The Importance of Being Bored
An unfortunate thing has happened to us in our attempt to help our children excel, we have stopped letting them be bored.
It sounds counterintuitive that being bored is something that would be advocated for by a teacher. I (Ms. Darby) have spent over 30 years helping children learn. I want all my kids to excel to the best of their abilities. I have seen amazing successes and helped children learn everything from how to speak, count, and read to give performances in front of audiences, do algebra and trigonometry, to write college level papers. I pride myself on having been a dedicated student, earning the IB diploma, a Bachelor’s, and a Master’s. I hope my students will also develop a love of learning and be able to focus and work hard in academics. So why do I wish children would spend more time being bored and less time in front of screens or even in additional lessons like Kumon?
“Guarding kids from ever feeling bored is misguided in the same way that guarding kids from ever feeling sad, or ever feeling frustrated, or ever feeling angry is misguided,” says clinical psychologist Stephanie Lee, PsyD. In fact, boredom helps kids develop valuable skills. For starters, it helps kids build tolerance of less-than-ideal experiences. “Boredom might not be super distressing,” she explains, “but it’s not fun. Life requires us to manage our frustrations and regulate our emotions when things aren’t going our way, and boredom is a great way to teach that skill.”
As parents we want our children to be as prepared as possible for their futures. We want them to do well in school. We want them to learn everything they need to learn. We want them to go to university and have a career where they can take care of themselves, hopefully comfortably, and be fulfilled in their efforts. And this is where we sometimes go off track. Where our very good intentions lead to some unfortunate impacts.
Learning in the 21st century is inherently different than it was in the 19th and 20th. School is no longer a pipeline to a limited set of jobs and careers. School cannot be about preparing our children for particular careers as we don’t actually know what careers will be around when the current youngest generations become adults. We know we are living in a time of rapid development. But it is easy when we are thinking about our kids’ future to imagine their paths and choices as similar to ours. I know I never imagined that I could be using AI in lesson planning, or that some people would have a career in developing AI to helps teachers. Did you?
There are some things we know will be necessary regardless of what careers are available to our children in the future. All of these are supported by the framework of the International Baccalaureate, but in the context of being bored, I want to focus on two particular Approaches to Learning- critical and creative thinking.
It is apparent that especially in the 21st century being able to memorize and recall information is not important. We all walk around with computers in our pockets. We rarely even think about how often we check our phones or computers to pull up information that we can’t remember. It is incredibly helpful that we no longer have to rely on our faulty memories or the word of others when it comes to recalling information. All the information in the world is available at our fingertips.
But what do we do with that information?
We have also seen how the information age has led to people being easily deceived, falling prey to conspiracy theories, harmful trends, and divisive ideologies. With all the information being available, how is it possible that people fall prey to so much misinformation? How do we make sure that our children will be able to find the information they need, discern truth from fiction, and know what to do with the information they find? We help them develop critical and creative thinking skills. And one important way they do that is by being bored.
Of course in school we help them develop critical thinking skills. It’s an important part of any ICT curriculum to teach our students how to search for information, how to examine sources, and how to spot red flags in websites and online content. But as educational research has shown, we don’t actually give students information as much as we create the environment and opportunities to learn. Research has shown that people, including children, essentially construct learning in their heads by being exposed to new information and experiences and then integrating that information into previous learning. This is where being bored comes in.
For children to integrate new information with previous learning they need time when they are not being asked to focus on something else. They need time to think critically about new learning and challenge previous ideas and misconceptions. They need time to sit with new information before it can move into long term memory or become part of their understanding in a way that can last. That’s why cramming for a test does not produce the same type of long term learning that working on a project does (especially a project someone wants to work on). And everytime someone is allowed to just think critically about something, their critical thinking skills get stronger. While we can support critical thinking in a direct way during school, allowing students the chance to develop critical thinking outside of direct instruction ensures that they will continue to think critically away from school, including in whatever schooling or career they may pursue.
And then they need time to do something with the new information. We have often worked with students who came from Japanese schools or have been over scheduled during their freetime. These students often struggle to apply new information or create new solutions when presented with a problem. These students know how to memorize information, know how to listen and follow directions, but they don’t know how to come up with their own ideas or solutions. They don’t know how to take the information they learned in one area and apply it to another. They get lost when they are expected to challenge themselves or work independently on a task they haven’t faced before. And if anything should be clear to us as adults, it’s that we are always being challenged or asked to adapt to a change or take on tasks we haven’t had before.
