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Thoughts on Boredom & Electronics

When the subject of electronics was brought up within our start-up group I immediately made it clear that I wanted to have all students leave their personal electronics home. I was responding to a question I wasn’t ready to answer yet but felt if I didn’t speak up the decision would be made without me. Like most parents, the concern about children’s usage of ipads, laptops, kindles, etc. was/is a heavy subject with our group.

My initial ban was based on my personal reflections on tech use and my experiences with this group of kids at the Sudbury school we were at. There, the kids played games and watched videos on their devices a large majority of the time. On occasion someone was creating and editing a video but it wasn’t often.

To be clear, I am not a nostalgic & snobbish environmentalist who shakes his head at our society’s growing involvement with technology and over romanticizes pen, paper, and tree climbing. I love following tech blogs and can’t wait to serve our great robotic overlords in the coming android apocalypse.

My wanting to keep the space free of personal devices was to give other interests and activities a chance to take root and bloom. For most kids and even many adults, these devices are anti-boredom boxes. Games made and marketed towards kids are intentionally made to provide continuous high stimulation. They’re not made to be put down. While the mechanics, physics, and plot of most games may be fundamentally the same, a slight change of the packaging and the novelty is renewed. Kids’ brains aren’t yet developed enough to be able to reflect and regulate their screen usage either. It’s incredibly fun for them and they are especially susceptible to falling into the time pit. As adults, we have more capacity to realize excessive amounts of unproductive time spent online and to curtail this behavior.

Of course, this is all what I think about the matter.

Always having a gaming device on-hand rids kids of the opportunity to experience boredom to a level that can bring forth introspection and creativity. There’s often a concern or fear that a bored child will exhibit destructive behavior. This is a reasonable concern because it is ver real and possible outcome. I think in these moments, as educators and adults, it’s our duty to help steer children towards constructive behaviors and activities that may interest them.

There’s also something to be said about how high the bar for stimulation is set by intensely and frequently rewarding games. Some of my younger students can play the entire school day with only a stick, each other, and their imaginations. They go the Rugrats style adventures that I use to enjoy as a kid. It’s a beautiful thing that I want to preserve.

As a compromise, I didn’t enforce a ban on personal electronics. Instead we simply ask parents that if the amount of tech usage is a concern for their family then they have that conversation with their student and leave the devices home. So, some students do bring their devices and I really wish they didn’t for all the reasons listed above. What we’re now trying to do, inspired by reading about how Nancy at Mosaic has approached the issue, is make tech use and game playing much more intentional. Rather than defaulting to it because they don’t have anything else to do, we’re hoping that students have screen time with a purpose even if that purpose is to decompress with some mindless entertainment for a set time. Even I find playing GTA5 for half an hour to be incredibly relaxing.

I think boredom is an essential component to self-directed education and what we do at agile learning centers. When bored, there’s this existential question we wrestle with, “what am I going to do with myself, with my time here?” It’s better, I think, for children to practice answering this now than to only face this question upon graduating college when they’re also worried about their livelihood.

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