The Blessings of Boredom and the Dilemma of Daydreams

Schools are often systems that encourage a kind of hyperactivity, a cycle of learning that includes studying, doing, test-taking, and starting over. The extracurricular programs encourage much of the same: getting ready, working hard, performing, and hitting reset. There is much good in these approaches: going deeper, learning about resilience and diligence, showing stick-to-itiveness, and having a mindset of improvement and iteration. And then summer comes along, and the whole endeavor skids to a halt. Students go off to camp or jobs or being at home; teachers vacation or work or spend time with families. The question becomes: “Is this a beneficial pause or not?” 

The detractors will remind us all of summer melt—the concept that students, especially younger ones, will lose some ground in the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic) in the few months off of school. There is the economical side for families as well, since camps, programs, and vacations all cost money. And, for some people, there is just the general sense of aimlessness that arises with summer. In our culture of production and achievement, the notion of doing nothing is circumspect at best. 

I’d like to advocate for boredom, and by extension, a kind of dreaminess that comes with the expansion of time in the summer. 

Unlike a common adage, boredom is not indicative of a boring mind. To be bored is to be presented with a blank page, day, or thought, and to wonder what to do with it. The ability to take something formless and give it shape is needed in the world and for all people. It’s true that some people freeze with the amorphous nature of a long summer day or week with little to no plans, but it’s the thawing out that gives rise to creativity and newness. Think of the child who, with “nothing to do,” proceeds to play dress up and carefully orchestrates multiple characters through a scenario. Doesn’t this have a parallel with a student or teacher confronted with a difficult situation needing to imagine a new approach? Or consider the adult who, wanting to unplug from technology for a bit, pulls a book off of the shelf and enters that wonderful zone of immersion into another world. Doesn’t this feel similar to having an empathetic understanding of those around you, by seeing their worlds, even as you are outside of them? Boredom breeds creativity in a way that we desperately need. 

Daydreaming, too, has its place in the world, even as it is often frowned upon for similar reasons. Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains are actually more active during daydreaming than when we are “paying attention.” Sitting on the beach this summer, I found myself putting my book down and just listening to the waves and daydreaming. And I discovered that I was actually processing quite a lot, but in a non-analytical and quite interesting way. It was almost like that space between waking and sleeping, when the mind roams a bit. 

I titled this piece as a “dilemma,” because as schools, we don’t quite know what to do with boredom or daydreaming. Common wisdom and experience will tell you to keep teenagers busy because boredom (and free time) can breed some bad behavior. Similarly, in a classroom setting, daydreaming is often at odds with the “on-task” expectation of the space. So what do we do with this?

This year, we are tweaking our schedule to provide more uninterrupted class time with passing time between classes. It seems small, but these two adjustments—longer class periods and passing time—will hopefully provide both teachers and students with a little more time, and by extension, space. It’s my hope that the extra space will allow for some silence, for some reflection, and who knows, maybe even some daydreaming during the school year.