Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The contribution and importance of creative boredom

This post was inspired by a comment made in reply to my previous post about options of children's education. It referred to my concern about how children are often bored to death in schools.

"Learning how to be bored and nevertheless behave in an appropriate and constructive way is a very useful skill and one that you certainly need later in life. I wonder whether children know what to do when they're bored nowadays. More and more, it looks as though boredom is not permitted and every adult should just drop everything to entertain a child."

I must say I completely agree with the sentiment of this comment. I don't think education, however inspiring and individually adapted, should turn into running in circles around the child and making sure there's no moment of boredom. I see many parents driven by the famous "Mom, I'm bored!", especially during summer vacations - so much that they feel compelled to entertain their children 24/7. As soon as the child says he or she is bored, they will be immediately taken to the mall, the zoo, the swimming pool, or signed up to any number of extra-curricular activities.

Boredom, while often seen as unproductive, can in fact be of infinite use. A bored mind is a clear, unoccupied mind, which can, when provided with the right tools, produce great things. Inventions, books, scrapbooks, crafts, paintings, new recipes, creative role-playing games, and even various household projects have been known to grow out of a seemingly nonconstructive, "bored" state of mind. I fondly remember those summers when I wasn't too engaged in camps, swimming lessons or other activities, and had all the time in the world to dream, think, and create. Many stories and diaries were written during those times, many family albums organized, many slow and peaceful conversations took place, thanks to the message that when I'm bored, I'm supposed to entertain myself, and not expect to be occupied by someone else.

Of course, I believe there should be certain structure to a child's days, but also many hours free for creative exploration - which should take place early enough in a day, while the child isn't too tired. This is what I call "creative boredom".

However, creative boredom can only take place when there is free time. The boredom children experience in schools is of completely different nature. Schools aren't geared towards encouraging creativity and individuality - they are institutions directed mainly to supply certain knowledge, yes, but also to keep the children quiet, still and occupied for an arbitrary number of hours during the day. Children aren't encouraged or even given the possibility to complete schoolwork early and then continue with creative pursuits, because it would be too inconvenient. There are simply too many children in an organized institution to let them all wonder around. At best, a child who has completed a worksheet early will get another worksheet - until he is glassy-eyed and dumbstruck after hours of mind-numbing work.

Sadly, I have seen too many children who have lost all their intiative and interest in learning. When I tried to encourage something more interesting, and asked a question such as, "what subject would you like us to cover in-depth?", I received a blank look. The older children become, the more used they are to being spoon-fed limited portions of information, and worse, they are used to equal school with boredom. If their home environment doesn't encourage good reading - such as in the cases of illiterate or nearly illiterate parents, for example - the children will remain only technically literate themselves. They will never know the joy of learning for the sake of learning, because instead of keeping their minds lively and creative, schools have treated them like delinquents who need to be sat down and kept quiet at whatever cost. I can hardly imagine anything sadder than a 15-year-old who has never known the joy of reading a good book.

I'm not saying, of course, that all our life experiences will, or should be interesting. Sometimes we do boring work. Some of us will be stuck at mind-numbing jobs for years. However, childhood is a crucial period for the development of the mind. It's a time when creativity and initiative should be generously nurtured, not kept down for the sake of convenience.


Cindi said...

Bored is a dirty word in our home. If a child is heard saying it then Dad or Mom helps them find something to helped keep them from it, like scrubbing the floor. Our children will then create their own pursuits to fill their extra time. We also teach them there are certain times and things in life where you must learn to sit still and be attentive even if you are not interested in what is going on. We started when they were toddlers teaching them that in short periods of time and progressed to longer periods as they grew older.

Sammybunny said...

