About 15 years ago I taught a class of fifth graders with a really interesting mix of students. One group of students came from homes that did not have a television. Those children took music lessons, played organized sports and read constantly. Most of the others in the class came from homes with more than one television and came in from weekends talking about hanging out at the mall and seeing movies like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Watching my students out at recess, the first group tended to play with one another inventing their own games.
The others tended to separate into boys and girls and either played organized sports like basketball or simply walked around and talked. When it came time for our science fair in the spring the first group had lots of ideas of experiments they wanted to run while the second group needed me to provide ideas. Of course I am oversimplifying and making generalizations but it was fascinating to see some clear differences in everything from the students’ schoolwork to how they played and socialized.
Recently I read a couple of articles that brought that year of my teaching to mind. These articles talked about the importance of teaching daydreaming. The problem is that if we are watching television or movies, hanging with our friends at the mall, texting our friends, reading a friend’s status on Facebook, or playing a video game, we are not creating the conditions conducive to teaching daydreaming. And that list of activities is what fills the free time of many of our students today. Looking back at that class of fifth graders I can guess which group had more quiet time and space to allow their minds to wander and which group kept their minds constantly entertained and distracted from deep internal and reflective thought.
Reading that daydreaming is so important struck me as ironic because we spend so much time telling our students to focus. We educators know that learning to focus is really important but what I didn’t know is that we become better able to focus on external stimuli if we regularly engage in daydreaming. According to researchers quoted in one article if we are able to become lost in our own internal thoughts, we are better prepared to focus on the external world when we need to do so. I had never thought of my daydreaming as being important brain training before!
The other article, cleverly entitled “Day Dream Achiever”, discusses how the invention of the Post-it note was a result of teaching daydreaming about how to keep a place in a hymnal at church instead of focusing on the preacher’s sermon. The article points out that daydreaming allows us to imagine things as they might be, not as they are, which is the crux of creativity and innovation. But the article brings up one key qualifier. The daydreamer has to be aware of the daydreaming. That really caught my attention.
I sat there and started asking myself a string of questions about how we might help our students daydream in school. After all that internal questioning this is what I conclude. If our students do not all naturally engage in daydreaming and if daydreaming is actually important for them personally and academically then we need to teach them about it and have them practice it.
Perhaps their homework once a week is to spend one hour where they are not using any electronic device or talking to anyone else and to journal about what happened during that hour. If daydreaming is most useful when the dreamer knows s/he is doing it, we need to train our students to be aware when their minds are drifting. If we require students write down some of their daydreaming thoughts in a journal they may catch some important thoughts and be better able to self-monitor when they do drift off during something to which they know they really do need to be paying attention.
It may seem counterintuitive to teach daydreaming in school but if it creates learners who are more creative, more self aware and better able to focus, I am all for it.