The point is, when we have nothing else to entertain us, we are forced to turn inwards and draw upon our own resources. In other words, we’re forced to be creative. The trouble is these days we have so many opportunities for distraction, we are never bored.
The phone is always within reach. Then there’s the television, the friends to call, Facebook to check. Children all have smartphones too, and these days they’re less likely to be allowed to play outdoors, where they have to ‘make up games’ themselves. They never get the chance to be creative.
Last week I was leading a writing workshop at a secondary school, where the aim was to enhance literacy through creative activities. I had already spent two days with this class of 11 and 12 year olds, doing writing exercises. For the most part, they were engaged. But there were a few boys who had hardly written anything at all. I didn’t know what the solution was. I didn’t want to bully them; I wanted them to want to write.
So, on the third day, I said that I was going to give them half an hour to write whatever they wanted without any assistance or interference from me. Spelling didn’t matter. But there had to be absolute silence. I would ring a bell in half an hour and then they could stop and illustrate their work (which was what many of them had been saying they wanted to do instead of writing).
Then I switched out the lights and went to sit at the front, pretending to be busy. The minutes went by. Whispers started. I shushed them. Several children asked, "Can we write anything?" and there were requests to go to the toilet. I thought I heard one boy say, “I’m bored." I began to think it was going to be a complete failure.
But eventually, pencils started moving. When the time was up, I stood before the class and asked if anyone needed a little more time. To my astonishment nearly every hand went up.
Five minutes later I switched on the lights and said that they could begin illustrating. A few voices said, “Can we keep writing?”
“Of-course!” I cried.
They had produced pages of writing - even the boys who hadn't produced any work previously. I went round asking if they wanted to show me their stories. They did – all except the ones who were still writing. They were proud of them. I think they had surprised themselves – they certainly surprised me. One boy was laughing at his own jokes. Several asked if they were allowed to take their stories home to finish.
It made me think that, when it’s so easy to switch on the TV or the Xbox, and with after-school activities filling the weekends, that children are rarely left alone without distractions. They never have to entertain themselves, so they’re never forced to be creative.
Given the importance of creativity for the future job market – and the world – I wonder if we ought to be allowing our children the opportunity to be bored. If we get out of their way and leave them to their own devices, they may show us how resourceful they can be.
Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow