Recently, on an otherwise fine day, my 8-year-old son, Anton, rushed in front of me and announced, "I'm bored!" My response was immediate: I stared at him incredulously.
Aren't children supposed to be immune to boredom? Their energy level and natural curiosity should inspire them to unending creative play. Think of the limitless possibilities in the mundane and practical: pots and pans become drums; mist on a window becomes a drawing board; rainfalls are opportunities for jumping in puddles; a caterpillar on a branch is as captivating as a shooting star.
Boredom? Perish the thought. As a child I was never bored. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in urban New Jersey. How did I stay active and engaged? Let me count the ways.
We had a tall sycamore growing along the street in front of our house. The lowest branch was just within my grasp, so up I went - the Tarzan of the Apes of Van Nostrand Avenue. Before long my friends joined me, and company is seldom so pleasant as when it occurs high up in the leaves of a summer tree.
When it rained - and we had tremendous thunderstorms - the curbs raced and boiled with runoff. We seized sticks, balls, leaves - anything that would float - and set them on the water so we could watch them course away.
Street games abounded. Stickball, dodge ball, stoop ball, touch football, anything ball. Sometimes we played into the night, until our parents had to drag us from the streets. In winter, I built snow tunnels and went sledding. In the fall, I made leaf piles to dive into. On those days when the weather did not permit outdoor activity, I stayed inside and drew pictures of things I'd like to be doing outside, dousing the scenes with glitter.
I stacked blocks, made squadrons of paper airplanes, lined up toy soldiers, watched the "Three Stooges," planted corn kernels in paper cups, read comic books, tended my coin and stamp collections, counted baseball cards, painted shells I'd collected at the Jersey shore, picked at my guitar, wrestled with my brother, allowed my pet turtle to walk up my arm, teased the cat with string, brushed my hair in a funny way, made hand puppets out of paper bags - and this is just my short list.
When I suggest any of these activities to Anton he looks terribly disappointed in me, as if discovering for the first time that his father is imperfect after all. I smile as I think of our computer and the other gizmos that are supposed to inspire creativity, but actually require little of a child's imagination. How much creativity is involved in responding to electronic cues?
Years ago, while taking a woodworking course, I made it a practice to save the sawed-off odds and ends from my projects. I'd sand the edges smooth and then throw them in a box at home. When Anton told me he was bored, I suggested he build something with the blocks, but his response was an exaggerated yawn.
Without another word, I hauled the box out and dumped its contents onto the living room floor. And then I sat, cross-legged, and began to sort and stack. Anton watched from the doorway.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Building the tallest tower of blocks in the world. No one can build one higher than me."
My son's eyes caught fire. "Oh, yeah?" he proclaimed by way of accepting the challenge.
We began to stack our blocks. Every so often a tower fell, but that, too, was fodder for inspiring new directions in our designs. I looked on as my son, his eyes focused and his tongue wedged between his teeth, applied himself to the task. After a short while I slowly, quietly got up and tended to other business. When I checked on Anton 10 minutes later, he was still building, having gone from simple towers to houses and forts. Fifteen minutes after that, he was still at it, kneeling in the middle of a world of his own making.
Poet William Stafford once said that sitting down to write is like starting a car on wet ice. But once you get going, it's hard to stop. That must be the way it is with dispelling boredom. Sometimes one simply needs a push - and off you go.