As a pre-service teacher, I have been intrigued by your past few posts. However, I find myself disagreeing and agreeing with many of your points. I, too, was one of those children who got "bored" at school, but I still LOVED school and loved learning. But instead of being unproductive with my boredom, I read all the time, still got my work done, and worked very hard, loved my teachers, and wouldn't trade a minute of my public education. As a teacher-to-be, I am also learning that the model of teaching children is changing VERY much form the spoon-feed the children approach to an approach where the children are active learners in their education--doing hands-on activities and unconventional activities to diversify learning in different subjects. I feel that public education can and is becoming a much better tool than it used to be. HOWEVER, that being said, I feel that parents still have the major responsibility in educating their children and reinforcing/questioning/and nourishing what they learn at school. Most importantly, however, I feel that parents are to be the primary authority on matters of faith--which come before education. I am proud to be a teacher in training and though, I could potentially see myself homeschooling one day if there is a need (as I feel a proper homeschooling regiment could be just as productive, enriching, and encouraging as a public education), I just had to get my feelings across that education in the public sphere IS trying to help the child and have them become life-long, excited learners. (Please know that this comment was kindly meant and in no way meant to be a belligerent disagreement or anything! I love reading your blog but I just wanted you to get a different opinion :o)

Buffy said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. It sounds like our childhoods were not disimilar both being raised as only children we had plenty of time to exercise our imagination, do lots of reading and creative writing. Also I remember making up some fascinating games to play with friends.

It's bad enough that so much of this creative freedom is lost as we grow into adults and fill our lives up with busyness. To destroy this time for children by constantly entertaining them and filling up every second is downright cruel.

Andrea said...

This was a very rich post for me! I love your thoughts on this, Anna, and your own experiences that you shared were especially enriching.

I mentioned in a previous comment that I have misgivings about each type of education (public, parochial and home-based schooling) and for me the greatest misgiving I have about public schools is the scheduled daily "regime". I know that some children do thrive in that very desk-based, structured environment-- I was one of them. I had an experience like sammybunny's, where what could have been post-worksheet boredom became a time of intense creativity for me. I completed three novels in those post-assignment hours throughout middle and high school. They're about as good as you'd expect novels written by a teenager to be, but I had a degree of clarity and focus at school that prompted me to write in a way I could never quite duplicate at home. However, my sister was not the same type of learner as I; she is highly intelligent and has an extremely analytical and mathematical mind, so her work was always completed to a more than acceptable standard, but she was ravenous for something to truly ENGAGE her in school, and the system just wasn't geared to her learning style.

If I had children whose learning style mirrored that of my sister I would be especially motivated to explore homeschooling or perhaps a school that uses the Montessori method, which actively engages children in their learning environments rather than promoting a desk-based module. Now, I have misgivings about the Montessori method as well, but I think that each schooling option offers different strengths and weaknesses, just as each child has various strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning styles. It's my hope that I will be able to arrange for each of my children to end up in an educational environment that will best capitalise on those strengths, while minimising the weaknesses.

Anonymous said...

Standing in line at WalMart a few weeks ago, I overheard two moms moaning about how they CAN'T WAIT for school to begin. Sadly, their childen were right there. "I can wait, I HATE school" was the children's response. These attitudes are soooo typical.

I've heard some pro-family pro-homeschooling moms suggesting that parents like this must just hate their children. The problem, I feel, is one of indulgence. The parents have indulged the children with as much entertainment and as little responsiblity as possible. Even low-income children spend tons of time in front of TV or video games. The parents haven't brought up their children to contribute to the home by doing basic chores. They haven't taught them to be respectful and obedient. They haven't allowed them to spend time being bored. These parents have run themselves ragged and stood on their heads all summer trying to keep their kids happy and entertained. No wonder these parents are ready for school to begin!

We've all read about the days (long past) when many parents wouldn't ALLOW their children to go to school because they were so needed at home or on the farm. Those children were proud of their position at home, and of the fact that dad couldn't get by without them. It is hard to imagine a world like that in our over-indulged society.


Jen said...

