Mind Wonder

Never stop a daydreamer – because mental downtime makes kids more creative and less anxious.

‘You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one,’ John Lennon sang to us beautifully. His words also highlighted why we need people like him – artists, castle builders, romantics, and idealists – to enrich our lives and make the world a better place.

But if your child is a daydreamer, always somewhere between here and there with their head up in the sky, seemingly ready to fly away, you may worry they’ll never fit into our goal-oriented society. Daydreaming, which is allowing the mind to wander without concentrating on one particular mental activity, has received bad press for years. Kids who draw flowers in their notebooks are usually called fanciful or flaky, or, as we’re increasingly seeing, being sent for a behavioural disorder assessment.

But fortunately for these gentle, artistic souls, both science and society are starting to understand that mind-wandering – if not to the extreme – has beautiful cognitive and emotional benefits. If you look closely, nature designed us to dream – and the sisters of daydreaming are self-reflection and meditation. In his book, Daydreaming: An Introduction to the Experimental Study of Inner Experience, legendary American psychologist Jerome L Singer actually calls daydreaming “our default mental state”. As he observes, all humans have two mental networks, working memory and daydreaming, and these cannot operate simultaneously, nor can the two of them work all the time – even brain circuits need respite. Singer’s numerous studies note that daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom and encourage people to rehearse and plan real-life scenarios. It is also an ongoing source of pleasure that reduces stress.

In his brilliant book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Emily, a two-year-old girl who – as her parents discovered – talked to herself before falling asleep as her brain moved into the alpha wave state – synonymous with daydreaming. Her parents were first worried. Then, after consulting with a psychologist, they started to record and transcribe her sleepy conversations. What they discovered was beyond fascinating. Her bedtime monologues turned out to be much more sophisticated than her daily, waking-life chats. At night, she was practising complex mental thoughts, new words and narratives that she’d heard and learnt during the day.

Dr Fiona Kerr, a scientist at Adelaide University and founder of The NeuroTech Institute, confirms that the simple act of looking up and around – at the streets and cities, at the sky, trees or the horizon – enriches us, because it quite literally lights up our brains. “When we put our phones down, we allow our minds to enter the state of abstraction called ‘daydreaming’. It is conducive for creative concepts, complex problem solving and new insights. Thanks to this little practice, our brain learns to put information together in new ways to find solutions, whilst also improving our capacity to think.”

As Michael Pollan writes soulfully in his book, A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams: “Daydreaming does not enjoy tremendous prestige in our culture, which tends to regard it as unproductive thought. Yet anyone who reads for pleasure should prize it too, for what is reading a good book but a daydream at second-hand? Unlike any other form of thought, daydreaming is its own reward.”

So let’s reframe thinking about mind-wandering. When your kids seem engrossed in their own world, seemingly idle and unproductive, imagine all the juicy, creative processes happening in the background. Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang calls it “a constructive internal reflection vital to learning and emotional wellbeing”. In other words, our little daydreamers are busy exploring their wonderful minds and we should be proud of them.

How to stimulate your child’s imagination

Encourage tech-less daydreaming: Instead of snapping our kids out of mind wander, we should protect this mental downtime. For bigger kids, let them go outside for a walk without any devices. For smaller kids, take away their plethora of toys and let them practise a bit of idleness.

Acknowledge the benefits: Tell your kids that silence, boredom and daydreaming are as important to their health as studying and learning. Be mindful of their schedules and try to not overpack them with out-of-school activities.

Be a role model: If we want our kids to embrace mental downtime, we have to show them how to enjoy being less productive. You can lay quietly by their beds when they fall asleep, invite them to watch the waves with you on the beach, or organise silent nature walks without devices – phones, music or cameras – as a new family routine.

Teach them meditation: No other practice opens us up for wonderful, unhindered thought wandering than meditation. It doesn’t have to be complicated, overly staged or structured. Simply show your kids how to pause, stop and be aware of their surroundings. Whenever you find yourself with a spare moment – after the swim at the beach, in the checkout line or waiting in the car – ask them to join you in a simple pause. If they’re not familiar with meditation, you can all tune into your five senses and share what you notice with one another (‘I can see’, ‘I can smell’, ‘I can hear’). Later, just practise sitting together in silence.

Alex Reszelska

Alex Reszelska is a Sydney-based, Polish-born writer, journalist and Japanologist.

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