Much Ado About Nothing
by Janine Fernandes-Hayden
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Original Article: Click Here
Originally Published: March 2012
In our household we look forward to the weekend because it is a time when my husband is at home and we get to spend time together as a family. I recall one sunny weekend last summer when I woke up and exclaimed, “Let’s do something! Let’s go for a hike! Let’s splash on the beach! Let’s have a picnic! Let’s…” My husband interrupted my train of thought, “We have a great yard, nestled in a woodland—why can’t we hang out here and just be?” Boring, I thought to myself. However, lo-and-behold, before the day had unfolded, we had uncovered the most magnificent fort under the veil of a giant cedar tree, with sturdy branches that bowed and looped down to the ground making for a natural jungle gym. We had a ton of fun clearing and tidying up our new hideaway and the children then spent the balance of the weekend playing in their new tree fort, swinging from the branches and riding the large roots as imaginary horses and planes. The experience was a good reminder to me that, while activities such as hiking, going to the beach, and having a picnic are great, there isn’t anything wrong with just making no plans and seeing what happens.
Boredom makes a poor first impression. Idioms such as “bored to death,” “bored stiff,” “bored to tears” and “bored out of your mind” paint neither the most positive nor flattering of images. The month of July is dedicated as Anti-Boredom Month. There is even a new word in our cultural dictionary—coined by Motorola®—it is “microboredom,” defined as “ever-smaller slices of free time from which mobile technology offers an escape.” We are constantly being urged to resist and defy the forces of boredom. Our internal critic prods us on; “Don’t just stand there, do something!”
Why do we feel that we should be stimulated every moment that we are awake? Life has come to a place where we seem to have a lowered tolerance for even a second of empty time—even time that use to be pleasantly viewed as downtime. Boredom is not an acceptable part of our, or our children’s lives.
Many parents fear that a bored child equals trouble in the making. On the contrary, some of the best decision-making can blossom out of boredom. In fact, we can actually do our children a favour and enhance their development by letting them become a little bored. A 2008 article published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences provides evidence that certain regions of the brain actually become more active during times of boredom. When boredom strikes, it is because the brain has concluded that it can no longer focus attention on its surroundings. A neural circuit called the default network is activated and subsequently, the brain turns away from its external environment to explore itself, to introspect, to sort information and make connections between thoughts. Boredom may well be the antecedent to creativity, innovation and problem solving.
This being said, children often have a hard time becoming accustomed to empty space. Many children are so used to electronic babysitters and an over-abundance of toys that they are unable to manage idleness. Not only is it difficult for them to unreel from being over-stimulated, but also they become incapable of creating their own happiness. In the 1980s, Tanis MacBeth Williams, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, conducted a study that compared kids in a town without television service because of isolating geography, with children in two other towns that did view television. The study found that the kids who did not have access to TV did significantly better on creativity tests. One of the reasons put forth for this finding was that due to boredom, these children had to make creative use of their time.
Boredom is also difficult for children to endure because their lives are over-structured. Most of us as parents want the best for our children and as a result we are lured into the trap of over-programming, hyper-scheduling and micromanaging. Unfortunately, in doing so we hinder our children’s ability to enjoy time on their own. We rob them of empty moments and the space to daydream, to discover, to use their imaginations and explore their inner worlds. Unstructured time is the most inexpensive way to provide children with the opportunity to stretch their minds in different directions. Boredom also prompts children to develop the skills to manage their own time, take responsibility for their own learning and practice self-management. At the end of the day, these are the skills that will drive our children’s success.
Finally, a child struggling with boredom may simply need connection and a little more parental attention. In our digital world, it is too easy for both parents and children alike to “plug in and tune out,” overlooking the importance and the need for human interaction. In our home, my children and I give each other “10-second snuggles” throughout the day. Often times it is the fix that they need to chart off on their own. Linda Kavelin-Popov in her book The Pace of Grace uses the term “noncompulsory time”—time in which nothing is asked and nothing is required.
How can you help your child to be constructively bored and embrace unstructured time? Here are some tips:
Connect. Be mindful of the fact that your child may simply be craving an attention fix.
Unplug. Set limits on screen time and the use of social media.
Scaffold. Teach your children how to be alone. If they are unaccustomed to unstructured time, don’t expect them to suddenly chart off on their own for an extended stretch of time. Think baby steps. For example, when my kids are feeling antsy, I get out my timer and set it for a certain amount of time—let’s say we start with five minutes. My children are expected to go off and do their own thing. When the “beep beep” sounds, we regroup to read a story or play a game together. I repeat the sequence, gradually increasing the stretch of alone time until they are spending longer chunks of time engaged in independent play.
Prompt. If you want your kids to play independently, they need to have play tools on hand. Some of the best tools are often household objects or sources found in nature—boxes, water, mud, sand and rocks are all great creative spurs. Craft boxes filled with buttons, beads, pipe cleaners, glue, scissors, fabric scraps, googly eyes and pompoms are other great examples.
Apply. Once you have taught your kids how to spend time on their own, institute some down time or quiet time into their day—an unplugged hour where they remain in their bedrooms, playing on their own, listening to music, reading books or just daydreaming.
Embrace simplicity and accept that a little boredom can be a healthy life experience for both you and your children. Resist the urge to rescue your children every time you hear the words “I’m bored!” escaping from their mouths. Instead, consider a new motto, “Don’t just do something—stand there.”
Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of four children, aged 2, 4, 6 and newborn. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM or online at web link.
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Island Parent Magazine
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