I have a cup on my desk that says “Chaos Coordinator.” Introducing the IB (and Ms. Darby) to CGK brought a lot of change. Not only did we adapt a new curriculum approach, we are looking at how we can improve our academic standards and overall learning. I have also introduced a new learning management system that integrates a student portfolio, progress reports, family communication, and our planning. I also implemented a digital library system that can grow as our student body grows and the demands on our library increase. I have never worked with either system prior to implementing them at CGK. Neither had anyone else. While it took some time to learn the systems, I didn’t have anyone to ask how to use the systems. I didn’t have anyone to ask questions to when I couldn’t figure something out. What I did have was the critical and creative thinking skills I developed as a student. I was able to apply some of my understanding from other programs. I was able to try different things, and think of solutions to problems that were presented. As much as I know my educational background has helped me figure things out, I also know the hours spent alone in my room with nothing but my own mind helped me trust my mind to figure things out.
Boredom also helps children develop planning strategies, problem-solving skills, flexibility and organizational skills – key abilities that children whose lives are usually highly structured may lack, adds Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute. “The key is to help kids learn how to manage their boredom so they can develop independence and feel agency over their own happiness and well-being,” Dr. Lee advises. Parents should not expect kids to instinctively know what might feel meaningful to them. Instead, parents should remind their children of things they are interested in or care about,” Dr. Westgate said. “It’s the difference between leaving the child in a room with absolutely nothing to do,” she said, versus “bringing them into a room that you know has books and puzzles — things that would be meaningful to your kid — and that would be a good fit for them.” And parents need to trust the process and give their children the time and space to develop skills from boredom.
I remember what it was like to have true free time as a child. I remember having afternoons (and whole summers) where there were no planned activities, no classes, and no screens (this was waaaaay before smartphones and tablets). Sometimes I would watch TV, but we had limits in my house, and honestly, I would get bored. My mother was around but she would not spend a lot of time or effort on entertaining me or giving me activities. Instead she would say the two words most kids in my generation were used to, “Go play.” That was it. “Go play.” No “let me set up this elaborate craft for you.” No “let me enroll you in an additional math class so that you can be competitive in your application in 5 years.” No “here play this video game that might have some benefit but mostly stops you from whining.” Just, “Go play.”
So that’s what I did. I would play outside. Outside I played basketball (badly), rode my bicycle (well enough), roller skated (fast and everywhere), play American football (surprisingly well), and that game that the rest of the world calls football but we call soccer (really well when it came to preventing the ball from going into the net). Inside I read books, did art, wrote stories and poetry, played pretend, daydreamed, made a mess organizing my room, and tried out more hobbies and crafts than I can count. When playing with friends and we got tired of playing traditional games, we made up our own. When I ran out of things to do in my room….I never did.
I never ran out of things to do. Sure I would have moments of boredom. Of course I complained about it to my mom. But I never actually ran out. Worst case scenario I would daydream and start thinking about issues and topics most adults forget children are capable of thinking about. I remember thinking about the homeless person I saw and thinking about why that person was homeless, what we could do to help, and what might have happened to lead them to their situation. I remember thinking about the nature of the universe, how it could go on forever, and how I could never fully comprehend that because everything I will ever know in my life has a beginning and an end and is finite in scope. I remember thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up and imagining my future in many different ways, and coming to understand no matter what I need to take care of other living things (though for a time I thought it would be animals as a veterinarian).
All of those thoughts were in elementary school. As I got older and learned more, it was the times that I was bored that allowed me to really incorporate new understandings into the parts of myself I had already established. Having times when there was nothing to play with, nothing to distract myself with, nothing to separate me from myself was instrumental in me really becoming comfortable with who I am and reinforcing my motivation to keep learning. It also allowed me to create. Create games. Create visions. Create and solve problems. Create things out of thoughts that would not have been allowed to surface if my parents had always been putting things into my time that didn’t allow me to be left with nothing else but my own brain.
My time being bored allowed me to develop a sense of self, self-confidence, and problem solving skills. In my role as Chaos Coordinator (I mean Principal, PYP Coordinator, Librarian, and IT Support) the ability to figure things out on my own, without a manual or step by step instructions has been invaluable. Of course sometimes I make mistakes. But every time we make mistakes, we have an opportunity to learn and grow from them. And that’s part of what boredom helps us get really good at.
In closing, keep allowing your children to follow their passions. Sign them up for sports or instruments or art classes. Let them join CGK Afterschool. Plan family activities on the weekend. Play with your child. But also, regularly, intentionally, let them be bored.
Darby - Elementary Principal & IB PYP Coordinator (USA)
Elementary Principal and IB PYP Coordinator of CGK International School. From New York, America with Master's Degree in Education.
A graduate of the International Baccalaureate (IB) DP herself, she has been passionate about teaching children and IB education for over 30 years.