When I was a kid, growing up on a farm in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, I do remember declaring the universal, “I’m bored” with a dramatic sigh to my parents. But not that often. And my boredom certainly wasn’t taken all that seriously.
There was a lot of doing what would now qualify as “nothing” in my childhood. Yes, my parents took us occasionally to the beach or to an amusement park or to a baseball game or team practice or to the mall. But mostly we were on our own to figure out how to occupy our time. We didn’t really have anything that would qualify as television as an option for most of the day, since we barely got any stations using our antenna. And that was it for our “screen time.”
What we did was “playing,” in the most old-fashioned, ordinary, unsupervised, Little House on the Prairie sense of the term.
And here’s what I learned from my hundreds of hours running in the woods, building snow forts, stomping in puddles, building mud kingdoms, and riding my bike down hills.
- It’s just as fun to swim in muddy swamps as clear lakes.
- Leeches are hard to get off.
- It’s best to sled down steep hills that don’t have trees in the middle of them.
- Baby livestock animals — pigs, cows, chickens, sheep — make perfect pets to train and play with, until they grow up, are slaughtered, and then you eat them.
- You can enter Narnia any time you like through a tire swing at the edge of the woods.
- Wear pants when you’re climbing up huge rocks.
- It’s more fun to create sandcastles in dirt during mud season than using the finest sand from the most pristine beach.
- If you’re given a second-hand bicycle with foot brakes, check to see that they work before heading off down the steepest mountain within miles.
- Wiffle ball tournaments are a required part of every summer evening, and usually last until bedtime.
- It’s perfectly acceptable to climb up a tree halfway if you’re too scared to go all the way up.
These are some of the best lessons of my childhood, and I remembered them today when I read about a British research study reported by the BBC that concluded that children should be allowed to experience boredom. Furthermore, constant and adult-supervised activity can stifle creativity.
And we needed a research study to tell us that? I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life reading, analyzing, doing, and evaluating research. But surely this is one facet of childhood that should be so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be scientifically validated for our society to know that it’s true.
Dr. Teresa Belton, the study’s lead author, questioned artists, writers, scientists, and other creative types as adults about their childhoods. She found that these thinkers related their early experiences of solitude, free time, and reflection to their creative capacities as adults. Intellectually and developmentally, it was these adults’ hours of time spent drawing, thinking, observing, and pretending on their own that cultivated their imaginations and motivation.
According to Dr. Belton:
“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”
I wonder about this every time I hand my son an iPhone in desperation for a few moments of peace. He’s only a toddler and is way too young to be doing all that much independently. But if I surrender now to his inarticulate demands to be entertained all the time, how will I ever be a strong enough parent when he’s 8 and tells me — again and again — that he’s bored? By that time, we could have even greater numbers of technological toys beyond iPads, DVRs, and laptops to fill the time and mental space of children.
It’s easy to be nostalgic for my childhood of the 1970s — and I certainly am — but we as today’s parents face different obstacles in raising independent, creative children than our parents did. We’re told that our kids are unsafe practically anywhere, even on our neighborhood streets. We’re told that our kids need to be academically stimulated at all times. We’re told by marketers that there are endless varieties of products — from toys to games to computer software — that will occupy and stimulate our kids.
It’s more than possible that my son will write an entirely different list of 10 things that he learned from his childhood and they will be equally important and valuable. But I worry that he’ll grow up in a world in which , “go outside and play” has no meaning and that much of the joy and freedom of childhood has been culturally lost.
What are the most valuable lessons from play during your childhood? How do you cope when your kids are “bored”?
Don’t forget to check out the next essay “Sole Sisters” in our HerStories: Tales of Friendship series! She’s one of Stephanie’s friends…. And congratulations to my friend and collaborator Stephanie on her selection to the 2013 “Listen To Your Mother” cast, a national series of original live-readings on Tues., May 7th! Hooray, Stephanie!