The battle to let them be bored

Time to make their own fun ...
Time to make their own fun ... Photo: Getty

Some of my strongest memories of being a child are of being bored out of my brain.

Six-and-a-half years older than my nearest sibling, and with no colour television until grade 1, there was often no-one to play with and nothing to watch.

Sure, I hung out with my parents and family friends and went to school and ballet lessons. I also spent a lot of time by myself; devouring every book in sight, collecting cicada shells and four leaf clovers, day dreaming and making daisy chains. I tried to make my own perfume from fallen frangipani flowers. I taught myself to finger-knit. I suspect there were a lot of other children doing similar things, as parenting styles in the 70s and 80s were more relaxed, with households more adult-focused.

Far from neglectful parenting, an education expert has said that allowing children to get bored is crucial in developing their innate ability to be creative.

Dr Teresa Belton told the BBC “cultural expectations that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of their imagination”.

Belton, who is senior researcher at the University of East Anglia's School of Education and Lifelong Learning interviewed a number of authors, artists and scientists about how boredom had aided their creativity as children.

Her interview subjects revealed that boredom and isolation had spurred them to take on activities they wouldn’t have otherwise, and drove them to self-reflect and write.

According to Dr Belton, Western society has "developed an expectation of being constantly occupied and constantly stimulated".

Now, it is normal for children to juggle three or more extra-curricular activities on top of school and homework. Then there are the birthday parties, video games and social media.

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It’s estimated that only 15% of Australian children are experiencing the mind-clearing exercise of walking to school* and almost half of kids’ free time (47%) is now spent plugged in – watching TV, playing video   games or on electronic devices.**

Dr Belton says that kids need to have “stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them."

This is what stimulates the imagination, she says, while the screen "tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity".

That stand-and-stare time is under further assault by the helicopter parenting movement which encourages mothers (no, not fathers) to observe, interact with or catalogue every moment of their child’s day.

Tonya Ferguson’s admonishing blog post to mums on their iphones was shared over 10,000 times on social media. It reads, in part:

Dear Mom On the iPhone,

I see you over there on the bench, messing on your iPhone. It feels good to relax a little while your kids have fun in the sunshine, doesn’t it?  ...

But Momma, let me tell you what you don’t see right now…..

Your little girl is spinning round and round, making her dress twirl. She is such a little beauty queen already, the sun shining behind her hair. She keeps glancing your way to see if you are watching her. 

You aren’t.

Ouch.

Will your child have more fun if you watch her twirling? What if she’s already twirled around the loungeroom 15 times before breakfast?

Parents had other ‘distracting devices’ in their hands 20 years ago – books. And yet we survived, most of us secure in our parents’ love and care for us.

Not only does the inability to give children the gifts of space and silence sound unhealthy, it can also be dangerous, says Dr Belton.

"Nature abhors a vacuum and we try to fill it.”

"Some young people who do not have the interior resources or the responses to deal with that boredom creatively then sometimes end up smashing up bus shelters or taking cars out for a joyride."

I’m just as guilty as the next parent of trying to plug the boredom vacuum with suggestions and toys and idevices. But next time one of my children starts up the “I’m boooooored” cry, I’ll be directing them outside. Failing that, there’s a stack of washing to fold, thanks.

*Try walking and talking

** State of Play research 

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