My grandfather always said that "Being bored shows a lack of imagination." Mother was always quick to quote him whenever we children claimed we were bored. My three children were homeschooled and when school was finished they found many creative ways to occupy their time. Kids by nature are curious and creative. They just need the time, space, and some encouragement to tap into this creativity.

Anonymous said...

What a perfect post. I read your blog often, although I do share a different religious ideology, because as a young freshly married woman I am always looking for advice on making a family work right... anyhow...

I agree that schools can be a balck hole of creativity, and I have very strong memories of being that child who finished a worksheet early, only to be gifted with another one. Children learn best when they have input into their own education, they can't all be taught the same way.

My mother's response to "I'm bored"... "Then find something to do." ;-)

Jason's Wife

Bethany Hudson said...

As I am an only child, my mother knew she'd have to decide what to do when I was "bored". Inevitably, I got handed a tome of Dickens or Tolkein or something like that. Today, I am an avid literature geek thanks to boredom!

I agree with everything that you've said here, Anna. Interestingly, more and more child development psychologists are coming up with the same conclusions. Now, if only everyone would take the doctor's advice.


Neuropoet said...

My boys know that I am not pleased if they use the word "bored". My first response is to insist that their boredom is not my problem, and it likely means that their brains have been numbed from "too many boxes" (ie computer, video games, tv etc.). Then I will make suggestions like - cleaning up the living room, scrubbing the floors, ect. I really do see a difference in my boys' ability to "entertain" themselves if they have been indulged with too much "box" time - usually with extended family. There seems to be a time of withdrawal that gets translated as "boredom" as they switch on their imaginations again. :) This kind of boredom is the kind that can be gently turned toward creative and imaginative pursuits. The problem with boredom in a classroom is that most children, in most classrooms, are not allowed to do anything but their work. Once the work is done they are expected to sit there quietly and not do anything - especially socialize, or do something that might distract their neighbor! This was horrible for me in school. I always had my "lessons" finished in a very short period of time, and while this meant I never had to bother with homework (so at least my few hours at home were thoroughly mine), I still had to sit through the rest of that "lesson time" with nothing to do. It was so bad by junior high that I started sneaking coins into class so I could spin pennies on my desktop. In the early grades my teachers would let me read books when I was done with my lessons, but by the time I was older that was somehow considered "distracting" to the other students. The year I spun pennies I remember most of the kids who sat near me were in trouble a lot for not finishing their work - and I wonder now how much of that was my fault. I was just so miserably bored! I mean so out of my mind with boredom - hours and hours of the day wasted. When I withdrew from school in high school to homeschool myself it took me two weeks to be able to focus on a subject for more than a few minutes at a time, because I'd never had to do it before! I literally had to learn a new skill - how to concentrate on something for a long period of time - and it was so rewarding! All those years, I never felt like I ever really earned an A. I had them all the time - every assignment - but I never spent more than a few minutes at a time on them. It didn't feel like I was working at all. I didn't feel like I deserved an A when I obviously wasn't working as hard as the kid next to me - who worked unbelievably hard and got a C. Discovering that I could work hard and delve as deeply into my studies as I wanted was so liberating! This personal experience is one of the main reasons that I homeschool my boys - there are many other reasons - but this is definitely one of them. My husband had the same kind of experience in traditional classrooms - so we're thrilled to have the option of homeschooling.


Kelly said...

So true Anna. With my daughter I have what I call a flexible schedule, and there are times in the day where she is left to find something to do with herself.
Boredom in a school setting is a completely different thing in that in school they don't let you solve the boredom. You're not allowed to get up and do something else nor are you allowed to day dream. As I child I was yelled at a lot for being caught day dreaming.
I think it's a problem solving issue as well, if a child is bored they must solve that problem. My daughter at almost 3 is told by me, "I'm not here to entertain you, find something to do." And she usually does.

Lady M said...

