In Defense of Boredom

image from icanread

You would think Thea, my 5 year old, would be in her element.  Long lazy days to do whatever she wants.  Beautiful afternoons to spend at the playground next door.  Time to read, play, draw, dance, even watch TV.  Heaven…except it’s not.  Thea is bored.  And she tells me frequently whenever I am not playing with her.  Whenever we are not doing something.

At first, I jumped into action.  Boredom dispelled with fun activities.  Boredom banished by mama and her wallet.  You want a dog and pony show, coming right up!  Except it wasn’t enough, it never was.  I found myself searching the web frantically looking for more great activities.  Running to the store to buy more stuff.  Turning  on the TV as a last ditch attempt.  Being a boredom buster became a full time job and  I was exhausted.  Since when did summer become one endless list of to do’s?  If she was bored, well, then I was a bad mother.

This happens in our classrooms too.  We think that if we aren’t putting on a show, we are not doing our job.  That if students aren’t excited and loudly engaged at all times, we must be failing as teachers.  We imagine that there will be no time to be bored.  Students will practically skip into our classrooms, eager to start.  And sure, some days they do.  Those days are easy.  It is the days where they drag their feet, have to prop open their eyes, stifle yawns and give you that look, those are the days where we really work.

Yet, much like I realized with Thea, it is not my job to be the boredom buster.  It is my job to present learning opportunities that might engage, that might excite, that might spark an interest.  But I can only do so much.  I can only bring so much to the classroom, and at some point the students have to step up too.  At some point, they have to embrace their boredom and find out what to do with it.  How to work through it.  How to be their own boredom busters.

We try to shield children from boredom and in our eagerness forget that being bored is a gift.  Being bored is not a four-letter word.  It is not something to avoid, nor something to ridicule.  Out of boredom comes curiosity.  Out of boredom rises innovation.  If we do not give our students quiet time, time to reflect, time to be still, yes time they may see as boring, then we are robbing them of time to think.

We think that our classrooms should be loud at all times.  That loudness equals learning.  Yet, I have found that some of my most powerful teaching moments have been the quiet ones.  Where students have had time to think, to be bored, to create, all without me putting on a show.  Sure, loudness is important as well.  But the true essence of innovation can often be found shrouded in silence, when students are asked to do something about their boredom.

So when Thea tells me she is bored, I ask her what she will do about it.  She has run to her room and pulled on her princess dress only then to concoct an elaborate fantasy scene with parts for everyone in the family.  She has quietly drawn pictures of things I would never imagine.  She has gone to her room and sat with a book.   She will never stop telling me she is bored, after all, it seems to be a rite of childhood, but I am no longer the one that rescues her.  She is doing that herself.  Let’s give the same chance to our students.  Let us help them embrace being bored.

I am a passionate  teacher in Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” can be pre-ordered from Corwin Press now.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Boredom

  1. I think it’s important to teach students what to do when they’re bored and that it’s not anyone else’s job to entertain them. I think many times we hear “I’m bored” and think “I’m a bad teacher for not entertaining. I also feel like many students feel it is our job to keep them occupied at all times. They don’t know what to do when they aren’t being told what to do. For example, waiting in line-ups. I talk to my students about what to do when bored in a line-up. They can imagine conversations, make up stories, practice times tables, even count ceiling tiles while they wait.

  2. I remember sitting on the swings in my backyard as a kid (up through the middle of high school!), not really swinging, but just sitting there, day-dreaming.

    I love that sort of contemplative state, although I fear it may be difficult for modern students to attain. It is so easy to distract ourselves with the internet (or just with each other) that the great side-effect of boredom (that imagination-starting, fantastic picture-drawing, contemplative state) is lost to repeated games of Cookie Crush or Smash The PIgs or whatever is in vogue.

  3. Thank you for this reminder. Each year I seem to have at least one student- often a boy accustomed to playing hour upon hour of video at home- that tells me he is bored once he has finished his “required” work. I always tell them they are too smart to be bored that they are in a classroom with a huge library, board games (scrabble, spell it, scrambled states), and computers to get ideas for research. Then I walk away. By the end of the year, I don’t usually hear it anymore:)

  4. I think adults have this same boredom problem. Someone once told me, bored people are boring people. Hmmmm. Something to think about. I hope my students can learn that “boredom” is really an opportunity for curiosity to step in. We should never stop being curious.

    • I would agree! I reach for my phone when I am bored and do mindless things. I have been trying to embrace the moment instead and let my thoughts wander or pick up a book, rather than just fill it with timewasters.

  5. We made a conscious decision when our kids were young to encourage them to work through their boredom on their own, as you discuss. It seems this has had huge implications for their lives as thinkers. My oldest son (10) rarely says he’s bored anymore and actually relishes quiet time when he doesn’t appear to be doing anything. He reports, “I’m thinking.” It’s more challenging for my younger son (7), but some of his best ideas have happened when he was bored.

    In my opinion, people in general are becoming less adept at being alone with their thoughts. I think this article from the NY Times is relevant: http://nypost.com/2014/07/07/most-people-would-rather-get-electrocuted-than-sit-alone-and-think-study/

    It definitely has huge implications for the classroom.

    • Thank you for the link, how telling is that for our society! Oh my, no wonder we have to teach ourselves and our children to embrace boredom (or thinking time) and actually use it for good.

  6. I tell my students who complain of being bored that boredom is a choice. Why choose it when there are so many other options? After they react with outrage, the ones who think about it realize there are other choices to make.

  7. Thanks for this piece. It resonates fully as I navigate afternoons with my six year old. As a PE teacher I don’t have to contend with the “I’m bored” statements of my students very often but I have also been amazed and surprised at just how much they can enjoy quiet recovery and reflection time when I have offered it in the gym. We frequently underestimate what our kids can handle and deal with. If we leave them to their own (non electronic) devices on occasion they can certainly learn to bust their boredom as you suggest.

  8. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-up of Online Reading | the dirigible plum

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