The Quiet Contemplation of Inactivity

Genevieve_Bell_The_Value_of_BoredomIf you are of a certain age, or perhaps above a certain age, there was a time when we didn’t carry computers on our hips. When we watched t.v., there was snow and fuzzy reception. Antennas had to be twisted after a storm or to pick-up certain stations. Instant replay wasn’t invented so we could admire the artistry of the swing or replay the magical putt from 45 feet. Replay was born out of desperation: We needed to see everything twice to make up for the blurry image the cathode tube produced. HD television means never having to ask “did his feet land in bounds?”

And if you wanted a crystal clear image of nature, you had to go outside.

If you are of that certain age, you spent a good bit of your time outside because sitting inside for too long often resulted in holding the stupid end of the broom or spending your Saturday up to your elbows in chemicals cleaning the toilet.

Heaven help you if you told someone you were bored. Nothing’s worse, really, than a parent’s miserable attempts at sarcasm when they ask if you want to fill up your time by mowing the grass. I used to ask my kids what kind of board they were. Sympathy was never real high on my list of emotions. (Neither was humor if you ask our boys.) Those were days when kids shouldn’t be seen or heard.

Those were also the days, as Bell points out, where boredom reigned and no one cared. As kids we could come up with 16 ways to put our lives on the line using the jungle gym in ways no designer ever intended. They were days when we simply looked at clouds and imagined animals (or teachers or, for the juvenile delinquents, body parts) hiding in the puffy expanse of the heavens.

No one tapped into the 3G network to find out if we were looking at cumulus, sirrus, or stratus. If little Johnny spouted any educational nonsense that might make us think, we made sure he stayed home with the mop next time. We were bored, but no one was ever bored enough to learn something.

Except it appears, according to recent research, that boredom is good for the brain. Evidently, boredom switches our brain’s little buttons and the synapses and neurons start firing on more cylinders, pushing us to creativity and intellectual growth.

You just thought your parents where being insensitive when they told you to go be bored someplace else.

Understand that I’m no luddite. I willingly admit that I like my marginally intelligent phone. As someone who only knows which way is east twice a day, I grow increasingly dependent on pre-loaded maps. I like being able to look up John Kruk’s lifetime batting average anytime I want, and I love that I can slip out of the office to watch baseball and still be working virtually.

In the classroom, I like asking my students to look up facts, use their pocket brains to add numbers, or update calendars (with an alarm reminder!) on the spot. In the next 5 years, tablets and phones have the potential to transform some classroom behaviors, allowing teachers to focus on critical thinking and less on data transfer. Β Why spend 50 minutes defining a term when they can find 50 other people online defining it in an mp3 format?

But, I also can’t help but wonder whether we should also consider introducing (or re-introducing) boredom into the classroom and our daily lives. I remember visiting my oldest son’s first grade classroom. There were bean bags, a tree house for reading, paints, cubby-holes, and various other spaces so the kids “won’t get bored. Learning should be fun,” his teacher emphasized.

Who am I to argue? If I had 25 seven year-olds, I would probably want to avoid letting them get bored, too. There’s not enough wine to handle that much whine.

Yet, if we listen to Bell closely, boredom does a body good.Β It is time, it would appear, to require that we unplug and disconnect. Put the paints away, slide the book on the shelf, and create zones of nothingness for our kids. (Yes, I get the irony of mandated or scheduled boredom.)

Not being stimulated forces us to create or, perhaps even more importantly, asks us to grow comfortable in the quiet contemplation of our inactivity. Clouds become objects, sticks become snakes, bushes become houses, but most importantly, we rely on our self to pass the time. We lose contact with agendas and requirements and mandates and, almost counter-intuitively, become more receptive to learning and understanding because we must become active participants in our day or revel in our own boredom.

And the best part is that next time someone tells you they are bored, tell them it’s good for them.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English and the Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research at Angelo State University.

130 Responses to The Quiet Contemplation of Inactivity

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  7. mariasmilios says:

    Brilliant.

  8. alexswallow says:

    Reblogged this on one swallow makes a summer and commented:
    The importance of boredom.

  9. Lorraine Marie Reguly says:

    I always complained that I was bored, during my childhood. My mom’s suggestions were never helpful, either. I needed to be intellectually challenged, and mundane tasks obviously did not accomplish this.