My children have learned to that coming to me and stating that they are bored will certainly have me come up with something to "un-bore" them - usually in the area of helping mom (but I do not assign it to them as a "punishment" for being bored). Sometimes, helping mom is way more exciting than what they were doing on their own (ie mom is making cookies, lol!).

They know that I am not their personal entertainment committee. I have been amazed at the things that they have come up with on their own.

I am so glad that we homeschool and we can turn those bored moments into creative ones - simply by NOT assigning them junk work to keep them busy, but by letting them come up with a way to entertain themselves. I used to get into trouble in school because I was bored and knew the lesson. Not because I acted out or distracted other students, but because I ALWAYS had a good book to read and apparently, that just annoyed a couple of my teachers to no end - that I could complete the worthless assignment in a very short time period. I think they often assumed I was not doing the work - except I was, and my grades reflected that.

A homeschooling environment is almost always a better choice than a government school or private school (I am sure there is the rare occasional exception). And yes, I went to school for an elem. ed. degree - none of my education prepared me to teach my own children at home.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I do not have time to read and contemplate your well-thought essays and responses, so often end up giving a quick 'gut' response to the issue.

With the concept of boredom, I don't understand how intelligent people can ever be bored unless they're in some sort of restrictive environment. One problem was that I was easily distracted, and another a seeming short attention span. I loved to read. As a kid in school, I recall asking teachers to do extra things that were of interest to me. For example, in my English class when others were sitting at desks reading something silently that I'd read years before, I'd ask the teacher if I could go read something related in a corner (I couldn't and still cannot sit at a desk to read a book), or write something about the book, or spend time with a dictionary. There was no reason to be bored, to waste my time nor the teacher's, for sure as anything, I'd get in trouble (and possibly others) if I started amusing myself with involving others that hadn't read the material with the teachers' expectation that all would be exposed. As a desperate alternative, there were always the margins of notebooks that could be filled with reflective comments or doodles!

Filling in as the 3rd grade catechism teacher, once while I was in 8th grade, I recall the lesson was Noah and the Ark. After the kids took turns reading the story aloud, I based the rest of the lesson on what I knew about the kids in the class. I knew that Eddie Morrison's little brother (I don't remember his name so will call him Tobias) would be squirmy but was crazy about drawing, so I had Tobey find a partner to draw a big Ark with animals on the chalkboard. I knew that the Zmuda boys were into sports, so I thought of some physical action game for them that demonstrated the decision-making process for Noah and his wife... I knew that the Morris kids loved music, so they learned a song --and there are many for children at that age level. And, I also made up other exercises such as a couple kids made up a poem about the dove, and some looked up answers in the Bible for specific questions that they wanted to know. I figured from my own early education that there is never a reason to be bored, unless a body is tired and not allowed to rest.

I'm not a teacher, and have had no training, but I was the oldest of a lot of children, and it was often my responsibility to keep them in line. It was so much easier, if all were occupied in something of interest to them. Later on, it seemed to me that there really is no time to waste except in overindulgence.

Sometimes, I think it would be quite exciting and a challenge to be a teacher, to think of all the different ways to get kids to learn something that was in the curriculum. If I was a teacher, I would never have kids recite things by rote that I heard was a way to carry on in the early 1800's. At the very least there would be music and strobe lights if rote-learning was involved!

As for schools wasting time,

Julie said...

You're singing my song :0)

Children far too easily get used to being entertained, and come to expect it.

We try to keep our boys' days structured (homeschool, sports, etc.) but with lots of free time built in :0)

I rarely hear the words "I'm bored", but my ready response is, "Great! Because I have a bathroom that needs cleaning!"

Mary Catherine said...

I wasn't allowed to say "bored" growing up. I'd be made to scrub the floors too.

