It's time to save our young children from boredom and to bring their imagination back to life, writes Mary Jane Drummond
Tiny babies get bored. And developmental psychologists use the babies'
capacity for boredom to research their ability to perceive and discriminate. The technique is to show a baby something - or a set of somethings - until the baby gets bored and looks away. When the researcher changes the somethings, and if the baby notices the difference, she or he gets interested again, sometimes very interested.
In one experiment, documented by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct, five-month-old babies were shown a rubber Mickey Mouse doll on a stage until their eyes wandered. Then a screen came up, and an animated hand reached out from behind a curtain and placed a second Mickey Mouse behind the screen. When the screen was removed, if there were two Mickey Mouses visible (something the babies had not actually seen) the babies were not impressed, and only looked for a few moments. But if there was only one doll, the babies were captivated - even though this was what had bored them before the screen was put in place. The babies must have been keeping track of how many dolls there were behind the screen, performing a simple form of mental arithmetic.
Sitting-up babies get bored, especially if there is nothing for them to handle or put in their mouths. Concerned about bored, grumpy babies in daycare, the influential researcher Elinor Goldschmied invented the treasure basket: a sturdy wicker basket crammed with a wild variety of enticing objects - a garlic press, a lemon, a bottle brush, a heavy stone, metal chains, little glass bottles, pine cones, bits of wood and fur - and so on. Sitting next to this irresistible resource, babies give it their full and intense attention for up to an hour at a time; they are entirely concentrated on the serious business of exploration and manipulation.
Boredom is banished.
Walking and talking toddlers are harder to bore, because there is always somewhere fresh to go, or something interesting to do, or someone responsive to talk to. Unless, of course, the adults in charge of these tireless explorers set limits on their full-time project of keeping themselves alert and ready for action. Our own grown-up memories of being bored reflect this principle: the boredoms of our childhood were caused by the barriers set about us by our loving parents and carers, on polite visits, long car journeys and gloomy church services ("Sit still. Don't interrupt. Don't touch. Be quiet. Be good. Leave it alone.") My argument is that as soon as babies learn to crawl, to pull themselves up off the ground and trundle off in search of adventure, they can always stave off boredom, unless we put obstacles in their way. Loris Malaguzzi, one of the founding fathers of the Reggio Emilia approach to early education, puts it like this: "Children are the most implacable enemies of boredom."
Supporting evidence for this pithy description of every child's commitment to intense and active engagement with the world can be found in many sensitively documented accounts of childhood, in the autobiographies of poets, politicians and philosophers, and in parents' tender observations of their growing children.
Some especially powerful examples can be found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notebook, which he kept for most of his adult life. One learned editor describes it as an undiscovered treasure, "perhaps the unacknowledged prose masterpiece of its age". In among the philosophical profundities, the poetic comments and passages of literary criticism, are unforgettable glimpses of his children at play, living life to the full, the very antithesis of boredom in their intellectual energy and determination.
Hartley, the eldest, born in 1797, has a philosophical turn himself, and Coleridge records his ruminations with barely concealed pride: "I had a very long conversation with Hartley (not yet four years old) about Life, Reality, Pictures and Thinking, this evening... he pointed out without difficulty that there might be five Hartleys, Real Hartley, Shadow Hartley, Picture Hartley, Looking Glass Hartley, and Echo Hartley."
Coleridge is equally attentive to his children's unfettered physicality, their exuberance and delight, their capacity for joy, and yet also for solemnity. At the age of four, Hartley makes the transition from petticoats to trousers: "Sunday, November 1. 1801. Hartley breeched - he ran to and fro in a sort of dance to the Jingle of the Load of Money that had been put in his pockets; but he did not roll and tumble over in his old joyous way - No! it was an eager and solemn gladness, as if he felt it to be an awful era in his life."
Perhaps the most formidable weapon in children's ceaseless campaign against boredom is the unquenchable power of the imagination, which can be put to work at a moment's notice, at any hour of the day, on any kind of unpromising material.
Robert Louis Stevenson eating his porridge (see box) is just one example of how children can transform the dull reality of breakfast (or anything else) into something that is "really real", a child's phrase recorded by that incomparable student of children, Vivian Gussin Paley, who seems to know just about everything there is to know about what children can do to the adult's predictable, tedious, boring, everyday world by re-inventing it on their own terms.
What does all this mean for those of us who work with babies, children and young people of all ages? It means that if there is boredom in our schools and pre-schools, and there is, it is none of children's making.
So Iam launching a campaign to unbore bored children and to release them back to their natural condition, to the ways of being they know best: engaged, energetic, enthusiastic, in search of new adventures, imaginary landscapes and growing understanding.
If we restore their freedom to move, to touch, to taste, to transform, to explore this difficult and beautiful world, they won't have to resort to flooding the toilets or fiddling with their Velcro to while away the dreary hours of classroom life. In short, by channelling children's energies into what they do best - which is to act in and on the world in ways of their own invention - we could Make Boredom History.
Mary Jane Drummond is one of the authors of First Hand Experience: what matters to children, reviewed in The TES (June 24, 2005) Children in the wind
September 28, 1802
"Children in the wind - hair floating, tossing, a miniature of the agitated Trees, below which they play'd - the elder whirling for joy, the one in petticoats, a fat Baby, eddying half-willingly, half by the force of the Gust - driven backward, struggling forward - both drunk with the pleasure, both shouting their hymn of Joy."
(The fat baby is Derwent, born in 1800.) Source: Coleridge's Notebooks edited by Seamus Perry, Oxford University Press
Seasoned with dreams
Robert Louis Stevenson at breakfast:
"When my cousin and I took our porridge of a morning, we had a device to enliven the course of the meal. He ate his with sugar, and explained it to be a country continually buried under snow. I took mine with milk, and explained it to be a country suffering gradual inundation. You can imagine us exchanging bulletins; how here was an island still un-submerged, here a valley not yet covered with snow ... how his population lived in cabins on perches and travelled on stilts, and how mine was always in boats; ... and how in fine, the food was of altogether secondary importance, and might even have been nauseous, so long as we seasoned it with these dreams."
Source: an essay on Play by Robert Louis Stevenson in Virginibus Puerisque (1881)
Boredom favours the French
"For many hundreds of years the concept of melancholy was taken extremely seriously; it was a complex condition, almost synonymous with madness.
"But in time it was taken over by the concept of boredom, derived from the French ennui ... In England, the French seemed to be regarded as specialists in the subject of boredom: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'bore' does not exist in English before the 1760s, and several of the quotations from that period call it 'French bore' ... as if they had invented the idea ...
"We cannot claim that no one was bored before 1760, ...(but) in English the word 'boredom' is a very late arrival, the older 'tedium' never signifying anything more than being irritated by excessive repetition."
Source: adapted from a review of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) by Charles Rosen New York Review of Books June 9, 2005