023
How often have we heard the words, ‘I’m bored!’ coming from the back seat of the car, in the classroom or at the end of school holidays? Often it is accompanied by an accusatory tone, slumped shoulders and an implicit, or explicit, demand to be entertained.
For many of us, it can be quite hard to resist the impulse to ‘fix’ a child’s boredom by suggesting activities or creating opportunities for connection or distraction. It’s as if their boredom triggers something in us, a childhood memory perhaps, of long hours left in our own company where we felt adrift or aimless.
Boredom is an uncomfortable emotion. It often comes with irritation, listlessness and a sense of pointlessness. It is a kind of waiting, a pause, before life resumes.
But what if it is more than this?
We may remember moments of boredom when we were children but we often forget what followed those moments of boredom. Did we make up a game with our toys? Build a cubby house? Create an imaginary world? Make a cake? Play with the dog? Connect with a friend or sibling? Go for a walk? Climb a tree? Draw a dragon?
I often think of the proverb, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ but I also wonder if boredom is also the mother of invention? How much art, music, writing, philosophy, scientific development, innovation, has been generated in moments of boredom? Creatives and scientists regular talk about how ideas or solutions came to them while they were completing mundane tasks.
Equally, how many things haven’t come into existence because experiences of boredom have become rarer. When we fill our lives and the lives of our children with distractions and endless activities, what is being lost?
There is increasing research that the dopamine hit we get from new and novel content, especially electronic content, can be addictive, making us less adept and willing to let ourselves exist in a state of boredom, even for short periods of time.
Research shows that many potential benefits can arise from experiencing periods of boredom. Boredom creates opportunities for children (and adults) to:
- be creative, innovative, curious and imaginative
- learn to problem solve and build critical thinking skills
- develop patience, resilience and self-motivation
- learn to delay gratification
- rest, recharge and reflect
- increase independence and self-reliance
- recognise and explore emotions
- develop a tolerance for uncertainty
- explore the world in new and interesting ways.
Of course, just as boredom can be used for good, it can also be a source of destructive and risk-taking behaviors. So how can we keep boredom on the ‘straight and narrow’, and encourage children to use feelings of boredom in constructive ways? Here are a few ideas:
- Try reframing: next time a child says, ‘I’m bored!’, maybe say, ‘Are you bored or are you full of trapped energy– if you could let that energy out, what would you do with it?’ or ‘Wow, you’re lucky – not many people get to feel bored. It’s a sign you’re ready to try something new. What would you like to try or learn?’
- As Dorothy Parker famously said, ‘The cure for boredom is curiosity.’ Encourage children to get curious about the world. What makes them happy or angry or fascinated– how could they learn more about those things? Who inspires them? Could they go exploring? Could they make up a treasure hunt or game or imaginary world? What could they build with just the stuff from the kitchen cupboard/back yard/craft box/junk drawer?
- Invite children to externalise their boredom – What does it look like? How does it speak? What does it want? What makes it happy? Can you draw a picture of it? What is it telling you?
- Encourage children to just ‘be’. In his article on boredom, researcher Bryan Robinson suggests we need to embrace what the Italian’s call, ‘il dolce far niente’ which he says roughly translates as ’the sweetness of doing nothing’ or being able to ‘intentionally let go and prioritize being alongside of doing’. What happens when we invite boredom in instead of pushing it away – how does it change? How do we change? What if we see it as a gift?
- Suggest children do some slow breathing or simple mindfulness activities. This will help them learn to regulate emotions, manage anxiety and find calm.
- Or, you could simply smile, acknowledge what the child is feeling and step away—let them find their own way through the experience of boredom. You might be surprised by the innovative things they find to occupy themselves.
In our contemporary world, we have endless quick fixes for boredom.
But maybe, sometimes, it is worth allowing ourselves, and the children in our lives, to spend some time in a state of boredom, just to see what happens next…
Author: Sue King-Smith