A fresh look ar boredom

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My attention was drawn to the topic of boredom as a result of my study
of the influence of television on the story-making of 10 -12 year-old
children. Via a complex methodology I concluded that television and film
stifle the imagination rather than stimulating it (Belton 2001). Amongst the many
stories I read there were many dull ones, and, based partly on previous research
into television effects, I decided that television was somewhat responsible. A new
perspective was that an indirect effect of television watching on imagination arises
out of its eradication of boredom in the lives of children – at least at home.
Whenever a child feels they have nothing to do, they can always turn to
the television (or DVD player or computer). It robs the child of the need to be
inventive or reflective, crowding out time and attention for daydreaming or
letting the mind be idle.
Maybe periods of relative mental inactivity are necessary
for productiveness; after all, farmers have long known that land is more fertile if
allowed to lie fallow from time to time. The value of boredom is supported by
Jerome Bruner’s characterisation of it as “a powerful phenomenon – a poison to
the intellect in large doses. And like many poisons, it is rather a benign stimulant
in small doses” (Bruner 1980: viii).
Then my colleague Esther Priyadharshini told me how the teenage truants she
had been interviewing talked in terms of school being “so bore-r-ring” and, based
on these two differing perspectives, we decided to carry out a cross-disciplinary
exploration of the literature (Belton and Priyadharshini 2007) to discover what
had been written about boredom from a variety of viewpoints. I will highlight
here what we found that is of most relevance to primary school children and
Forms and causes of boredom
Boredom is usually associated with being under-stimulated,
or with having nothing to do. But it is clear that some
children tackle with enthusiasm activities that others find
boring, so there is clearly a subjective element at play in
regarding something as either boring or engaging. This
distinction between externally and internally determined
boredom has been termed “state” vs “trait” or “situational”
vs “dispositional” boredom. Psychological research on
boredom is almost entirely limited to the measuring of
“boredom proneness” in individuals, and to correlating
this trait with others.
It has been claimed that boredom proneness tends
to be found together with certain other characteristics,
including low attentiveness, aggression, depression,
poor educational performance, and lack of motivation,
autonomy or sense of purpose. What is absent in this
literature, however, is any discussion as to whether these
“traits” or patterns are inborn or learnt, and whether one
might be the result of another. If, for instance, a child
has a short attention span, they are likely to be unable
fully to engage in an activity and will therefore probably
become bored, then perhaps frustrated, and possibly
aggressive. Educational writers have tended to take the
other, “situational”, approach to addressing boredom
at school, looking for explanations to flaws or failures in
educational practices, such as repetitive or meaningless
tasks, poor quality resources, or work that is insufficiently
Effects of boredom
As with its causes, there are two divergent views on the effects
of boredom. On the one hand there are those who associate
it with negative affect, expressed in such responses as selfabsorption,
apathy, poor performance, lowered satisfaction
in life, and anti-social or even criminal behaviour; on the other
are those who regard boredom as containing the potential to
stimulate change or creativity.
Schubert (1978), a psychiatrist, demonstrated
experimentally that boredom has the power to exert
pressure on individuals to stretch their inventive capacity.
He gave study participants generous amounts of time
to complete word association and problem solving
exercises, and once all the more obvious answers had
been given, participants became increasingly creative
and original in order to ward off boredom. Similarly Rude
(2001) has suggested that if children are encouraged to
persevere with a task that they initially find boring, they
may eventually find that their interest becomes kindled.
Kracauer (1995) has suggested that boredom has value
in enabling the individual to experience stillness and to
find their “self”. In all of these situations having plenty of
time, perhaps paradoxically, seems to be important in
overcoming boredom.
Responses to boredom
When children say they are bored, whether at home
or at school, it generally engenders a degree of guilt in
adults. The psychotherapist Adam Phillips raises powerful
questions about the predominant adult response to
children’s boredom:
“Is it not indeed revealing what the child’s boredom evokes
in the adults? Heard as a demand, sometimes as an accusation
of failure or disappointment, it is rarely agreed to, simply
acknowledged. How often, in fact, is the child’s boredom
met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s
wish to distract him – as though the adults have decided that
the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting.
It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the
child should be interested, rather than take time to find what
interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking
one’s time. While the child’s boredom is often recognised as
an incapacity, it is usually denied as an opportunity” (Phillips
1993 pp72-73).