    Now, I am never bored. There is always something interesting to do, to read, to learn.

    My son never complained at all that he was bored when he was growing up. I think it’s because I tried to consistently provide an environment that enabled him to strive to reach his potential.

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  11. Conrad says:

    Bored! what a luxury. In this day where everything competes for your attention and swarms your senses into overload, doing plain nothing but lazing around is a terrific gift. We are all driven to do this and get that done and accomplish this… but instead of a Sunday we should have a bored day – a do nothing day except day dream, listen to crickets or watch a star or two or a million.
    Great article – thanks!

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  13. As a kindergarten teacher, I see it everyday, how boredom and being forced to explore your options leads to some of the most incredible experiences and learning for them. We have old school things in our classroom like Cuisenaire rods that they have created beautiful things with. It’s beautiful to experience. Maybe we have to learn to, as you said, schedule in time where we’re unplugged and re-learn how to simply sit and tap into our creativity. Thanks for such an interesting post!

    P.S. Perhaps you’ll find my post on a lesson I learned from one of my six year old students interesting. It touches on how our inability to unplug has turned into an attitude of simply taking everything for what it is, forgetting how to tap into our creativity: http://lotusblossomtravels.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/schooled-by-a-six-year-old/

  14. Big chunks of unstructured time are a necessity for kids because boredom can creep in, and with it, creativity, inspiration, reflection, curiosity… but I believe that prescription also applies to adults! We see free time as such a luxury, when it could be the place from which we truly grow.

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  16. Helen Lear says:

    I must admit I kick myself when say waiting for the bus and I can’t just sit and be for a whole 6 minutes. I can’t just watch the cars, the clouds, the people. I can’t just listen to the rain fall on the leaves above…nope, I pull out my “smart” phone and start checking the weather to see when the rain will stop!

    A great read, thank you.

  17. Angel says:

    Reblogged this on LivingWithHealthyOutlook and commented:
    A wonderful post on how we all need downtime in our lives in order to actually relax and be creative among many other benefits that some with having some quiet time.

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  20. proximaldevelopment says:

    This is a great read. Boredom and even isolation can help foster creativity.

  21. artsygenius says:

    What a fabulously wonderful blog post! I think we had very similar parents, and as a fairly bright kid with a busy mom, I was often bored. But you’re right on the money, I played outside, alone or with friends and it led me to create, even if it was just a magical fairyland in my mind. And perhaps, though I never knew it, that lead me to love colors and light, which in turn fueled my passion for photography and jewelry design. Perhaps my childhood boredom made me who I am today! Thanks for the thoughts!

  22. Just reblogged this…just brought on a whole heap of nostalgia

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  24. earthpoetry says:

    My husband and I have exchanged a few thoughts on parenting as we observe the approaches taken by close family. Your thoughts on the importance of “inactivity” remind me of the negative space in art as well as using silence for effective classroom teaching. I am inclined to think the ability to cope with so-called-boredom is a life skill that adults can model for the young, though this means adults need to take ownership of their own perceived boredom.

  25. Keith Hummel says:

    good post..i think boredom tends to visit us when we don’t seem to enjoy what we usually do any more….

  26. Fracas says:

    “Clouds become objects, sticks become snakes, bushes become houses…”

    Exercise of the imagination is incredibly crucial to the development of critical thinking and creativity. And those two abilities are the lifeblood of innovation and intelligence.

    You’re absolutely right — it is so important to have downtime, to process. That is what the brain does while you sleep, it processes, and you have dreams. Whether they be beautiful or terrifying, they are pure creativity.

    The liter 24/7 nature of our modern society allows very little downtime to process. We supplement our busy obligations with busy “relaxation” that consists of television, internet, and 4G phones.

    Even if they don’t mandate “boredom time” in classrooms, I hope they at least bring back things like nap time, recess, and art. The notion of free time and individualization seems to be disappearing from early life, and therefore eventually, late life.

    I hope that more people realize this as you have and promote the occasional disconnection from fast-paced life in general.

    Thanks for writing.

