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Opinion: a child’s boredom is an opportunity

What is the feeling we call boredom? It’s a sense of frustration, impatience, dissatisfaction and time dragging. It’s uncomfortable, for children and adults alike, and we tend to regard it as something to avoid or escape.

Some situations are intrinsically tedious, and the boredom that follows when escape is impossible can be bad for us. Some individuals are simply more prone to boredom than others. So there are two aspects to the phenomenon: the degree of stimulus available and how we respond to its absence.

Because children are naturally active and learning all the time, adults tend to feel responsible when they say they’re bored. But it is more helpful to see boredom as a valuable opportunity than a deficit.

Of course we expect early-years educational settings to provide cognitive, sensory and cultural stimuli, and children are unlikely to feel that there’s nothing to interest them here. At home, though, even if there is no shortage of toys and technology, boredom is a familiar complaint, especially as children get older. Perhaps too many options and the constant demands for attention from contemporary media make it difficult to get absorbed in anything.

My interest in the topic first arose in the 1990s, when I was researching the influence of television and videos on children’s story-making imagination. I was surprised at the dullness of many of the 400 or so stories I read, and wondered if this might be an effect of TV viewing. Looking at earlier research, I found that all the approaches that had been taken to investigate the impact of television on children’s imagination indeed came to the same conclusion: that television reduces children’s imaginative capacities.

Boredom is the pivot here, in that children, like adults, often fall back on television or – now more likely – a digital device to help pass time. Interviews I carried out later with creative professionals confirmed that boredom had been an important spur to the development of their creativity in childhood, and could still be so.

But we don’t need a particular creative talent to benefit from boredom; its discomfort can push any of us into trying something new. So, when confronted with wails of “I’m bored!” adults don’t need to rush in with an organised activity or a new toy or game. Encouraging the child to find his or her own solution will help them develop autonomy, creativity and coping skills.

Sometimes, however, when children feel there’s nothing to do, certain resources will help them initiate and pursue their own activities. This is where parents and teachers have a contribution to make. Children need adults to teach them that creating one’s own pastimes requires space, time, some basic materials and the possibility of making a mess (within reason, and to be cleared up afterwards). Some kind of adult-set challenge can also help get children thinking, such as planning a family celebration, finding their toy animals some ‘food’ in the garden, building a marble run, or creating a picture story with some friends and a digital camera.

To make the most of the opportunities unoccupied time offers, children need inner resources, too, such as playfulness, perseverance, curiosity and enthusiasm. Such qualities allow them to explore, create, develop their powers of resourcefulness, observation and concentration, and fail and try again. Play workers, teachers, parents and carers all have a part to play in nurturing these skills.

Teresa Belton is a visiting fellow in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia, and author of Happier People Healthier Planet.

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