Nurturing constructive boredom

“I’m bored.” I think of those two words as summer words. I can hear myself saying them as a child, sunk into a chair at our cottage in northern Wisconsin, too hot to move. I’d already been swimming, I didn’t have a book to read, my brothers were annoying: “I’m bored.”

My mother’s response: “Good.” Her one word beat my two every time. “Good” could mean that I was about to help her shuck corn or do the dishes. Or it could mean that I was going to have to think of something new to do. Maybe it was after such an exchange that I first canoed into the swamp or made a fort in the woods or worked up the courage to meet the kids two cottages down.

Now it’s my turn to see a frowning child flop onto the couch and announce, “I’m bored.” I’ve noticed that I often hear it, usually from Virgil, within minutes of returning from having been somewhere or after he’s spent time online or watching a video. I’m surprised by how quickly he seems to fall into boredom.

I came upon a possible explanation for Virgil’s behavior while reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Author Richard Louv describes an “insidious, new kind of boredom” that arises from over-stimulating yet mind-numbing (and often violent) entertainment that children can easily find on computers, televisions, and movie screens. “Like a sugared drink on a hot day,” Louv writes, “such entertainment leaves kids thirsting for more — for faster, bigger, more violent stimuli” — and increasingly being prescribed medication to deal with “the loss of interest and joy in their lives.”

Louv’s wonderful solution is to fight boredom with boredom. He offers three steps for helping our children get rid of negative, mind-numbing boredom by nurturing constructive boredom:
  1. Try spending more time with a bored child: “Parents need to be there for their kids . . . to help them detach from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in.”
  2. Turn off the TV. And the computer. And the video games.
  3. Find a balance between adult direction and child boredom. If a child’s days are heavily scheduled, parents may need to schedule “unstructured time” to make room for creative boredom. 
Thinking back over the last week, I can identify times that I followed Louv’s advice, like when I asked Virgil to pick me some mint from the backyard to make mint tea or played a game with him before sending him outside. And of course, I still have my mother’s one-word mantra at the ready.

Learn more
Find more ideas for encouraging “constructive boredom” on the Children & Nature Network. Richard Louv is the chairman of the non-profit network, which supports people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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