  27. Great read !! Congrats πŸ™‚

  28. Eve says:

    How many times did we have to clean out the garage when we told dad we were bored? At least once every summer! I have actually turned off my personal cell and my friends get mad that they could not get ahold of me. I do have a home phone…and an answering machine. But…they say…I can’t text you. Sigh.

  29. Joel Cole says:

    Reblogged this on Xbox live codes Generator and commented:
    good point!

  30. This absolutely deserves to be Freshly Pressed. Congratulations.
    –JW

  31. dan213 says:

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  32. Very interesting post, thank you!
    Like one of the other bloggers commented, your post also caught my attention on the Freshly Pressed page. Being in my 30’s I grew up without the Internet and I whole-heartedly agree that being bored can be a threshold towards creative imagination πŸ™‚
    That being said and being a teacher myself (I’m French and teach English as a foreign language), I don’t really see how boredom times could be efficiently inserted in class… If you just leave them with zero activities to do, they’ll simply start chatting together so they won’t really be tapping into their own imaginative potential… If you gave this more thoughts and have some suggestion, I’d be very interested to read them πŸ˜‰

    • John Wegner says:

      Perhaps the way we introduce boredom in the classroom is via free writing? I require that my students write every day. If they tell me they have nothing to say, I tell them to write “I have nothing to say.” You would be amazed at how often such tedium turns to actual sentences worth reading. I think we can also let boredom reign by waiting for answers. I’ve stood there in front of a silent class more than once. Eventually, someone speaks. Boredom can literally mean simply sitting in class, not talking, and not sleeping. 10 minutes of contemplation required to fill the time.

      • I like this idea of “free writing” though it’s clearly more difficult to do with a foreign language and especially with pupils in great difficulty, but still I like it and might try it sometime πŸ˜‰
        Thanks!

  33. Reblogged this on Online surveys and commented:
    awesome…

  34. misssykes90 says:

    As my mother used to say whenever I whined I’m bored, ‘I’m Mammy nice to meet you’ or ‘I’m board, chairman of the board’. Great read, made me reminisce πŸ™‚

    Miss Sykes
    http://inthenameofknowledge.wordpress.com/

  35. Jaime Shine says:

    This post caught my attention on the Freshly Pressed page and pulled me in to the very end. It’s hard to explain to kids today how fun it was to have idle time growing up and use our imaginations to entertain ourselves. I’m grateful I was at the tail end of the age you reference above, which was probably helped by growing up in a rural area. It’s amazing — and frightening — how overscheduled kids are today and how connected we all are.

  36. Going outside to play right now, lol. No, your piece did not bore me. Just reminded me that there is no such thing as wasted time, it is time spent well when doing nothing is what is needed and all that is needed. Unplugged has taken on a whole new meaning for me since the music industry adopted it. Unplugging for a while now thanks to your wise and timely read! πŸ™‚

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  38. briggsy2155 says:

    I’m a 16 year old and… the way it is now is painfully boring. If you want to go and do anything you have a phone that your parents will call you on because they are always worried. Everything is safety first and any ideas of being adventureous are looked down upon. I legit went to the creek yesterday with my dog and wished to be 8 years old again. It’s all tv and internet now. I can’t complain though, it is nice having these conveniences. I just wish parents would accept the fact that I’m capable of not getting myself killed.

  39. kldawson says:

    Yes, I can remember being outside twisting the antenna pole while my father yelled directions at me from the living room. I’ve always thought that being bored was an insult to your own imagination.

  40. I like this very much. Boredom is a choice. Enjoy life and it’s simple pleasures.

  41. godtisx says:

    Ha! I love this. Loooooove this. It’s a discourse I have in my head, occasionally with others. In the age of sex toys, dolls, porn and other helpers, I often think if people would just let themselves be bored of their partner a little, then watch what shows up. Magic can. But society is always pushing, pushing, pushing to make it more and more fascinating with the most fascinating thing you can have in your bed gets drowned out. Least that’s the message all the things supposed to make it ‘interesting,’ give. Great great post. xo

  42. dancinmoma says:

    With the world moving so fast…. Scheduled boredom is a must!! πŸ™‚ Great piece! Following you now πŸ™‚

  43. dorothyadele says:

    Great post — When my children were bored I gave them pots, pans and spoons. They played for hours.

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