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The Art of Being Bored

August 3, 2016


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I have six kids and this as you can imagine – means I never have time to be bored. Having said that it also means I am constantly hearing the phrase, “I’m bored” from a generation that I’m sad to say has not truly experienced boredom.

Yes. I’m sad to say that my children have not truly experienced boredom and that is in great part the fault of my own generation.

I remember taking road trips across Canada in a station wagon or van. I was the oldest of seven and we usually had one or two Golden Retrievers with us as well. This was in the days before iPods, tablets, portable dvd players or even GameBoys. We had the car radio, perhaps a single Sony Walkman with two or three cassettes and four days of 16 hour drives crossing the continent.

We kept busy by playing magnetic board games like chess or backgammon or by staring out the window searching for out of province licence plates or “punch buggies”.

Now on a recent trip to a Specialist about 40 km from our house I was explaining this to one of my daughters who was complaining of nothing to do on the half hour drive. She was stunned and could not believe we survived that as kids. As I regaled her I was wondering privately how my parents survived it.

I’ve heard tell that the first time the English word Boredom was used was in the Charles Dickens novel “Bleak House” from 1852. Before that the closest word that would be associated with the concept was the French word ennui.

Now looking back with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and advances in medicine perhaps for the first time in existence humans were introduced to the concept of “spare time”.

Looking at the next 12 or so decades from that point it could be argued we have “advanced” more than at almost any other time. Being bored has more than once led to amazing discoveries and even epiphanies. Our lives are certainly better in many ways thanks to people being bored and trying to find something to passionately occupy themselves.

When I was born the world was still changing fast. I recall watching Saturday morning cartoons on a coloured television screen but also knew many were still watching black and white screens. I recall our first Texas Instruments computer and being amazed as my father typed in the BASIC language to have the screen change colours and have the computer robotically say, “OKAY YOU LAZY KIDS GET TO WORK!” over and over.

My phone was attached to a wall and my high school crushes received postmarked letters from me not texts, snap chats or tweets. When bored – I responded not always in the right way but almost always with some consideration.

Boredom is often an asset to individuals – it is a trigger of sorts telling us that there is something we wish to change. It allows us to explore things that make us happy. However, at some point I feel we made a sad turn – Boredom is now something to avoid and by encouraging this we’ve devolved boredom into lethargy.

I am seeing a new generation that has YouTube, 24 hour cartoon networks, and screens on the go. Instead of being creative when bored we reach for the nearest device for instant gratification. Apps and garbage television have become the microwavable meals to feed boredom and I’m not sure it’s nourishment enough. 

We cannot blame it all on technology either. We strive so hard to ensure our children never have to be bored. Dance, sports, tutoring, music, playdates and electronic devices drone by their curious eyes like a circular assembly line  with no end.

It’s not just parents – it’s schools as well. The very word school comes from the Greek word schole  meaning “leisure”. Socrates would speak to his students under fig trees out in the sun and the lessons were much less regimented than those we seem to thrust upon them today.

It’s part of the reason why Maker Spaces and Genius Hour have such a following in school systems now. Students can excel when given their own time to explore, investigate and yes, be bored. Like technology, like the outdoors I am starting to see boredom as the right tool with the right student at the right time.

Along the same lines, for many years in outdoor and environmental education we have promoted the concept of reflective spaces. Students sit in a solitary fashion somewhere by themselves often with just a journal or even nothing at all. When leading such an event, I have in the past been known to put a hold on it once I see students fidgeting or starting to say “I’m bored”

But now I’m wondering if that is always the right path to take … perhaps just perhaps when they are becoming bored we should not always end it because that’s when great things could really be beginning.


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