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In Praise of Boredom

Earlier this term I gave an assembly on boredom. My aim wasn’t to bore the pupils, although I did require them to sit and stare into space for 90 seconds, in the hope of igniting some enthusiasm for the value of ‘doing nothing’.

Most parents can recall, probably fondly now, the things we did in our childhoods to cope with being bored. We created activities, played cards, read National Geographic magazines that sat in stacks in the corner, and made up games to play during long car journeys… Our children, however, have never really had to deal with the same type of boredom. They have always had some sort of screen that could be thrust into their hands to keep them quiet or entertained during the downtimes.

This represents a great loss: a loss in the resilience of young people to the feeling of being at peace with ‘doing nothing’. It also represents a loss of skill and creativity as young people no longer need to come up with solutions to their boredom; they can mask the boredom with a multitude of external stimuli that make them feel that they are ‘doing something’.

We know a lot about sleep and its importance in helping our brains to organise the information they’ve taken in during the day. Boredom is similarly important as it is the time when we reflect on our experiences, have curious thoughts, imagine things we’d like to do, or consider changes we’d like to make in our lives. It’s when we ponder problems and imagine solutions. As Steve Jobs said: “Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity and from curiosity comes everything.” If we don’t allow or even force this generation of young people to experience boredom on a regular basis, we may be disabling them or denying them the opportunities that boredom presents.

Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity and from curiosity comes everything.

Boredom is defined as an emotion, as a ‘deeply unpleasant state’, which is why we work so hard to avoid it. But boredom serves an important purpose, spurring us onto action and helping us to process our own thoughts without distraction. It is also when we take in the world around us. There is so much to be learned about the world when we look up! Taking in the scene around us, whilst on a walk or sitting on public transport, without being absorbed by some external stimuli, holds so many lessons and so many opportunities to understand our surroundings, our fellow humans and ourselves. There is also so much to be gained from giving our brains a break from the endless bombardment from external stimuli and ‘socialising’ in the form of WhatsApp and Snapchat and Instagram reels. Socialising is a very intense business for young people and they definitely need a break from it all – a genuine break.

During assembly, I encouraged our pupils to force some boredom into their lives: to resist the impulse to put in the earbuds or get yet another dopamine hit from checking TikTok…  I urged them to value the time they spend in their own heads, thinking through whatever pops into their thoughts or considering whatever aspects of life are available for observation. And, if they have a really long spate of potential boredom coming up, I encouraged them to be more creative in how they fill that time, rather than just downloading six episodes of their favourite box set.

Allowing unstimulated time back into our lives is a skill we all may need to re-learn and our children likely need to learn it for the first time. We can help them, by modelling it and encouraging it when we see those golden moments of downtime emerge. Maybe, on your next car journey, you could play ‘Motorway Cricket,’ a childhood game Mr Thicknesse regaled us about during our assembly. Let’s help young people to get back the benefits of letting their minds wander as they look up from their screens, contemplate life, take in the world and exercise their imaginations.

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