A perspective from someone who experienced both kinds of boredom in school, though:
In elementary school, I was "bored" because the subject matter was too easy for me (I learned to read much earlier than kindergarten, so it was very boring to sit through my classmates' attempts to sound out words). The school was very "learning styles"-friendly, and classrooms were set up with all sorts of learning stations in the back. During the reading-aloud sessions or explanations or whatever, I had to sit and be quiet no matter how bored I was. We were required to pay attention, because education was going on, and that was important. After a class assignment was over, however, we could go to the learning stations in the back of the room and read, or draw, or do whatever was back there. Obviously, everything had to be kept neat, which in retrospect makes me admire my teachers SO MUCH for controlling the chaos that could have ensued.

I learned enormously at that school. Even though I wasn't doing classwork that was as hard as I could have handled, I did individual projects that fascinated me, and I read about five books a week.

In middle school, I went to an "old-school" type of setting, where we all had to be doing the same thing at the same time, and the classroom was rigidly controlled. We couldn't cross our legs in our desks. If we finished an assignment early, we had to sit quietly and wait for everyone else to finish. We couldn't work on anything in school that hadn't been assigned.

And I decided that I hated school. Worse, I hated learning. And I became terrible at math, though my math scores had been higher than my English scores in elementary school. I lost my desire to read all the time, and I still haven't gained it back. I picked up habits of laziness that plague me eleven years later. (Some of it is personality based, too, but I definitely had zero academic laziness before I found out that learning meant sitting in a hard chair and doing nothing.)

As a teacher, I find it very difficult now to manage the classroom set-up where students work on individual projects in different areas of the room when we're finished with a class assignment. My elementary teachers become more and more my heroes for the balance between control and flexibility they were able to strike. But because of my experience at my middle school, I know just how important it is not to make them sit and do nothing for any appreciable amount of time. They have to pay attention when I talk or when we read aloud, of course, but not when there's just nothing for them to do except wait for everyone else to finish.

And, think about it. In real life, you have to concentrate on many things that are difficult. But how often are you required to sit quietly and do nothing? Even when you're waiting in line for something obnoxious and official, nobody's going to tell you you can't read.

Children who have to sit and do nothing in class when they're done with assignments and aren't allowed to work on anything else, as at my draconian middle school, will become adults who sit glass-eyed in waiting rooms instead of bringing a book or taking advantage of the magazines on the tables to learn something new. Children who grow up being able to use their free time to explore what they want to in the world will probably grow up to be adults who see interesting things to learn in the most boring situations they find themselves in, and will definitely not be caught without a book if they know they might have a long, boring wait for something.

And thus ends my lecture on the two different kinds of boredom in schools.

Rebecca Grider said...

I totally agree. Some of my best childhood memories were just laying in the grass, making up stories in my head.

I live in Louisville, Kentucky and a windstorm cut off power to about 75% of the city two days ago. It's been a treat to see kids actually out playing, families sitting together over a grill or older couples on their porch for no reason but to enjoy the weather.

I strive to give myself one day a week to be what I call a slug: reading, sleeping, daydreaming. I think adults could benefit from creative boredom the same as children!

Anonymous said...

There is no time to be bored!! I really believe that boredom can be contagious, & parents who show an inablility to entertain themselves, who think that everything is a drag if they don't have the "right toys" or events & places available, are going to bring up children just like them. And it really is a shame, because there is so much wonder in God's world to marvel over. Children who are taught early on to enjoy their own company, to sit when it's not always convenient for them, & to look beyond their simple, base desires will find a way to fill their time productively. I like the way you've put this, Anna: "creative boredom". Too true!


Jimena said...

Anna, there is something I have been wondering about for sometime now, and would love to hear your opinion. I don't think you have written about the topic of disciplining children. How do you do it? When do you start? When do you stop? Do you stop? The book of Proverbs for example tells us about the rod to be used if you love your child... this is not a very popular topic but a very important one in my opinion. What do you think? - Good post by the way!

Mrs. Anna T said...


This is an area we've vaguely thought about, but haven't reached any specific conclusions yet, except for the conviction that children need not to be over-indulged. As you know we aren't parents yet, so we still have time to ponder...