Let me set the scene: the end of term is on its way and all of us look gleefully towards the holiday to come. But jet-fuelled plans involving beaches or skis are off the table; revision for exams, the shortage of your holiday entitlement or simply saving money have put paid to anything more glamorous than endless trips to help with the shopping. Never mind, that craft activity given by your arty Aunt Soph last Christmas, involving plaster-of-Paris and slightly-too-long instructions, will finally be dusted off and the children can write triumphant letters of thanks with photos of the creation pasted on Facebook. Brilliant – it is going to be wonderful – while you get your marketing report done or spreadsheets completed!
Within hours the cry goes up of 'I'm bored!' and the collective heart sinks. 'Only boring people are bored!' is the frequent rejoinder. The meticulously put together, low cost options of wondrous holiday diversions to be so rapidly thrown back in one's face with this level of negativity is hard to bear, surely? A Canadian professor named Danckert describes it as an 'aggressively dissatisfying state'. Many of us will have felt the creep of the Dementors' gloom (with apologies to JK Rowling) infect the best laid plans, as the soubriquet 'boring' is applied indiscriminately. Feeling increasingly 'aggressively dissatisfied' ourselves, we parents then heave deep sighs and, voices pitched unnaturally higher, make steadying suggestions for mutual benefit. Whatever else, we are desperate to avoid the slide back into screen time that eats up days and does nothing for socialisation. Before we despair, let us, for a moment, examine what boredom is and why we – that is us, as well as our children – need it.
My first destination is the children themselves. Waves of negativity emanate at the mention of the word: boredom is associated with being friendless, being lethargic or being lumped with something uninspiring; being overtired or lazy get mentions too. But dig a little deeper and soon emerges the trope that 'if you don't have boredom you won't enjoy the fun bits as much.' So we accept boredom, just as we accept bores – who may help us out with a train timetable or choosing a carpet, as a necessary part of life, like tooth-brushing or washing up. And here, at once, is our first piece of evidence that boredom is necessary, just as cleaning and tidying up is. Appropriately enough, Byron opines in Don Juan: 'Society is now one polished horde / Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and the Bored.'
Without doubt things have moved on from such reductive comments. Neuroscience must be one of the most recently pioneered and exciting areas of science, and lights us up with technicolour brain scans. There is, therefore, an ever-increasing amount of research on boredom, describing it variously as a 'pervasive problem' (a 2009 US survey of high school engagement) which is blamed for depression, mental health difficulties and anxiety – or a feature of those with lower levels of self-control. Or, indeed, something fascinating which illustrates the restlessness of an under-stimulated but creative young person.
Children sometimes start school showing these signs, displaying a confusing mixture of hyperactivity and listlessness. This is very often easily tackled by gentle but firm boundaries being put in place so that children soon find great delight in filling their directed time usefully. It helps to have a small scale environment where that 'direction' (the teacher) can be easily made. The corollary of this is that when the time is undirected the child has simply no idea what to do with himself/herself. Welcome to the holidays – this was certainly familiar territory with one of our children!
Making lists is a fine start. Knowing that the cry of 'I'm bored' is inevitable, then noting down a series of activities with one's child is a good move because you both can address it in advance, have an acknowledged resource ahead of time and take some responsibility for it. However aimless the activity might seem to be, it is a documented and agreed potential option. It may never be chosen, but the undertaking to 'play with Playmobil figures' might last hours, even if it is simply lining them up like toy cars. There is a limitless number of options but the common thread is that none of them is time-defined or organised; none has any clear purpose or agreed structure dedicated to acquiring a skill.
Practising the violin swells the heart of every ambitious parent, but doodling with a diabolo or yoyo, seeing if you can make a glass sing with your index finger or if you can raise a single eyebrow are not yet – as far as I know – skills that are proudly added to the CV. Though technically a skill, a craze of any kind can be waiting in the wings – paper darts, unicycle, stilts, or a Rubik's cube can be picked up and rejected in the blur of boredom – and you never know, something might result! Not only does this add into the broth of resilience (a much over-used word at the moment) it can prod problem-solving and self-esteem too – further totems of successful personal development. Though this is judged by inspectors in schools, the effectiveness of it must often be put down to what happens at home; our job as educators is, after all, a partnership.
Those left-field activities are often the consequences of boredom (rather than a tightly controlled holiday schedule) and evidence of it as a necessary motivational process. Boredom drags children into territory where they are obliged to think for themselves, to confront a kind of loneliness and to tackle a task independently. Just think of that feeling as you stretch, after interminable hours in the car, and greet the plain old earth or sunshine with a glad heart full of possibilities. Creativity driven by driving boredom! Nor do these consequences of boredom have to be solitary. It is now too romantic an image to contemplate, I suspect, but Scout and Jem Finch, or Tom Sawyer and friends, are continually described as facing and vanquishing boredom through getting into scrapes. And here is the 'rub': their unsupervised (albeit fictional) lives allowed them to explore in a way that is a rarity now. I would not advocate 1950s levels of benign neglect but skimming stones is surely still possible? Creating a circumstance where children are left to 'do their own thing' must be something to aim for, so as to promote the values of trust and independence.
Confronting the absence of a fulfilling option is, I would suggest, an aspect of the aforementioned resilience so important as children grow up in a world where there is uncertainty and an ever-increasing sense of things 'being taken care of'. Advertising 'boredom' as part of a school's provision is not terribly likely – let's be honest (even if it occasionally slips towards it on a wet Friday afternoon!), but it's almost as if they should include it as part of their well-being agenda. Even if there is room to stare into space at school, the real opportunity for this is at home. There are thinkers, doers and dreamers; each has his/her place and will contribute, but boredom's challenge is not something to be swept away in flurry of memberships and mini-courses. The restful, if discomforting, sense of purposelessness has a place wherein I would always aim to be in the latter of Byron's two categories – embrace boredom not the bore.