Montessori: Benign Neglect and Boredom

May 20, 2019


One of the biggest takeaways from my Montessori training course way back in 2004-05 was the concept of benign neglect. Benign neglect describes the moment when we are just hands-off enough to give our children the space, time and freedom necessary for exploration, curiosity and learning -  without it being unsafe in any way. Our lecturer gave an example of a little baby she had seen on the bus several days prior. The baby's mom was sitting with her baby on her lap, deep in thought staring out the window, and while the mother zoned out, her baby leaned forward and starting mouthing the pole just in front of their seat. Germophobes might not consider this benign neglect, but a baby's way of understanding the world is to put things in their mouth, something adults are always stopping them from doing. Most of the time, this is necessary and protects the child from choking or other harm. But in this case, without the mom's interference, the baby was able to explore and learn and it probably did not result in any harm later. Make sense?

For the last two or three months, I have had so many moms at work, or school pick-up, or at the park ask me which camps and activities we've signed our kids up for this summer. Without fail they all gasp when I reply that we haven't signed them up for any! Even other couples who are both in education and therefore are both home all summer long are amazed that we don't have our kids fully booked. "Everything is filling up!" they say, "August will be smoky and you don't want to be stuck at home entertaining your kids!" is another popular one. "Kids get so bored in the summer - save yourself!" is another common refrain.

Usually I keep my mouth shut, because I don't want to be that "Montessori mom" who deprives her children in other people's eyes, but finally I just said to a mom last week that I want my kids to be bored in the summer. She looked a little concerned, so I went on to explain that children need to have huge chunks of unstructured, unscheduled time during which adults are not facilitating and dictating their every move, or activity, or idea. This boredom is the only way a child human being can learn to listen to the whispers of intrinsic motivation inside their own brain and soul and begin to discover their own interests. Research on Theta brainwaves, the state that our minds enter into when we're meditating, or in flow, shows that children from 0-7 are almost constantly in a Theta state in their brains. That means this is the most powerful time in one's life to discover and learn and get to know oneself, a task made impossible by too much adult interference and direction.

In the photo above, J had taken Coco and Theo on a hike and set up the hammock. He lay in the hammock and read a book while Coco and Theo found themselves with nothing to do. As frequent recipients of benign neglect, they got down to business without prompting and concocted a game of sticks and twigs that, while incomprehensible to any adult within earshot, was riveting and compelling to them. They focused their full attention on their game and had a great time for nearly an hour until it was time to go and J snapped this photo.

In the article, "Why Free Play is the Best Summer School," from the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, author Jessica Lahey writes,
Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health.
I could not agree more. In interviews, David Lynch often credits his early childhood in Spokane, which was filled with wandering around the Ponderosas, daydreaming, as a huge source of his creativity. And he has devoted himself to transcendental meditation, which mimics the Theta brain state of early childhood, boosting creativity and imagination. This is not a coincidence.

It's not always easy to provide this beneficial boredom for children. Sometimes on the weekends, once J and I are up and have turned off the television and confiscated the iPad (parents have got to sleep, you know?!;) Coco and Theo will whine and moan and gripe that they have nothing to do. We acknowledge that it's true that they have nothing to do and then suggest that they find something to do. Sometimes the whining goes on for a long time. It feels like forever because it's hard to listen to and really annoying. But we stay the course! It's a matter of staying consistent and forcing them to push through the boredom and into flow. They find flow in drawing and clay, puttering around the garden, Legos, and blocks. Theo is a huge fan of walking around the backyard singing and looking up at the trees. Coco gets completely absorbed in dollhouse play. And once, when she was a baby, she played with a single blade of grass with such intensity and focus for over half an hour.

This is not to say that we don't do things together, like bake cookies, or watch movies, or dye Easter eggs with our kids. We do. In those activities, we are the adults in charge, facilitating and directing our children. But I definitely do not see it as my job to do those things all the time, or to keep my children entertained. Quite the opposite! This summer, my children will be bored, and it will be good for them.

What's your approach to summer - free play and boredom, or scheduled and planned-out activities? Why do you do summer the way you do?

Join the conversation!

  1. THIS! I agree 1000%. We are the exact same way. Friends, neighbors and parents at the playground think I'm nuts for not doing all the camps. I am not Montessori trained, but because of a very close family friend (who is a Montessori teacher) I have read quite a bit about Maria Montessori and her methods (and have loved your posts on Montessori). Additionally, I homeschool my 7 and 5 year old, and my youngest (who is 2) has Down syndrome so I've been trying to read a lot about cognitive development and how children learn. Anyway, I came across Peter Gray, who is a professor and researcher at Boston College. He has written quite a few articles on Psychology Today that are very eye-opening. I highly recommend looking him up and reading some of his pieces. His book "Free to Learn" has been sitting in my Amazon cart for a few months. I just need to pull the trigger :). Either way, we're actually really harming our kids' cognitive and social/emotional development with all these camps and managed activities, on top of pushing academics at too early an age. So much more I could say. Thank you for posting about this!

    Also, glad to see that you're posting more ;).

