Posts Tagged curiosity

The Inspirational Virtues of Summer Boredom

Published by

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” — Dorothy Parker

A 2013 review of the literature published by Behavior Sciences concludes that boredom motivates a desire for change, new goals, experiences and pursuits.  “Boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”  — On the Function of Boredom.

Boredom can be seriously toxic in certain circumstances — like smart kids enduring a tedious lesson.  But it can also be just what the doctor ordered.

In the pre-electronics age, a time quickly joining antiquity, my summer break from school was punctuated with boredom sometimes verging on physically painful.  Except for the annual two-week family vacation, my parents’ life went on as usual.  Entertaining us was not their job.  We could play, after all.  They worked.  Oh, they’d take us to the movies sometimes, the beach, someone’s pool.  My father might play ping pong or cards.  But essentially we were on our own.  They had zero sympathy for our plight.

Even with my big imagination and epic fantasy life, I could fall into a dull passivity that ached with the feeling I was owed distraction and entertainment.  On one hot mid-summer day, I sprawled out on the slope of the front lawn for all the neighborhood to see how utterly uncared-for I was.  I wanted aliens, traveling circus troupes or any sort of fun-lovers to rescue me with any sort of diverting jumper cables to spark my spoiled, entitled paralysis.  I imagine my mother glancing out the window, dishrag in hand, exasperated with her demanding daughter.  But it wasn’t her problem.

Since the naked ape became upright, kids have hated boredom so badly that it spurred them to act.  Get your own butt off that grass and get engaged in something.  When distractions are unavailable, curiosity will set in.  Besides passive rescue, what does your inner voice want?  What interests it?  Let that voice grow louder.  It has urges.  It has ideas.  It wonders…

One solution was to go find a friend.  But while my sisters had a wealth of playmates in our big-family neighborhood, the kids my age were all boys and no fun.

I liked making things.  Our world was full of tools, scrap wood, sand piles, dirt, water, and random junk for creating environments for imaginary beings or willing pets.

But sometimes the listlessness was so great, I resentfully gravitated towards books.  At summer’s start, books could feel like the school from which I’d been liberated.  In time though, literary adventures in foreign lands and unfamiliar times were a godsend.

Our local library ran summer competitions.  If you read a book and wrote a paragraph about it, assuring the librarians that you didn’t merely skim, they’d post it on corkboard walls put up for the purpose.  They gave prizes — the most books read, best writing, best handwriting, best illustration, best summary, best whatever.  Prizes included candy, because like constant entertainment, candy was also not then in constant supply.  The incentives worked.  Soon the neighborhood kids and I were all vying for the library’s honors.

Besides, the library building somehow stayed cool longer than others.  Comfortable seats looked out on a shady garden, also a pretty backdrop to daydreams.  I scanned the walls to admire my own paragraphs and to monitor the competition.  More than once I emerged from a story mortified to see my mother marching at me with pursed lips, wondering what happened to my promise to be home at such-and-such hour?

Oh I know. Books are passe.  They’re the sort of thing an older writer might mention as a cure for summer ennui.  But these days my electronic in-box is crammed with articles and despairful research on “summer learning loss,” all of which propose solving by giving kids a ton more school.  Yes, these days what most kids do in their downtime is largely brain deadening.  Still, the educational hand-wringers never suggest that the kids need time to build, roam, investigate, settle disputes with friends, invent games.  And they certainly never propose helping them develop pursuits of their own that could ignite curiosity into questions that a nice librarian might help with.  As an industry, Education accidently turned books into a colossal chore, when they really can be entertaining and just what kids want.  Books speak to and with that inner voice.  Video games, TV and texting just shut it out.

As a friend says: attention is currency; spend it wisely.  If good things — friends, construction materials and books are at hand — kids will marshal their own attention to concentrate in healthy ways.  These articles in my inbox are always looking to provide kids with improving experiences, when what they really need are safe neighborhoods with good libraries and fewer e-distractions, where they can invent themselves and worlds of their own.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Testing for Fun at School Would Improve Achievement

Published by — Finding a way to assess fun in the classroom could help re-center the balance between pleasure and work in schools.


Recently an early childhood educator got me and several hundred other people beautifully primed for learning – in about five minutes, ten tops.

