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The Importance of Productive Solitude

The virtues of solitude have been extolled for centuries. As Pascal said, "All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone."

Yet somewhere in the 20th century, the idea of solitude became confused with loneliness and both became something people learned to avoid. In fact, Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, blames the shift on the “cult of personality” which overtook our former emphasis on development of character. She argues that now our school and workplace cultures are so pro-extrovert that we’re discounting the value of introverts and the value of productive solitude.

"Solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity," says Cain, "From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude… An interesting line of research by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist suggests that the most creative people in many fields are usually introverts. This is probably because introverts are comfortable spending time alone, and solitude is a crucial (and underrated) ingredient for creativity.”

Cain often cites a study from the Department of Psychology, University of Texas, which reinforces the intuitive idea that thinking solo might lead to more creativity. The research found that group brainstorming did not produce the best ideas and that instead people working alone generated a larger number of unique and creative thoughts.

This issue only seems to be more pronounced here in the 21st century, as we all stay surrounded by the noise of always “on” smartphones with constant access to the cloud and everyone on it.

Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology, and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book Alone Together wants us all to consider embracing solitude again, especially because of today’s always “on” digital culture.

“If we don’t have experience with solitude—and this is often the case today—we start to equate loneliness and solitude,” says Turkle, “This reflects the impoverishment of our experience. If we don’t know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness.”

Solitude, and being comfortable within it, is especially crucial for children and adolescents. The intuitive reasons for a quieted mind in children are logical—they will be better able to focus, be more creative, and find emotional stability and peace via mindfulness.

As discussed in the New York Times article “The Child, The Tablet and The Developing Mind” we must give children opportunities to be alone, and even restless, with their thoughts and imaginations so they learn to become comfortable with themselves and learn to make genuine connections with others.

Again, Sherry Turkle weighs in, saying, “Learning about solitude and being alone is the bedrock of early development, and you don’t want your kids to miss out on that because you’re pacifying them with a device…If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”

Learning to be alone, in productive and comfortable solitude, is especially important for adolescents. It turns out teenagers, who spent time alone before the intrusion of smartphones and tablets, were greatly benefiting from much needed solitude.

In the article “The Emergence of Solitude as a Constructive Domain of Experience in Early Adolescence” child development expert, Reed Larson, says, “The findings show that for seventh through ninth graders, solitude had a positive after-effect on emotional state. Also, adolescents who spent an intermediate amount of their time alone were better adjusted than those who spent little or a great deal of time alone. As a whole, the findings suggest that in early adolescence solitude comes to have a more constructive role in daily life as a strategic retreat that complements social experience.”

This is certainly a primary reason why Waldorf education discourages the use of technology, especially for very young and elementary school children. Refraining from media and technology helps children develop their natural imagination without influence from external forces. And while social skills and classroom cohesion are often prioritized, Waldorf education also encourages children to spend time engaged in solo creative thought.

Fiber arts, woodworking, and painting are three primary examples of activities that require longer stretches of time for students to work quietly alone. This not only helps strengthen focus and concentration, but promotes mindfulness on the task at hand, which quiets the mind. As the research implies, this is a life skill with many far-reaching benefits in both education and overall wellbeing.

Photo credit: Swallowtail Waldorf School and Farm

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Essentials In Education: exploring topics that matter to educators, researchers, policy experts, and thought leaders - from a Waldorf education perspective.