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How Daydreaming Helps Children Process Information and Explore Ideas

Is your child a daydreamer?

For the most part, children are natural, prolific, and happy daydreamers, and the process plays an important role in their developing lives. Too often, however, parents and teachers are quick to label daydreaming as a symptom of an Attention Deficit Disorder or the sign of a slacker in the making. A new study finds that "positive-constructive" daydreaming, even when heavy in pattern, is not related to psychological disorders as some have previously thought, but rather is a normal activity that reflects the daydreamer's imaginative tendencies and enjoyment of daydreaming.

There's actually a substantial amount of research connecting daydreaming in children with creativity, healthy social adjustment, and good school performance. A recent New Zealand study has found that imaginary friends benefit children's language skills and may also boost their performance at school. There's also research that says that children who don't get enough down time to daydream or who fill in their down time with too much television produce works that are "tedious and unimaginative."

This ties in with what psychologists Jerome and Dorothy Singer have found in their extensive study of the topic of children and daydreaming--that daydreaming and the acting out of these daydreams in make-believe games serve an important information-processing function. Children are trying to understand complex emotions and events for which they don't have the life experiences, so they fill in the gaps by making up stories that parallel real situations, which to me seems nothing short of brilliant.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about a two-year-old girl who talked to herself extensively before falling asleep as her brain glided into the alpha wave state associated with daydreaming. The parents recorded what they thought were fascinating conversations and turned the transcripts over to linguists. "What they found," writes Gladwell, "was that Emily's conversations with herself were more advanced than her conversations with her parents. . . . She was making up stories, narratives, that explained and organized the things that happened to her. . . . a process that is a critical part of a child's mental development."

This is obviously different from the seven-year-old with schizophrenia who has hundreds of imaginary friends and who was recently featured on The Oprah Show. Hallucinations and delusions are very different from daydreams. People, including children, know that they are daydreaming, fantasizing, or play-acting, and can snap out of it at will or via a distraction from the external world. Those suffering from hallucinations or delusions believe what they are experiencing is real, when obviously it's not.

Daydreams also have a big social component--allowing children to imagine conversations and events and thus gain both social skills and empathy for others. Researchers have also found that children who can spin an imaginative story around whatever game they're involved in are more likely to play happily and for extended periods of time versus those children who can't seem to engage in extended imaginary play. This latter child may play with blocks--but if he can't weave a narrative to keep him engaged he may soon grow bored and start looking around for something more interesting to do--like knocking down his neighbor's fantasy castle. So in this example, it's not daydreaming per se that appears to lead to the inability to stay engaged but quite possibly the opposite--the inability to invoke and stay engaged in a prolonged imaginary narrative that seems to be the source of the problem.

This is a contentious topic. Attention Deficit Disorders and their symptoms and solutions are complex and open to great debate. I'm simply suggesting that the tendency for children to daydream is natural and has many positive attributes, so we should think twice before having a knee-jerk reaction to a child who is a heavy daydreamer. A tendency to daydream--though it may be one symptom of an Attention Deficit Disorder--does not automatically equal a problem with paying attention when necessary or completing tasks. A child who enjoys daydreaming could well be a budding scientist, writer, artist, or visionary entrepreneur.

It may seem odd or a paradox, but children (and adults) can actually focus on their daydreams, and some of these daydreams may be more inventive and ultimately more useful than the task at hand. So let's not be quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Daydreams are a highly creative form of mental engagement and a necessary way for children--lacking real-world experience--to process complex information and emotions.

© Amy Fries
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About the Author
Amy Fries

Amy Fries is a writer and editor. She is the author of Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers.

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