We all know the stereotypical image⏤the child sitting in the back of the classroom, staring out the window, their mind wandering. We often call it daydreaming. Maybe they are imagining figures of animals in the clouds outside the window or thinking about what they’ll have for dinner tonight. Whatever the content of their daydreaming, it means their mind is not focused on the lesson at hand. 

In many settings, mind wandering has a negative connotation, especially in regards to learning. How can a child learn anything if their mind is somewhere else? Although mind wandering can be problematic in some settings, research is showing us how mind wandering might also have cognitive and creative benefits for children and adults.

In our busy, often overstimulated world, it’s hard to imagine children having any time that they are not mentally attending to something ⏤ a video, an electronic device, or even a book or lesson. But what if allowing a little mind wandering can actually improve their learning and creativity? Finding some balance between helping children focus their attention and allowing for mind wandering might be the best of both worlds. 

The Benefits of Mind Wandering

If you find it hard to keep your mind focused on your task at hand, you are not alone. Studies find that humans spend up to half their waking hours mind wandering. This makes us wonder if perhaps mind wandering actually serves an evolutionary or cognitive purpose. Scientists have wondered about this question as well. For years, they have delved into individuals’ experiences of mind wandering to try to understand it better. 

One thing is clear ⏤ not all mind wandering is the same. Mind wandering encompasses any task-unrelated thoughts, but that doesn’t mean all these thoughts are frivolous. Some mind wandering consists of planning for the future, while other types are more emotionally charged ⏤ that is, worrying or ruminating about events or choices. Then, of course, there is the type of mind wandering we typically think about, which is just unfocused, random thoughts.

Regardless of which type, mind wandering does seem to have some cognitive benefits for adults and children. One of the most well-documented benefits is creativity. Just like the image of the “absent-minded” professor who makes amazing scientific discoveries, some degree of mind wandering can help individuals see new, creative solutions to problems or develop creative ideas. Even among children, mind wandering and “daydreaming” are associated with greater creativity.

The reason for this link between mind wandering and creativity seems to be in large part due to how these task-unrelated thoughts help your brain access new, unrelated information. By bringing in new information, individuals can now access new, creative ideas that were previously unreachable.

Mind wandering may also help with planning. If time spent allowing one’s mind to wander involves thinking about future events (or even possible events), this may help the person prepare and plan for the event better.

Helping Children

The Downsides to Mind Wandering

Despite its benefits, mind wandering also has some downsides. In general, it has been linked to many of the things we probably typically think of when it comes to “daydreaming” ⏤ poor academic performance, impulsivity, and even traffic accidents. In children, mind wandering is mostly studied in regards to academic skills or social-emotional characteristics. Specifically, mind wandering has been linked to poor reading comprehension in children. It’s easy to see why this might be the case. When reading, it is not uncommon for children to view the words but not really comprehend the text if their minds are wandering (we’ve all had that happen). Mind wandering while reading seems to lead to slower reading, and “mindless reading,” all of which compromise reading comprehension.

We know that self-esteem, or self-concept, is another important factor for children’s well-being and initiative. Thus, it’s worth considering the role that mind wandering might play in the development of children’s self-concept, especially regarding academics. If children are not doing well in school due to mind wandering, this hypothetically might also influence their self-concept. Scientists have recently considered this question. They find that indeed, children with higher rates of mind wandering do report worse self-concept, especially regarding academic performance. Scholars argue that this may occur because children receive negative feedback from teachers regarding their mind wandering and its impact on their academic performance. As a result, their academic self-concept may suffer.

Finding the Balance

Given the pros and cons of mind wandering, it seems clear that finding a balance between helping a child focus their attention and allowing for some mind wandering is key. In order to focus on important tasks like schoolwork, children need downtime at other times in their routine to allow for mind wandering. Here are a few tips that parents can use to help children focus when attention is required of them:

  • Teach strategies for reducing distractions–Helping children learn how to limit external distractions can be a helpful first step to limiting mind wandering. This might include turning off devices, limiting clutter or toys when working, or closing eyes when focusing on a hard problem.
  • Encourage real breaks–Some children try to work ineffectively for hours with the thought that they are being productive. Instead, encourage them to take meaningful, restorative breaks. These breaks have to be long enough to allow their brains to switch gears and, ideally, not include electronic devices. Activities like exercise, stretching, or going outside can provide a way for children to really refresh their brains.
  • Ensure good sleep habits–Most parents know that a lack of sleep can make children irritable, but it can also make it more difficult for children to focus. Encouraging healthy sleep habits and adequate sleep is crucial to children’s ability to focus and their minds not to wander excessively.
  • Allow for regular downtime–Sometimes children can end up with very busy schedules. Allowing children to have intentional downtime with few expectations can give them time for their minds to wander freely. This provides an opportunity for the benefits of mind wandering to still be seen without compromising children’s academics.

Although we know now that mind wandering is not completely without merit, helping children learn how to focus when necessary and manage mind wandering is a useful life skill. Once children understand that they have the power to control their thoughts and attention, they will be empowered and well-prepared to study.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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