Is boredom always bad?
Although the weather suggests otherwise, the Easter holidays are already upon us. Parents across the country face the same question: how do I keep my children entertained during their time off school? We all know that sitting them in front of CBBC for 10 hours straight, though tempting, is not the answer – so we rack our brains for fun activities. The local museum? A train ride to London? A National Trust garden? Visiting grandparents? But it all costs so much! And what if it rains?
If that describes your situation at the moment, then a recent study from Dr Teresa Belton, senior researcher at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia, will be music to your ears. Dr Belton interviewed the actress-turned-author Meera Syal, artist Grayson Perry, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and poet and magazine publisher Felix Dennis, all of whom had written that boredom had been a spur to their creativity. Meera Syal, for instance, said, remembering the school holidays, “Boredom made me write. I started keeping a diary from a young age and filled it with observations, short stories, poems, diatribes. I attribute that diary to me becoming a writer in later life.” Dr Belton’s conclusion? “Being bored can stimulate creativity by creating a space that we feel we need to fill. Being creative is a matter of using our own ideas and whatever’s to hand to fill that space.” Overstimulating children – filling their time with outings and activities, entertainment and interactive technology – can inhibit their own natural creativity. Letting them be bored, by contrast, encourages them to think for themselves – to let their imaginations loose.
Of 353 commenters on the article, published on the BBC website, many feel the same way. “I totally agree with this!” replied Katharine. “We can entertain and ‘busy’ our children to the point that they have no time for their own thoughts and ideas.” Sheean agreed: “As a teacher and parent I would absolutely agree that a child should be able to spend time amusing themselves in a quiet environment to develop the ability to use imagination and enjoy solitude.”
Over on Netmums, the sentiment is the same. According to Amna R, “I think boredom is important because kids need to learn that life is not all about fun ‘n’ games. Boredom allows time for imagination and creativity.”
It might feel a bit counter-intuitive to deliberately let your children be bored. But think back to your own childhood. No iPads, no DVDs, fewer computer games, less to watch on TV – but would you say you were bored? Probably not! I bet you played football in the park with your friends, or climbed trees, or acted out make-believe scenarios, or wrote stories about princesses, or made fairy cakes. I know I did. I remember going to see Fireman Sam at the theatre with my friends (in our Fireman Sam outfits, of course!), and then coming home and acting it out all over again. I was Station Officer Steele, and I told them what to do! A few years later we made the ‘New Drive Cup’, and then played football for hours to see who would win it. My younger brother was forever building dens, or disappearing into the garage and making things.
So now an academic study has confirmed what many of us already knew: downtime is good. It leaves space for the imagination, it gets children active and using their initiative, and it fires their creativity. As you prepare for this Easter holiday, maybe build in a bit more of it? Take them to the museum in the morning, but leave the afternoon free and see what happens? Let them loose in the local woods for an hour? We’ve got a great range of open-ended games, too. Who knows where their imaginations, once sparked, will take them?
With thanks to Dr Teresa Belton at the UEA School of Education and Lifelong Learning