John Dabell tries to strike a balance between tackling boredom and encouraging boredom.
When children say they are bored, that’s fighting talk for ‘entertain me’. If you hear the inevitable cry for help
“I’m bored, what can I do?”
a quick escape route is to reach for the iPad or stick on the TV to stop boredom in its tracks. But that’s too easy. Whilst iPads offer untold delights in terms of videos, games and things to do, our default setting can’t be just to rely on screenlife. Yes they serve a purpose and on occasions they do a fine job but there are piles and piles of other things you can do to meet boredom head on and give boredom the boot.
When my daughter first started to utter these fateful words I wondered whether she genuinely was bored or whether she had heard someone else say it and thought she would give it a go herself. I wondered how it was possible she could be bored with a bedroom full of toys and games? But then it occurred to me that being only six years old, she hadn’t really got any strategies in place that she could rely on and refer to in order to help herself. Perhaps she wasn’t bored but she needed a gentle nudge in the right direction to occupy her mind, body and spirit. I decided it wouldn’t be right or fair to introduce her to spreadsheets at such an early age but what I could do was talk to her about options. When we started to talk about what it was we could do we made a list of satisfying activities that she could engage with and the list that grew and grew like a beanstalk into the sky. Before long she realised that being bored was actually a choice and there were in fact millions of things to do although our list stopped at 100.
Some of the things we spoke about together were solo activities and things to do independently. Others involved a brother or sister or a few friends and many were activities she could do with mum and dad. Essentially though, the activities we listed were things she could do by herself and with the minimum of help. We agreed that if she ever felt ‘bored’ then she could take a look at her list and choose something to do from there.
To make this more exciting you could cut up the following activities and place them in a ‘Bored Jar’ and they can keep the jar in their bedroom. When you think of new activities you can add them to the jar. Here are 60 to get you started whenever you hear:
“I’m bored, I don’t know what to do!”
