Why Research Says it’s Actually Good for Kids to Daydream

School has been in session for a couple of months now, but winter break is still weeks away. This is prime time for kids to start to be a little less focused, distracted, and perhaps even daydream during school time. In our culture of hyper-stimulation and constant information flow, the idea of daydreaming often get met with judgmental glances and even reprimand from teachers. While we all want our kids to focus on their school work, research suggests that there may be a valuable place for daydreaming as well.

In recent years, researchers have begun to look into what the brain does during these times of “day dreaming” or what they call “inward attention.” They are beginning to see how time spent focused inward may actually help students focus better on outward tasks. Some research has shown that when times of inward reflection were incorporated into the school day, students often became less anxious, performed better on tests, and were able to plan more effectively.

Time for inward reflection is also linked to social-emotional development. In order to understand the feelings of others, our own feelings, and gain insight into moral decision-making, allowing time of inward reflection is necessary. Kids’ brains are still quite immature in many ways. If time is not allowed for them to decompress from constant input and have time to actually make meaning of all the information they absorb, it will ultimately have no place in their lives in the long-term.

This idea of inward attention, of course, goes against much of our cultural atmosphere at this time. We are constantly bombarded by information, technology, screens, etc. Even for adults, this constant stimulation can be overwhelming, but for kids it can be paralyzing. I’ve seen examples of this in my own experience with youngsters. While volunteering in my son’s kindergarten class, I sometimes notice kids just staring off into space and not “paying attention.” While they may seem “unfocused” to the observer, I wonder if they are not just having a moment of this “inward attention” to help their brain re-group from all the stimulation.

Children are learning and absorbing information almost constantly, especially at school. It’s great to be able to allow them some time to just day dream or let their mind wander without having to worry about the end product. I have noticed this even with my 3-year-old. After playing for a while, he will often just lay down and drink something or hold a toy, seemingly “doing nothing.” After a few minutes, however, he will perk up and say something clever or begin playing in a new way. It seems that, given the opportunity, kids will carve out this “day dreaming” time for themselves.

If this time of inward attention is so important for children’s development, how can we allow space for this in our homes?

  • Allow time after school for kids to “decompress” from the day without other forms of stimulation (e.g., TV, tablets, etc.)
  • Allow for quiet time on a regular basis. Kids may resist this at first, but once it becomes routine they usually learn to enjoy it. They can read books or play quietly with toys but the overall goal is time without a set goal or schedule.
  • Time in nature can often promote inward attention. Allow kids plenty of time to be outside, go for hikes or just play in the leaves.
  • Promote a mindset of reflection in your home. Recognize that not everything you or your child does has to be productive. This goes against what our culture tells us, but it’s possible. Your child spending an hour playing in the leaves or sitting in their room daydreaming is not “wasted time.”

We all know the importance of children learning to focus their attention on tasks or assignments. In fact, the ability to focus on a task and persist when it gets difficult has been linked to many positive outcomes for kids. An inward focus, however, may be equally important for children to help develop these focusing skills, as well as develop social-emotional skills.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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