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Bored - Nothing to Do!

By Sheryl Paul
June 22, 2010

"I'm bored" is a common phrase heard by parents with young children. In this article, I explore the value of allowing kids to have downtime and find the creative impulse hidden within the empty space that we commonly interpret as boredom.

Everest and I have been reading a wonderful book we picked up at the library called, “Bored – Nothing to Do!” by Peter Spier. It’s a picture book about two adolescent brothers who, after being ordered by their mother to “Go do something! I was never bored at your age!” decide to build an airplane using materials that require them to completely dismantle their house. Everest, the consummate mess-maker and destruction artist, thinks the book is hysterically funny and laughs at every page. But I wonder if he’s also responding to the book’s subtext: that creativity is often born from boredom.

As aware as I am about the importance of creating and honoring empty spaces and fallow times in a day, a week, a month, and a year, I’m also aware of my tendency to fill those spaces when they naturally occur, especially with Everest. Part of the reason why we’ve chosen a homeschooling life  – and I imagine why many of us are homeschooling – is that we value downtime and we don’t want to fill our kids’ lives with activity after endless activity. Doing nothing is important. Boredom has a place in our days. At least theorhetically. Because when I looked out from the kitchen yesterday and saw Everest sitting on the couch, staring out the window, doing nothing, I had to fight the urge to help him find something to do. And when we’re driving in the car and I peer at him through the rearview mirror and see him, again, staring out the window, I have to remind myself that it’s good, I don’t need to turn on the music or put on an audiobook or ask him what’s on his mind. Silence is essential. Staring out the window in quiet thought is a positive thing.

When I’ve placed such high value on being time in my own life, when I’ve cherished retreating to the sanctuary of my bed and staring out the window, why is it so difficult to value the same for my kids? Why do I feel that unless he’s doing something active, he’s not doing something productive? It’s astonishing to me that, as deeply as I value the state of being (the second, liminal stage of transitions) that I write about so much in this blog, my first instinct when I see Everest doing nothing is to assume that he’s bored and that the boredom requires my attention.

Boredom is the nothing-stage that precedes a new beginning. It reminds me of the Martin Buber quote that I often think of when referring to the liminal stage:

Nothing in the world can change from one reality into another unless it first turns into nothing, that is, into the reality of the between-stage. And then it is made into a new creature, from the egg to the chick. The moment when the egg is no more and the chick is not yet, is nothingness. (Tales of the Hasidim, New York: Schocken, 1947, p. 104)

Not surprisingly, within about 20 minutes of seeing Everest staring out the window, he proceeded to have one of his classically creative afternoons. He built a “love pocket” out of mylar, he created an etching tool out of armature wire (his term; I’m not even sure what that is) so he could carve designs into a candle, and he worked on a rain gauge that he’s been building out of balsa wood and a hinge. Was all of that churning inside his brain, incubating in the quiet space of downtime, waiting to be called into fruition? I have to assume that it was, that what looked like boredom was, in fact, the empty space that, when left alone, often births something new.



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