1. Invent a dance and perform it to some music
2. Create a time capsule
3. Find as many uses as you can for two polystyrene cups
4. Make a dream jar (fill a jar with dreams BFG style)
5. Invent five new words with their meanings
6. Think of 50 things that would fit inside an empty matchbox
7. Make a picnic with foods starting with only the letters GRUB
8. Learn the alphabet in sign language or Morse code
9. Try some yoga
10. Have a go at Cotton bud painting
11. Find 10 ‘things’ around the house and invent a story around them
12. Make an obstacle course
13. Create a superhero and describe their powers
14. Make fingerprint animals
15. Write the words to a new song and record it
16. Make a collage or mosaic
17. Invent a new club and its rules
18. Interview one of your puppets or teddies
19. Write down 10 things you love and describe them
20. Learn some jokes
21. Plan a treasure hunt with clues
22. Draw a desert island map
23. Invent a new board game
24. Make up a play
25. Decorate an old T-shirt
26. Learn some magic science tricks
27. Have a tea party
28. Start a collection and make a museum display
29. Make a memory box
30. Make a pasta necklace
31. Make up a secret code or secret language
32. Learn a game card
33. Cut out some pictures and tell a story
34. Make a feely box
35. Think of a word for every letter of the alphabet
36. Invent a new animal, draw and label it
37. Set up a shop and be a shopkeeper
38. Make up a quiz, e.g. a true or false quiz
39. Produce a talent show
40. Make an obstacle course
41. Make a rainmaker or a dream catcher
42. Build a den
43. Measure and weigh things around the home estimating first
44. Learn a poem or a tongue twister
45. Make a crown out of paper
46. Make five wishes and write what they are
47. Practise writing with your non-dominant hand
48. Invent a crazy menu or invent a new pizza
49. Take photographs and silly pictures or go on a photo safari
50. Try to replicate a famous painting
51. Draw a floor plan of your perfect house
52. Write a one sentence story
53. Doodle and design some new shapes
54. Learn to juggle
55. Look in your recycling and work out different uses for them, e.g. robot
56. Make a paper plate monster mask
57. Make a stop motion video using LEGO or teddies
58. Draw a galaxy, an aquarium and a dream.
59. What can you do with 12 plastic cups and five pieces of card
60. Invent a new flag and a new country to go with it
One very powerful activity you might want to try is the ‘Five word question challenge’. This involves challenging children to as a question about anything, serious or nonsense, using just five words. It sounds simple enough but it provokes a fabulous range of wonder filled ideas and helps children think outside the box. Some of the questions they can research whereas others are just for the sheer creative fun. Here are some examples,
Why do dogs have tails?
What is inside a cloud?
Is a desert always hot?
How can coconuts produce milk?
Do dolphins dream in colour?
Can people stick to walls?
Can seeds grow in jelly?
Are verbs jealous of adjectives?
What makes bubble gum sticky?
Will gravity ever turn off?
How does a fly fly?
Why do we have eyebrows?
Why does green mean ‘go’?
Do toads give you warts?
Are elephants afraid of mice?
Does the Sun spin clockwise?
If five words seems too limiting or challenging then encourage children to write ‘I wonder….’ sentences using the 5Ws (Who, What, Where, When, Why) and H (How) question words. For example, ‘I wonder why some peppers are hot and other peppers are sweet?’
Alternatively you could play a game of ‘The answer is….’ where you provide an answer and children have to think of the question. For example, The answer is Vitamin D. What is the question? or The answer is 31. What is the question?
Whilst you might want to ban the b-word from your vocabulary, don’t. Boredom is actually good for children too. Boredom can be exciting. One of the world’s top neuroscientist at Oxford University, Baroness Greenfield, says that getting bored encourages children to devise their own entertainment and stimulation. She says that technology leads to shorter attention spans and that if children are
“exposed to this constant stimulation from external sources, I believe they won’t be able to generate stimulation from inside.”
If we provide children with a highly structured timetable or strategies and answers for everything this limits their creative capacities to invent something original for themselves. Having a ‘things to do list’ or a boredom jar is a good thing but it doesn’t always have to be used. Children need to think for themselves. A ‘give, give, give’ approach spoon-feeds children and can kill creativity and problem-solving. Finding ways to amuse themselves is crucial for children.
There are benefits to boredom and unstructured time as children need to use their imaginations, daydream and enter into their own world without relying on others to provide the stimulus. Actually building some boredom (or at least allowing it to emerge) into the week allows children to be more creative and develop emotional intelligence. Moderate boredom is good for your health.
Build downtime into each day and allow children to find their own space and time to do things for and by themselves. If your child comes to you complaining that they are bored, rather than refer them to their bored jar or list explain that ‘being bored’ is actually your brains way of searching for something new to do and it is their mission to feed their brain with some new foods. Simply staring out of a window might seem pretty pointless but the brain needs to breathe and rest in order to reinvigorate itself. Logging off and shutting down from all the overstimulation is vital for children to develop.
Explain to your child that sometimes we just have to let our minds wander about for our health and well-being and if that means engaging in some low-level activity then that’s fine as constant entertainment is unsustainable. Letting the brain rest up and downtime is only the same as having a rest after a physically demanding activity. When children do nothing great things can happen as original thoughts can come to the surface and feed new ways of thinking and help develop new interests.
Boredom is an opportunity to discover. Isaac Newton discovered gravity whilst doing nothing sat under a tree. Archimedes might not have had his Eureka moment or Edison might not have had his light bulb moment without some downtime. Doing nothing is doing something even if it might not feel like anything at the time. It is actually a launch pad to rocket the mind to new places. It’s about what is happening in the background of children’s minds – the cogs and wheels are still moving but they are moving to different speeds and rhythms.
Maybe one day you might just hear your child say,
“I’m bored of being bored because being bored is boring”.
It’s a fair comment but boredom is normal and necessary so best not discourage too much.
This article appeared in Playtimes February Issue 2017.