I've been thinking and reading a lot about boredom recently, and, it so happens, many top psychologists and academics have as well! There has been a growing curiosity about the benefits of boredom and it's connection to human creativity. The rise of smartphone technology has left our society craving the next pleasure seeking opportunity like a drug. With a press of a button, we can watch videos, listen to music, look at photographs, and simply get lost in an endless stream of visual stimuli. How is this instant gratification affecting our children's ability to create, imagine, and simply BE with themselves?
I'm a person who is never bored, always creating to-do lists in my head, staring out the window at local birds, finding something to read, or simply taking a stroll around my neighborhood. This is why I have been perplexed at the increasing phenomenon of children on our nature explorations complaining of boredom. These children will look me in the eye and declare they're boredom, almost as an accusation...like, I DID THIS TO THEM. Scanning the landscape, I see branches to build magical forts, all the materials to make mud pie and open an imaginary bakery, stumps and logs to create a nature obstacle course, a whole tarp full of books, art supplies, and nature exploration tools, and other children ready to PLAY. How can someone be bored with all of this freedom and possibility?
Children today are accustomed to receiving gratification almost immediately or having their whole day planned out with school, playdates, clubs, and classes. We have screens at our fingertips, offering us anything and everything. Not a single second passes without our senses being tickled by some sort of stimuli. Gone are the days when children had whole afternoons without somewhere to be, a scheduled playdate, or an iPad to hypnotize them. All of these advancements in technology have certainly made our lives more comfortable and given us opportunities to increase our knowledge (Just Google it!) and connectivity with the world around us; however, what is this constant stimuli doing to our children's ability to entertain themselves? Are we still inviting our children to exercise their imaginations through unstructured play? Following the directions of a lego set and understanding the strategies needed to win a board game all hold value, but what happens when there are no directions with a giant pile of blocks or the game is missing pieces? How do we offer our children the opportunity to practice flexibility, resilience, and creative problem solving to deal with these sorts of scenarios? Time and time again, studies are pointing to unstructured nature play as offering plentiful opportunities for cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development, helping our children prepare for life as a kind, creative, grounded adult. Pretty simple, right? Let's offer our children the freedom, space, and time to PLAY! But, what happens when children don't know HOW to play without direction anymore?
Increasingly, I am seeing children enter a state of fear and confusion when offered the open-ended invitation to simply PLAY. "But, what should we DO? I'M BORED!" For years, I would jump to the rescue in a desperate attempt to alleviate any boredom, offering new materials to use, creating entertaining storylines and scenarios to act out, or changing our location of play. Heaven forbid, any child have a moment of not being completely and utterly entertained during our nature walks! After some research on the benefits of boredom and some reflection on the goals of our programs, I decided to restructure my response to boredom. Basically, I'd been teaching these children that boredom is something to sweep away immediately, and, if they say they are bored, someone will entertain them. I had neglected to see how detrimental my help had truly been to their social, emotional, and cognitive growth.
When a child uses the word bored these days, I follow their "diagnosis" with curious inquiry. Here are a few follow-up questions that have helped to shift children's understanding of their boredom.
1. Help me understand what boredom is exactly? Explain to me what it looks like and where it comes from?
2. What does it feel like to be bored?
3. What happens to someone who is bored?
4. How can someone end this feeling? Can you make it go away?
5. Who can change how you feel? Is there something you can do?
6. Let's do an experiment! I'll check back in with you in 10 minutes and see if this feeling has changed. In those 10 minutes, you can do whatever you want. If you are still feeling bored, we'll figure out a solution together.
The next time your young explorer complains about being bored, give them space and time. Ask them questions to help investigate this feeling and then simply step away. I have a feeling your child will break through that uncomfortable feeling and create something magical! How empowering!