When a child daydreams, where do they go?

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‘What planet are they on?’ we mutter in exasperation.

A child gazing out of the window can be a heart-sinking moment for a teacher or parent.

We educators like to think everything we place before our pupils is engaging and stimulating but there will always be someone who mentally ‘checks out’ from time to time.

A better question to ask might be, ‘Where do they go when they do that?’

A place of their own invention, where they make the rules? A mental play-park when the expectations of the real world are too demanding? Or not demanding enough?

It can be frustrating when a child disappears into this other world. We feel they are wasting time, not paying attention to the task in hand or even failing to show respect. But does this frustration stem from the fact that we are excluded from this inner world? A place where we have no control?

Why do children make the choice (supposing it is a choice) to ‘step out’ for a while?

Here are some possibilities:

-reflecting on events taking place at school or at home

-anticipating events to come (looking forward to or dreading)

-not feeling engaged with the task in hand

-not feeling part of the group/community

-thinking about potential projects or ideas

These might prompt us to ask – Could we do more to engage them in ongoing projects? Is there a reason they don’t feel part of the group? Is something happening elsewhere that is making them unhappy or stressed?

Alternatively, they are thinking through their own plans and projects, ongoing or unfulfilled.

Jonathon Smallwood, in ‘The Benefits of Daydreaming’: ‘when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing.’

In  ‘The Power of Daydreaming’, by Amy Fries it states ‘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 in hand.’

Children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are frequent daydreamers. Research from the University of Nottingham, highlighted in ‘Daydream Switch Stays on in ADHD’ (Lindsay Brooke-Nottingham) explains: ‘Children with ADHD have difficulty switching off the default mode network (DNM) in their brains. This network is usually active when we are doing nothing, giving rise to spontaneous thoughts or ‘daydreams’, but it is suppressed when we are focused on the task before us. In ADHD children, however, it is thought that the DNM is insufficiently suppressed on ‘boring’ tasks that require focused attention.’

So rather than either sighing or seething over this mental absenteeism, could we be working with these children to use this facility to better advantage? Regard it as a skill rather than an annoying habit?

As a child, a family member told me that I had ‘too much imagination’. Fortunately I had an exceptional teacher who recognised my need to ‘create’. He provided me with empty notebooks in which to jot down my stories, poems and ideas. Many years on, I am still writing and ‘creating’.

Maybe this is a good time to mention one or two other daydreamers – the film director Steven Spielberg, for example. Or Tolkien, author of ‘Lord of the Rings’. Or J K Rowling 

They haven’t done so badly from their daydreaming. So when you notice those eyes glazing over, it might not be your teaching or conversation at fault. It could just be a genius at work.

(Deborah Alexander, April 2016)