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In Defense of Boredom

June 8, 2018

Twenty-seven years ago (yes, that’s right), the poet Kurt Cobain summed it up nicely when he sang, “Here we are now. Entertain us.”  Whether speaking about Gen Y or Millennials or the I-Generation, Cobain captured in six simple words what many have written endlessly about for the past three decades.

Children today don’t know how to be bored.

And it’s MTV’s fault.

No, I mean it’s the fault of video games.

Actually, it’s the fault of smart phones.

Or maybe children have never been very good at being bored. Before MTV and long before portable entertainment, I remember going out to eat with my parents, being dreadfully bored, and hoping like mad they wouldn’t order coffee after dinner so we. ​could. finally. leave.

I’m skeptical that children have changed all that much. I think what has changed is how adults today value boredom. Part of this could be nostalgia . . . nostalgia for days when teens spent hours lying on their bedroom floors listening to records and scrutinizing album covers (something CD’s and then Steve Jobs ruined perhaps).

Guilty as charged. While I’m quite sure my parents thought I was not using that time wisely, science now is on the side of that teenager who was endlessly fascinated by the cover of The Who’s Quadrophenia or The Clash’s London Calling. So says Tony Wagner of the Harvard Innovation Lab: “Downtime is up time. The brain needs time off to synthesize, to integrate.” Similar to when we sleep, moments of wakeful inactivity allow our brains to process the day’s stimuli, providing essential cognitive and emotional connections and cleansing.

If this seems counterintuitive, think about those times you’ve had a great idea in the shower or while driving to work, moments when the hamster-wheel in your brain could turn and turn and turn.

In her book Beyond Measure, Vicki Abeles argues that we must leave space in our children’s lives for “daydreaming, quietude” because such downtime supports creativity and psychological growth. Downtime is essential for our children’s brains to process what they’ve learned. This also is essential to memory; children remember content more deeply and with less effort at recall when they have quiet moments to process and reflect.

Abeles cites this research to advocate for a change in how school’s assign homework (or perhaps not to assign it at all). Referring to Wagner’s research, she also notes that diminished time for brain rest and daydreaming also inhibits key skills such as curiosity and imagination, reflection and refinement, and assessing and filtering.

Abeles poses a bit of a Catch-22. Children are less able to assess and filter stimuli because their brains are continually active. And as we well know, all too often their brains are continually active because they are immersed in digital environments. This is not a recipe for success.  Digital spaces are precisely where our children must assess and filter stimuli and content.

Which is why building opportunities during the day when students can rest their brains is vital. Free, unstructured opportunities to play are one way to provide this downtime. This is especially so when play is outside in natural environments, where their eyes and minds have opportunities to take in stimuli at medium and long distances.

Another way is to build time during the school day for quietude-opportunities for the mind to engage less active stimuli so it can drift. ​Such moments may include brainstorming, free-thinking, and mind mapping activities where ideas can flow freely and unfiltered; open-ended puzzle and mind-games that allow students to engage in imaginative and speculative thinking; doodle or sketching activities where students express ideas visually rather than verbally; quiet opportunities where students exercise independent choice in their reading; or maybe just time to rest the brain and daydream.

​The title of this piece is purposely facetious. Of course we don’t want school to be boring. Teachers should be engaging, content should be meaningful and informative, and student activities should be challenging and stimulating. We know that learning interesting content and acquiring new skills can be extremely fun and enjoyable for learners of all ages. And we know that boredom usually is in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. Often, students can be encouraged to find meaning and connection to activities or subjects they initially find boring.

But boredom also gets a bad rap. In the end, teachers and parents should be okay if their children/students ​are bored sometime. Should it be our responsibility to endlessly entertain our children?

​Children benefit from cognitive downtime. Downtime (what children might call boredom) provides their brains with valuable time to filter, process, and synthesize what they had previously learned. And because their brains will ​have opportunities to scrub away the non-essential stimuli, they will return to active learning activities with brains refreshed and ready to make new connections.


Posted by Scott Kerman, Head of School
The Gardner School of Arts & Sciences

Teaching Deeply, Learning Fully, Cultivating Responsibility—One Mind at a Time.

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