    -Roxana

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    1. Oh, thank you, Roxana! I have heard of Dr. Gray and I will definitely find some articles and resources. I appreciate the recommendation. I am going to see if our library has Free to Learn right now! xx

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  2. We do a mix. My 2 end up fighting a lot if we have too much time just the 2 of them. So I interspersed weeks with swimming lessons or day camps and weeks with nothing planned where they can just putter in the garden or the house or on outings with lots of unstructured time.

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    1. Oh yes, The fighting is the absolute worst. I'm still working on that one...the struggle is real! And yes to swimming lessons. That is SO important, not just an activity.

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  3. Oh I love this! I was JUST having this conversation with my sister when we visited them in Portland. I have long admired how creative my two nieces are - they’re always making up some fun game, doing arts and crafts, reading, playing together or separate. I was asking my sister how she instilled that in them, and she spoke to this very concept, although not in a formalized away. She just said that when they were younger and they would say “I’m bored”, she would always just say “well I’m sure you’ll find something to do.” And they did! They are two of the most fun, creative, interesting girls that I know, and I hope to be able to instill the same thing in Sam. Yes, we will always plan to do stuff together as a family, but I also want him to use his mind, and to feel comfortable with space, quiet, and the ability to think for himself. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I love the way you describe it as space, quiet and the ability to think for himself. EXACTLY!I'm so happy this resonated with you, Christy. xoxo

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  4. I love this. I also struggle a lot with it. My two children are so different, and still so young, at nearly-2 and 4; they seem perfectly designed to ruin each other's lives, sometimes! My older son was always very clingy and only got reliably good at "playing alone" when he was almost 4. Now he likes to play in very involved, world-building ways - painstakingly setting up every single figurine on the pirate ship, building delicate forts, etc. My younger guy is an absolute tornado of disaster. All he wants in the world is to destroy things - all the things. He's also very clingy right now as well, but on the off chance that I can get both kids to stop clinging to me at the same time, inevitably it only lasts for 2 minutes before the younger guy absolutely wrecks the older one's things. Then the older one is screaming and crying, the younger hits (under the strong belief that the best defense is a good offense), and there goes the next 15 minutes of all our lives.

    I have tried to separate them but it's hard because our main floor at home is open-plan - no separate rooms - and the older one doesn't want to be all the way upstairs in his room when the younger guy and I are downstairs. He isn't 5 yet and he still really prefers to play near the "main action" overall. For a while I got dog-pen gates and blocked off a "play area" for the older guy, who can operate the gate door, so he could go in there and play without the younger one ruining his stuff. But he found it cumbersome and restrictive, to have to lug all the random toys or figurines into the dog-gate door (trying to do it before the lightning-fast toddler gets in, too), plus the younger one just stands there at the gate screaming - for literally 30 minutes on end, which just makes it hard to play (and hard on me, too!).

    I try to tell myself that this stage of life feels endless but will actually be brief. Someday, my younger son will have more self-control, or will be interested in building rather than just knocking down, or will even learn some pro-social behavior and start parallel playing or whatever. But it just feels so hopeless sometimes!

    So! I send my older guy to a half-day camp most of the summer, at his school. I like knowing that he gets three hours a day without his brother hassling him, and I like the camp - he goes to a quasi-forest school and the camp is mostly just playing outside, largely in undirected ways. Then he comes home and we fill the afternoon in various ways, sometimes with direction and sometimes just hanging out. That allows me to give a good block of one-on-one time to my younger guy, too, which (I hope, eventually) leads him to be less clingy in the rest of the day. Here's hoping, lol.

    Pro tip: if you have a clingy child, this is something I found helpful in "teaching" my older son to play on his own. I would bring something that kept my hands busy and do it near him while he played, kind of like a mimicry of parallel play. I would often fold laundry or do similar tasks, near him while he built with blocks or whatever. I'd talk to him when he spoke to me but as he got further into his task, he got more absorbed, and we talked less. It was a great "intro to playing alone" for a kid who needed it!

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    1. The days are long, but the years are short! Oh my, you're really in the thick of this current phase and I see you, Alexandra. This is tough stuff and it's okay to be frustrated. I think your plan of the 1/2 day forest school is perfect. There are not a ton of them, but programs that are positive and give children these types of boredom/benign neglect/creativity building opportunities do exist, and it sounds like you've got one. Hooray for all of you! Like you said, everyone wins and gets their needs met with this arrangement and that is like gold. Hang in there, mama. This too shall pass, and like you said, quicker than you think. Later, you'll only remember the good stuff, which is strange and sort of baffling. It is actually a source of mom guilt for me when I look back and wonder why I wasn't HAPPIER. Ugh, that word. Happy. :( So thank you for reminding me of the other side of life at your current phase. I literally only remember the sweet parts now! I hope that you will experience the same, minus the mom guilt component! xx

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  5. Girrrrl! Yes to all of this. I am so looking forward to this summer because I actually have some time off. I asked my son what he wanted to do this summer, and he said, "Go to the beach, ride bikes, play at the park, and go to the forest." Sounds good to me! So that's our plan!

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    1. His list is spot on! I'm so glad you have time off. Let's do summer. :) xx

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