Boredom Is the Mother of Invention

Necessity is the mother of invention. The proverb, originating from Plato’s Republic, still rings true after more than two millennium. It’s a mantra, a call to action. When conventional approaches fail, find a new method. When you’re bored, rely on the imagination, and discover the magic and learning behind self-directed exploration to inspire.

At one point or another, kids complain. “I’m bored” is a timeless mantra too. While kids hate feeling bored, being bored isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist, mother, ad author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, says that boredom is a good thing. As long as other primary needs of a child are met (i.e. need for emotional connection with mom or dad, hunger, illness, etc.), boredom can be the stimulus for self-directed learning.

It’s also a sign that a child feels disengaged and doesn’t know what to do about it. That’s where you, supermom or innovative dad step in. Your role, as parent and facilitator is to teach your child how to re-engage.

Warning: The solution isn’t technology. While a special television program or video isn’t a bad activity, it doesn’t re-engage a child’s imagination. Contrary to popular belief, television is a passive medium, one that encourages boredom. It’s the reasoning behind the cliché “couch potato.” It’s counterproductive and sedative. And that’s a negative.

When a child, especially an older child complains of boredom, the best way to facilitate learning isn’t to fix it. It’s to facilitate, encourage, and direct our kids to fix the state of boredom themselves.

Nancy Flanagan, a 30-year veteran K-12 teacher, education consultant, and digital organizer for IDEA, concurs. Even among her brightest students, Flanagan noticed that boredom still occurred. It was merely a lack of engagement, a lack of responsibility. Yes, responsibility. Being engaged is a two-way street. It’s partly the parents job to frame the environment in a way that encourages self-directed learning. But it’s also the child’s responsibility to actively engage. “Daily practice of musical scales isn’t much fun, but it’s an enormously effective technique-builder. Brushing your teeth is boring, too, but that doesn’t mean you should stop.”

Flanagan feels that boredom can by cured by kids. Kids should be told to own their boredom and fix it.

So what are our roles as parents? We can frame the environment. We can also facilitate by giving our kids choices, showing them how those choices can play out, and providing the means by which our kids can explore.

What are some great activities we can encourage kids to do, to inspire self-directed learning and imagination:

At home science experiments: There are many science experiments you can set up right in your own kitchen, bathroom, or backyard. The experiments reinforce principles of important scientific theories your kids learn in school. Making elephant’s toothpaste, a foamy by-product of an exothermic chemical reaction is a visual way to teach about chemistry, particularly the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. The ingredients are all available in the local market or drugstore and the experiment has great “wow” impact.


Another at-home experiment makes a cool slimy fluorescent goo from potato starch and tonic water. Once the goo is made, it can be dehydrated and reused countless times.

Make a boredom jar: This might take a little planning but Dr. Laura recommends it. On any number of slips of paper, write down activities. Pull out the jar on any snow day when cabin fever is settling in. Have the kids pick out one strip of paper and perform the activity.

Redesign and reorganize the bedroom, or any room in the house: When I was a kid, I loved reorganizing my room, moving around my bedroom furniture. It was a way to revitalize a room, to make it feel new and special. It was a clean-up job without feeling like a chore. You can motivate the kids, inject activity and exercise, and use it as a team-building exercise. I use it a purging activity, a method of dealing with too much stuff. A decade ago, I discovered, a site that its readers to regain a sense of control through organization and decluttering. I found the site when my husband, a retired army officer, deployed to Iraq. Home with more than a handful of kids, I felt overwhelmed in the day-to-day household maintenance. The site, teaches organization through baby steps, provides encouragement, and lots of atta-girls. One activity, the “Throw away 27 items” game, is a marvelous decluttering activity. It fools kids and adults into throwing away clutter by making it seem small and inconsequential. Give each child a garbage bag. Tell them to find 27 items worth throwing away. It’s a simple way to declutter a little bit at a time, it allows kids to choose belongings to dispose, and it makes clean-up fun.

Set up a scavenger game: You can do this when the weather’s nice or when repeated snowstorms have your children at home. I like to incorporate a little cleaning in the hunt. Make a list of items your children have to find while walking as a family. It can be something simple, like license plate on a car (note, tell your children not to remove the license plate). When we’re household, I like to hide a finite number dried beans or pennies in different corners of the house. I tell my kids, they will only find them if they dust properly. The winner gets to pick from a grab bag but everyone is a winner when the house is dust-free.

Yoga or Meditation: Sometimes, a little mindfulness meditation can go a long way. Mindfulness meditation, a relatively new concept in education teaches kids, and adults, how to meditate, to focus on deep breathing and on the moment. When the kids are stressed out or when the noise level is reaching deafening proportions, I pull out a CD. We all lie on the floor in comfortable positions and the dogs walk between us (which always gets a good laugh). Then we listen to the tape and do some deep breathing for ten to fifteen minutes. Mindfulness meditation is especially helpful with kids with anxiety and attentional issues.

Set up a spelling bee or trivia competition: I’m particularly fond of spelling bees or timed word games. But you can create a competition that challenges the kids in any particular way. It can be a timed version of Pictionary. In Pictionary, teams compete by drawing a word from a hat or a bowl. Each team has two players; while one player draws the picture, the other player has to guess the word within one minute. Players face off and win points.

Build an igloo or a sledding ramp: When all else fails and the weather is cold and snowy, bundle up the kids and send them out to play in the snow. Snow is magical. It fosters imagination. And it tires the kids out. It’s the essence of the proverb, “…mother of invention.” And, if you want, join them in the fun.








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