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Naps Help Kids Learn

When young kids take naps at school, they learn more.

Though preschool children often nap when they are home, increasing pressure to pump more knowledge into our kids’ heads is leading many schools to cut nap time. Does it matter? As most parents have experienced, naps go hand in hand with a reduction in kids’ crankiness and fussiness, but there is more. New research published a few months ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that naps help kids take what they have learned earlier in the day and commit it to memory. In short, naps help kids learn.

Scientists have known for some time that sleep can enhance learning in adults. This learning is thought to occur, at least in part, because the storage and retrieval of recent memories becomes more streamlined and efficient—a process known as consolidation—during sleep. Yet, whether or not sleep, and specifically naps, aids learning in young kids is somewhat of an unknown. 

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Enter Bekki Spencer and her research team at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Spencer wanted to understand whether in-class naps benefit learning in preschool children. And, as she discusses in her recent article, her findings have significant implications for how we think about structuring the nursery school day.

To study the effect of naps, the U Mass researchers had kids play a game similar to the popular board game, Memory. Kids learned the spatial locations of between 9 to 12 pictures of items on a grid on a computer screen—pictures of an umbrella or a hammer for instance. Then, one of the items from the grid was presented and children were asked to locate the item by pointing to where it was on the screen. Children learned the game in the morning. In the afternoon, children had nap time where they were either encouraged to nap or to stay awake. In both the nap and wake conditions, the room was darkened and quiet and children were allocated to individual cots or mats. Children in the wake condition were given quiet activities that encouraged them to stay awake. Kids in the nap condition were soothed to fall asleep by foot or back rubbing. Recall for the Memory game was tested shortly after nap time and recall was tested once again the following morning.

Strikingly, following nap time, children who slept remembered 10 percent more of the picture locations in the Memory game than children who had stayed awake instead.

Could these results simply be due to the fact that the kids that stayed awake were just more tired or restless when their memories were tested after nap time? Spencer and her team don’t think so as the memory benefits of napping remained the next day—after all of the kids had a good night sleep. Also, when Spencer and her team recorded the sleep patterns of kids napping in a separate laboratory study, they found that changes in memory because of sleep were related to sleep spindle density (brief bursts of activity in the brain during certain periods of sleep that is believed to play a role in committing information to memory). Sleep seems to help kids retain what they learned. It’s also unlikely that the activities kids did in the wake group interfered with what they had learned in the Memory game. This is because all of the children in the study were awake for several hours and took part in lots of activities between the time they first played the game and when their memory was tested after nap time.

Simply put, naps help kids remember what they learned earlier in the day. Before we cut out naps in school so we can cram more “learning” into the school day, we should think carefully about what we are doing. We may unknowingly be creating conditions that lead to less learning rather than more. Maybe we should think about adding a forth R to the classic Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic—Rest.

For more on how to think, learn, and perform at our best, check out my book “Choke

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Laura Kurdziela, Kasey Duclosb, and Rebecca Spencer (2013). Sleep spindles in midday naps enhance learning in preschool children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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