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Boredom Benefits – Encouraging learners to be bored

Written By: Matt Harder
3 min read

In the beginning of January 2020, Time Magazine published an article about the benefits of being bored, particularly in relation to adults, and the way in which boredom can spark creativity.

Boredom has a very bad reputation over the years. “The devil makes work for idle hands” (anon), “Boredom is the enemy of successful education” (M. Rhalmi – 2010), “Stop doodling and get on with your writing” (my Year 3 teacher, 1994). However, the basis for continuous provision in Early Years settings is a rich environment in which learners can explore and learn based on the stimuli that are around them. The best nursery classrooms are the ones with the most enticing learning opportunities, aimed at encouraging self-directed learning.

Unfortunately, curriculum and time constraints can often be the ‘enemy’ of education, meaning that Key Stage 1 classrooms and above become learning factories, imparting knowledge (and some skills) through instruction. There are approaches out there that assist learning in more experiential and experimental ways, “Mantle of the Expert”, “Reggio Emilia” and “Montessori” to name a few, and these revolve around the provision of stimuli, activity or environment based, to fire the imaginations of the learners to elicit self-motivated learning. These are well used as a “stunning-start day” or an afternoon-a-week topic session, but surely there is more scope for widening this to be throughout all subjects, for more of the time?

I would argue that the richest environments are out of the classroom, but I am fairly biased. That said, since when did shoppers need to abandon their baskets to sit at a desk and work out the change they’re expecting?

For the past 10 years, I have worked with a whole range of ages, doing Forest School, Bushcraft training and Primary teaching. In that time, it has been very evident that the learners who need the most support in being told what to do are the older age groups. Give a two-year-old a woodland and they will run, play, build, splash, climb and hide. Older participants will ask, “What do I have to do next?” as if their enjoyment is dependent on someone telling them how to act.

I don’t know if it is the product of our national education model, societal influences, or parenting styles, but it is clear that a change is needed for the innate skill of curiosity and free creativity of younger learners to be maintained as they grow up. One of the ways which I have tried to combat this is through “encouraging boredom in an opportunity-rich environment”. Often, children ask me during Forest School sessions, if they can bring a football next time. There is a reliance on a pre-existing set of rules and aims, rather than an experimentation with the new. And no, they can’t bring one. What they can do is take the premise of a goal scoring game, and forest-ify it. Who can kick a stick so it lands and balances on a branch?

Obviously, it is difficult to experiment when there is no starting point, and, on occasions, I have relented and given “Pinterest” style sheets with photos of things that they could create or do. No instructions, so they have to work out how to do it for themselves, but at least it is a starting point.

Nevertheless, the most creative sessions have come out of times when the learners have taken an independent and brave step to ask “Can I …”

“Can I make a fishing rod?” Ok, how might you do that? What might you need?

“Can I climb a tree?” Which do you think would be the best for climbing and why?

In these situations, the other learners invariably covet the tool or object being used or made, and there follows a rapid acceleration of interest and creativity, bouncing ideas off each other, improving, adapting and going at a tangent to that first spark. Fishing rods turn into atlatls, snares, and magic wands. Tree climbing turns into den building, tree-houses, flags, obstacle courses and, occasionally, having a nap on a branch like a relaxed panther.

It seems to me that the lack of time pressure and standardised objectives during Forest School sessions, is a key enabler in developing the skills for self-led learning. We need to encourage children to practice being bored in opportunity-rich environments. If they are bored, they are more likely to do or make something to alleviate it, and so reinforce the skill of self-soothing their boredom with creativity, a crucial skill which seems to degenerate with age.

Albrecht K (1996) Reggio Emilia: Four key ideas. Texas Child Care 20(2): 2–8.

Ducharme J (2020)

Rhalmi M (2010)

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