'If your children complain of boredom, try not to feel guilty but glad'
Dr Teresa Belton of the University of East Anglia argues that – despite many parents going to great lengths to ensure their children are constantly stimulated – a little boredom can be good for a child.
She says that a gap in activity encourages children to entertain themselves by thinking creatively, rather than relying on the "quick fix" of TV and handheld devices.
Read her guest blog here and let us know what you think in the Talk thread.
With school holidays approaching, parents will be expecting wails of, “I’m bored - there’s nothing to do!” Stretched budgets may also make expensive outings impossible. If so, take heart. Parents tend to feel responsible for their children being occupied at all times - but being constantly busy or entertained is not helpful for children’s development. Yes, children thrive on stimulus from babyhood onwards, but one can have too much of a good thing. Children also need still, quiet time to learn from their experiences, to think their own thoughts, to get to know the world around them.
I first realised the possible value of boredom for developing imaginative capacity when I carried out a study of the influence of television on children’s story-making. I was surprised how many of the 400 stories I saw were dull and unimaginative. Then I found quite a body of research showing that television erodes children’s imaginative capacity. When making up stories, children’s creativity is rarely stimulated by all the myriad scenes and scenarios encountered on television. They draw far more on their own, direct experience, whatever that might be.
Now that personal technology is so commonplace, many children - and adults - have only to reach for their phone, computer or television if they are at a loose end. There is no need to work at our own ways of dispelling the discomfort of boredom. But constant attention-grabbing by external stimuli, often of a rapidly changing, noisy kind, crowds out time and inclination to explore our environment, develop an inner life or sit with a problem in a creative spirit.
With my colleague Esther Priyadharshini I decided to investigate the influence of boredom on creativity with some creative professionals who had written of the value of boredom to their work. Writer and actor Meera Syal told us that she now appreciates childhood boredom as an important wellspring of her creativity. She remembers how, in the small mining village where she grew up, there were few distractions, and how she often escaped from boredom into books, enjoying a trip to the library in a local town as a day out. Lack of things to do also spurred her to talk to people she would not otherwise have engaged with, and to try activities she would not, under other circumstances, have experienced. So she learned to bake cakes from the old lady next door and heard all sorts of stories from other elderly villagers.
Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons. But importantly, boredom made her write. She kept a diary from a young age, filling it with observations, short stories, poems, and diatribe. And she attributes these early beginnings to becoming a writer in later life. “Enforced solitude alone with a blank page is a wonderful spur,” she said.
Eminent neuroscientist Susan Greenfield remembers a childhood in which she was thrown on her own resources, in a family with little money, and no siblings until she was 13. She happily entertained herself with making up stories, drawing pictures of her stories and going to the library. Even now, she does not experience boredom, just welcome occasions of “quiet time”, for reflection and letting thoughts flow. She actually relishes long flights, for which she is always prepared with a pad of paper and a pen, never a laptop.
In fact, boredom can be a creative trigger for adults as well as children. Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry told us, “As I get older, I appreciate reflection and boredom. Boredom is a very creative state.” But he worries that the virtual world of social networking is contributing to a generation of people becoming more and more externally referenced in their feelings. He said: “It’s not so much how they feel about something - it’s how they think it might look to others.” Syal’s experience has led her to a similar view. “You begin to write because there’s nothing to prove, nothing to lose, nothing else to do,” she said, “It’s very freeing, being creative for no other reason other than you freewheel and fill time.”
So if your children complain of boredom, try not to feel guilty but glad. Encourage them to stay away from the quick fix of the screen. Instead, try setting them little challenges according to their age, and leave them to it. Perhaps they could begin by: finding three blue things in each room; taking a line for a walk – as the artist Paul Klee called drawing; thinking of as many uses as possible for an old jam jar or a brick; building a den with more than one room, indoors or out; drawing a map of the neighbourhood. One thing might lead to another. Discover with and for your children the creative potential of time, thought and the simplest materials. And don’t mind mess!