Maryann Finamore, the Director of the Westbay Children’s Center in Rhode Island, was our teacher.  Granted, her technique would have grown old quickly with older audiences.  But this once it worked like gangbusters for a crowd expected to absorb a lecture with 52 Powerpoint slides.  No lie.  I have the stack.

After the obligatory funder and sponsor intros, Finamore uttered the dreaded words, “Stand up and choose a partner.”  Oy.  I tell people I left California so I never again had to hug people I don’t know.  I believe in highly-participatory educational activities, but for other people.

The woman sitting next to me and I exchanged frozen smiles, communicating an agreement to be good sports.  Finamore explained that we’d learn a clapping game, one of many that older children no longer pass down to younger ones.  Such traditions are now the province of formal education, if they’re maintained at all.

Among kids, the game is to go faster, gradually, until you’re going so fast, you mess up and burst into giggles.  We adults would merely learn it.  She demonstrated and then talked us through which hand connected with which of your partner’s.

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

To see what he could see, see, see.

But all that he could see, see, see

Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea sea.

We learned it, practiced it once.  And then an enormous lecture-hall-sized group of adults – politicians, educators, agency directors and God knows who else – clapped and sang our way through the ditty together.

Then the room erupted like newly-opened champagne.  People laughed and applauded, partly from relief that our dignity had survived, also from the sheer fun of playing.  As we settled into our seats again, I was keenly aware of my hit of dopamine, or whatever it is that tells you you’re feeling especially terrific.

I was profoundly ready to learn.  Mentally refreshed, as only a good laugh can do.  While everyone was getting settled, I marveled at the lack of research or public discussion about the importance of clearing the brain’s palate with a laugh, a break, a bit of fun. Surely kids would listen and participate more if their little pleasure principles had more frequent tastes of satisfaction.

I know two speakers who use memorably funny cartoons to make their points.  Both lecture on really dreary subjects – child abuse and statistical research – but still make their audiences laugh.

Normally, however, in my grim work examining the painful realities of American children’s education and well-being, I don’t expect a lecture to have a moment of fun.  Ms. Finamore made it look easy.  I sat there in my laughter buzz, wishing I could get a similar sensation to every kid, every day, in every classroom.

One goal of education is to spark curiosity, wonder and a hunger for knowledge.  How can that be done without pleasure?  What would be the kids’ motive to stick with the subject at hand?  No wonder all kids seem to care about is what’s going to be on the test.  In a recent study, students say loud and clear that the work is too easy; but if it were merely harder, and not more fun, they’d just balk at doing it.

So exactly when in a kid’s school day might she be getting a hit of pleasure?

To find out, I scoured Rhode Island’s annual opinions-and-perceptions survey, called SurveyWorks.  For years the state has been praised for having the nation’s best affective data, i.e., information submitted by parents, teachers, and kids about conditions that influence students’ ability to learn.  The survey looks closely at bullying, for example, and delves into issues of school safety with multiple questions for all parties.  It asks students about depression, wanting to hurt themselves, their drug and alcohol use.  Important information, to be sure.  But it largely examines negative conditions.

Where’s pleasure?  Curiosity?  Laughter?

Surely there’s some way of assessing fun.  Like:  In what class or activity are you most likely to laugh, have fun or get curious?  It can be done.  We can use surveys to find out more about what students are motivated to learn and why, what turns them on about academics and why.

Failure is not fun.  An occasional hit of school-based fun would reduce failure.

And that which gets measured gets done.  This has become a over-worn cliche.  But all states, and especially the federal department of education, have put more and more and more emphasis on achievement-test scores.  If tests help to close the drop-out factories and make it easier to shed ineffective teachers, fine.  But a punitive, test-driven school culture – gotcha! – is not what’s making Finland’s kids kick butt in the international assessments.

Finland’s schools make a point of balancing pleasure and work.  We could too.  And actually, that country doesn’t measure either achievement or pleasure.  If we measure the one, we owe it to the kids to measure the other.  Then as schools compete for high scores on the pleasure scale, I bet we’ll see test scores rise as well.

We’ve made learning way too dreary.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

, , , ,

Leave a comment