Why Boredom Is an Important Part of Learning
I read a post today suggesting parents create a “bored jar,” filled with chips with both “fun” activities and chores for any child who dares to complain about boredom. “At our house, boredom is not allowed” begins the first sentence, and I found myself thinking how incredibly sad and limiting a view that is.
Boredom tends to get a really bad rap, and it inspires a lot of worry in parents. In our productivity obsessed culture, where the common view is that learning is only happening when it’s easily seen and measured, and the only useful activity is one that looks busy, boredom is seen as something that should be corrected quickly by the nearest adult.
The fear and distrust of boredom is unwarranted.
I believe how someone experiences boredom comes down in large part to personality. My sister and I have the same parents and grew up in the same household, yet while she has always been able to entertain herself for hours at a time—playing and pretending as a child and lost in thought as an adult—I’ve always been more likely to pace the hallways, restless, complaining about boredom.
While persistent, hard to fix boredom—the kind that weighs you down and impacts your life in a negative way—can definitely be a sign that something is wrong (frustration with the way your life is going, feeling a lack of control or a lack of direction, etc.), it is just one of many human emotions, and it is part of the learning process. It is not something to be feared or corrected.
It’s through boredom, that restless frustration of having nothing immediately obvious to do, that I’ve ended up breaking routine and doing something I wouldn’t have otherwise done. Picking up my neglected guitar to try and learn a new song; pulling out a book from my shelf that I’ve been wanting to read for a while but just haven’t gotten to; opening up a biology course on Khan Academy; sitting down to do some journalling; thinking about the next post or article I want to write, and starting to construct it in my head…
“Boredom is just the time and space between ideas… And sometimes the wellspring of genius,” said Janet Lansbury, and though for most of us, “genius” might feel like too much to aspire to, I do know that boredom has always lead to a lot of creativity and exploration in my life. Boredom acts as a gateway, as the beginning of something new or different, or the introduction (or reintroduction) to a new hobby or passion, something that will go on to be an important part of our days.
Or not. As important as the productivity that boredom can lead to, equally important is simply the space of boredom itself. The time for us to get past the initial restlessness or discomfort of not being busy, not doing, and settle into reflection, observation, stillness. We need the time to process and digest our learning, our experiences, and sometimes boredom can be a part of that.
When attempts are made to outlaw boredom, not only are children being told that experiencing that emotion is “bad,” they are also being discouraged from sharing what they’re feeling with the adults around them, lest they be chided for their idleness and assigned chores or busywork, anything to avoid a dreaded lack of productivity.
One of the things I value in my upbringing is the freedom I had to work through boredom. My mother often made suggestions and helped me figure out something to do. It’s not that I was left on my own to deal with it. But it wasn’t treated as something horrible, even sinful: boredom was just accepted as part of life. As life learners, my family was able to relax, let things unfold, and not worry so much that every moment should be devoted to education, or productivity, or doing “something useful.” I could be bored sometimes. And I could figure out what to do with that boredom.
For any creativity to occur in my life, I need boredom. It’s part of my process. I might complain melodramatically, flop on the couch, feel frustrated… But then I’ll get an idea, or a spark of inspiration, or settle on a course of action, and the next thing I know, I’m contentedly making something in the kitchen, or writing with deep concentration, or lost in thought…
Making friends with boredom has enriched my life. I think everyone, parents and children, could benefit from learning to embrace boredom and see where it leads them!