Søren Kierkegaard said, “Boredom is the root of all evil.” Indeed, idleness has been looked down upon for centuries. Recent studies on the matter have brought much new information to light, but for many of us, the long-standing notion that a bored person needs an “activity” can lead to a reactionary approach if our child is bored. In a worst case scenario, a bored child places themselves before a screen. In a better scenario, we schedule them in activities to limit boredom or present them with a list of possibilities.  

“We are rightfully fearful of boredom and its negative consequences. Too much time and money, little purpose, and boredom are a lethal combination.”

Author Nancy H. Blakey, explored our fears of boredom in her Mothering Magazine article The Cauldron of Creativity, saying, “We are rightfully fearful of boredom and its negative consequences. Too much time and money, little purpose, and boredom are a lethal combination. In an attempt to save our children, we sign them up for sports and classes. We let them watch a crazy amount of television and spend days at the computer.”

But, psychologists, neurologists and child development experts are now encouraging a third option: just let them be bored. No rescuing, no ideas, no schedule and no screens. Just let our children sit in the stew of inactivity. But why?

Because boredom, according to Italian Human and Social Sciences researcher, Palmira Faraci, leads to one of three outcomes and two of them are beneficial. In her analysis of the Boredom Proneness Scale she found three typical solutions to boredom were — “internal stimulation-creativity, apathy, and external stimulation-challenge.” One of those may be seen as negative, but the other two, when it comes to children and their development, have clear benefits.

Now that the benefits have been identified, they are being explored at length by researchers. This research from Texas A& M University shows boredom encourages people to seek new goals and experiences. The researchers argue that, “By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”

This University of Lancashire study concurs, finding that boredom in subjects brought forth daydreaming and innovative connections that lead to more creativity. As did this study published in the Journal of Associative Psychology, which found boredom promoted “associative thought” or deeper connections between potentially unrelated ideas.

“I cannot plant imagination into my children. I can, however, provide an environment where their creativity is not just another mess to clean up but welcome evidence of grappling successfully with boredom.”

A leading psychologist, author and researcher on boredom, Andreas Elpidorou, Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, puts it this way in his article The Bright Side of Boredom, in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology: “In broad strokes, the picture is as follows: on account of its affective, volitional, and cognitive aspects, boredom motivates the pursuit of a new goal when the current goal ceases to be satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful to the agent. Boredom helps to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful or significant… Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a “push” that motivates us to switch goals and products.”

So, while defeatist apathy might be a consequence of boredom, say in a teenager wandering the streets all summer, it is twice as likely to expand the minds of our children. Perhaps this is why, Blakey, says, “I want to allow my children to be bored while they are young and under my watchful eye. To preempt the time spent on television and organized activities and have them spend it instead on claiming their imaginations… Life is bound by what we can envision. I cannot plant imagination into my children. I can, however, provide an environment where their creativity is not just another mess to clean up but welcome evidence of grappling successfully with boredom. It is possible for boredom to deliver us to our best selves, the ones that long for risk and illumination and unspeakable beauty. If we sit still long enough, we may hear the call behind boredom. With practice, we may have the imagination to rise up from the emptiness and answer.”

Waldorf education takes an active approach to cultivating children imaginations and a large part of that approach is allowing children unstructured playtime. The free mind, unbound by prescriptive activity, can envision, create and image. These are skills, real life skills, with amazing benefits for those that build them. Benefits that pay off for an entire lifetime while solving problems, approaching divergent thought, and even managing boredom.