Making Time for Boredom in Childhood
I grew up in the 1980s, a time when children’s shows were on TV for about an hour after school in the week, and a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Saturday afternoons were for the football scores, and Sunday afternoons were a time when we never even bothered to switch the TV on until about 5pm, when The Wonder Years came on.
My mum didn’t work, so during the holidays we were home with her – but we were just that: home with her. There was a coach trip from our estate which went to Bournemouth every Wednesday, rain or shine. The coach dropped us off around 10am, and picked us up around 5pm; regardless of what the weather was doing, we were in Bournemouth for the day and since we had no money, we were mostly sitting in deck chairs on the seafront for that time, forced to entertain ourselves. Aside from the occasional visit to see friends or family members, this was our summer holiday every year until I was a teenager.
When I was about 8 my nan bought us a VCR which came with 3 kids’ videos, and around the same time my dad bought us a “ZX Spectrum+2” computer. It came with a black and white TV, and had games on tapes which took forever to load and then were not that great to play. That was about the limit of home entertainment in our house. My dad would record movies off the TV that he thought we should watch (Jason and the Argonauts, mostly), and we watched the same Peanuts video until it wore out.
We did have a garden though, and a shed where we would hide to make potions (rose petals and water, anyone?). Large chunks of my childhood were spent moaning, “I’m boooooored!”
It was great.
Don’t get me wrong; I love CBeebies and could not have got through S’s first couple of years without it, especially when she was teething! But I think with so many channels available, plus games and iPads and toys and days out and all the rest of it, it’s very easy for kids to be occupied for every waking moment of their days.
Social media probably doesn’t help; it’s easy to see what seems like endless photos of smiling kids on days out or doing organised activities, and feel that you really need to up your parenting game.
Here’s the thing though: I think a little boredom is a good thing. A really good thing.
Boredom is what forces creativity: weird games you would never have played before, drawing pictures you might not have bothered with if your pens and a pad of paper weren’t the only things available to fill the space between lunch and tea time.
My brother would create the most amazing constructions with his Lego; my sister and I would record our own “radio” shows on blank cassettes. We had a cupboard that always seemed to have a huge stack of plain paper, and we would all create pictures, books, posters and treasure maps. If my mum had been shamed by social media into providing structured activities for us all day every day, we never would have done these things. We did do lots of clubs and lessons, but we also spent a lot of time left to our own devices.
When S complains she is bored, my first reaction is to quickly find something to occupy her mind, to keep her from being fed up; to keep me from feeling like I’m a bad mum because my child is not entertained. But I’ve been resisting that lately. I’ve been avoiding switching the TV on, and the tablet has been conveniently running out of battery. And guess what: for the most part, S doesn’t really care.
Yesterday she spent most of the day in her bedroom, playing with toys she doesn’t often get to see during term time at school, while she’s either too busy or too tired. At one point I went into her room and found her playing her Crazy Chefs game “against” two Schleich sharks: I’m winning, mummy! When I went back a little later, the sharks were busy having an argument with a mountain lion over a set of felt tips. It really was the most delightful sound, to hear her playing out both parts of a discussion between the characters she had made up.
Over the Christmas holidays and winter half term, we had things booked in most days and spent a lot of time doing organised activities, watching shows or visiting places or people. It was nice, but exhausting. And a bit too organised. Over the Easter holidays I actually booked in a few empty days where we made no plans, and over the bank holiday weekend we didn’t do much either.
Staying home with no plans is much easier to do now that we’ve moved to a house with a garden, and S was very lucky to be given lots of garden toys for her birthday so she now has a sandpit, pavement chalk, bubbles and so on – but to be honest when she wasn’t in the sandpit knocking down castles, most of her time was spent running up and down the path playing her own make-believe game.
Left to her own devices without me trying to push her into it, S has taken to writing things of her own accord, and I’ve even caught her a few times with books, sounding out words for herself (or making up her own story – even better!)
Our education system seems to be moving further and further towards forcing our children to fit neatly into boxes, to pass tests rather than to think. In a country where the arts are not valued anywhere near as much as an ability to work out the area of a circle (something I remember, but have used precisely zero times since I left school 20 years ago), I think there is definite value in giving kids down time where they’re so bored they’re forced to use that creative muscle that’s not really encouraged at school. As children get older they are encouraged to be “creative” at school, but within a certain framework – write a story, but it has to be about this particular thing, with a picture that fits onto this half-page space. Having completely unstructured time allows children to figure out what they want to do, and more importantly what they like to do.
I also think it’s important to give children that space to use their imagination, to think about all the weird and wonderful things that could or might happen. After all, nothing can happen if it’s not first imagined, right? If we don’t leave our children to figure things out for themselves, how will they know what they like to do, what they want to do? How will they imagine a cure for cancer, or how to figure out amazing feats of engineering?