I was playing chess with a stranger while waiting in the supermarket checkout line the other day. They were on their phone in Boston, or Bangladesh. I don’t really know — but with the touch of a few buttons, I could banish the boredom of waiting in line. I’m not sure that’s such a good thing. We’re entering a world where humans are always an instant from entertainment — where we rarely confront an experience that used to be common, and which may be greatly beneficial: boredom.

Think Back

Think back to when you were a child. One of your most common utterances, right behind, “It’s not fair!” and “Why?” was probably, “I’m bored.” And it’s true — you often were. But when you were bored, what happened next? You needed to create a way to entertain yourself; work to discover something that would satisfy your natural curiosity. You built a fort or imagined you were a pirate. Your brain worked hard to satisfy its innate need for stimulation. In short, you acted like a curious, creative kid.

Those skills are like muscles; they atrophy with disuse. That’s why psychologists believe that constant entertainment can be detrimental, and that boredom improves creativity and self-control. Being bored can boost your attention span as well as your self-esteem. By driving boredom onto the endangered species list, we do a disservice to our students’ brains.

Bust Boredom with Brain-Building

Boredom isn’t something teachers aspire to. In fact, in our professional development sessions, we make sure that learning is always engaging. We want to model world-class engagement strategies — strategies that get students waving their hands in the air in excitement.

But boredom is an opportunity! There is a productive path that starts with boredom and leads to engagement, mental health, and learning. Here are a few keys to creating it in your classroom:

  •  Go Deeper: Instant gratification is the enemy; engage students in learning experiences where they need to puzzle and struggle. Our Twin to Win pentomino game is a perfect example; a certain puzzle might challenge a student. They might think they’ve tried everything. Mild frustration is often processed as boredom — but in the context of deep play, that sort of boredom is productive and positive.
  • Get Open-Ended: Today’s children have grown up in a world where many of their toys have had very well-specified uses. Psychologists recommend more open-ended play to help students exercise their boredom-busting muscles. For free choice time, provide students with options that are extremely flexible and open-ended. Wooden blocks. Magnetic tiles. PVC pipes and connectors. Whiteboards and markers. You get the picture: keeping it simple allows your students’ minds to explore.
  • Model Curiosity and Creativity: We learn so much by watching others — and your students are watching you! When you live curiously and creatively, and when you’re open about that with your students, you create a culture where they expect to use their minds in deep and meaningful ways. So keep a question journal, and share it with your students. Participate in their engineering challenges, to see if you can out build them. Find one object every day, and try to think of as many alternative uses as you can. It’s fun, you’ll make yourself a little happier in this life, and you’ll model a great attitude for your students!

So embrace boredom as an opportunity to boost some brainpower. When students say, “I’m bored,” you can get excited about the opportunity to give them something we all really need: a chance to live curiously and creatively.

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