While educational writers generally assume that
boredom at school is entirely negative and detracts
from the quality of the learning experience, there is both
literature and empirical evidence that indicates that this is
not necessarily the case.
One school has explicitly recognised the potential
benefits of boredom. Summerhill School, which takes
pupils aged five to eighteen, and allows them to decide
whether or not to attend lessons, includes these lines in
its policy statement:
“Freedom to make decisions always involves risk and
requires the possibility of negative outcomes. Apparently
negative consequences such as boredom, stress, anger,
disappointment and failure are a necessary part of
individual development”.
Research at Summerhill (Goodsman 1992) revealed that
children learned that becoming bored alerted them to
possibilities for change.
Boredom and schooling
While boredom clearly does contain the potential to propel
the child into new or further activity, given supportive
external conditions of time, space, materials and adult
understanding, a certain capacity within the child is also
necessary for this situation to become constructive. That
capacity to be motivated depends on the child feeling
both in control, that is capable of producing desired (and
preventing undesired) results, and autonomous, that is,
feeling free to pursue the behaviours they choose.
An interesting study (Patrick et al 1993) looked at eightyear-
old children who were high in control but low in
autonomy. These were children for whom behaviour and
emotion became uncoupled, so that they were cognitively
but not affectively involved with what they were doing -
they just went through the required motions. To nurture
children’s full cognitive and emotional engagement
with learning tasks – the antithesis of unproductive
boredom – the authors recommend provision of choice,
lack of coercion, respect for children’s own agendas, and
learning activities relevant to children’s own goals. Such
an approach would be supported by the creation of an
‘informational’ classroom environment in which the child is
encouraged to plan their own learning, using the available
resources, and participates in their own assessment, rather
than the more usual ‘controlling’ environment in which the
child is dependent on the teacher (Dowling 1995).
The most powerful means of developing autonomy
and the will to learn in young children according to
(Bruce 1991), is ‘free-flow’ play, play that is intrinsically
motivated, presents no external goals or rules, uses existing
knowledge and skills, encourages struggle in order to
master new competences, integrates what a child knows,
feels and understands, and is a process of manipulating,
exploring, discovering and practising without an end
product. This description is almost identical to that which
Cziksentmihalyi (2000) has given of a sense of “flow”.
Flow, he says, occurs when an individual’s skills match or
can extend to meet the challenges or opportunities they
encounter. His thinking is based on studies of adults such
as rock-climbers, composers, surgeons, and chess-players,
all of whom become utterly immersed in what they are
doing. Cziksentmihalyi identified the elements of flow
as: exploration, problem solving, a sense of discovery,
and a sense of losing oneself in solitary activities or a
loss of self-centredness in collaborative ones. Free play,
Cziksentmihalyi proposes, is the epitome of the state of
flow, an uninterrupted process in which children’s bodies,
hands and brains produce immediate feedback that allows
them to control their environment in an imaginative and
experimental way.
While in schools there is now more emphasis on play
in Year 1, it is still common for children to be told that
they may play when they have finished their work. To
Cziksentmihalyi the dichotomy between work and play
is false. He concludes that the educational lesson to be
drawn from his studies is that:
“…one of the most basic things to be taught to children is
to recognize opportunities for action in their environment.
This is the skill on which all other skills are based. …A child
trained to develop all the skills of his body and his mind
need never feel bored or helpless and therefore alienated
from his surroundings.” (pp204-205)
Collecting this literature together enables a picture to be
constructed of the elements needed for the banishment of
what might be called dead-end boredom from the primary
school classroom: time, individual choice, stillness, intrinsically
motivating activities, challenge, struggle and playfulness.

Teresa Belton’s academic life grew out of an interest
in children’s play. When her own children were young
in the 1980s she was active in the setting up and
running of a small voluntary organisation, Play for
Life, whose aim was to stimulate fresh public thinking
about the kinds of play experiences, in the broadest
sense, that enhance the social, emotional and spiritual
development of children of all ages. As a result, she
found herself carrying out doctoral research into the
influence of television and videos on the story-making
of 10-12 year-olds in the School of Education and
Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia.
Since completing her PhD she has worked part-time as
an educational researcher at UEA.