Any parent who has struggled to keep their school-age child focused on completing a task — whether it’s getting ready for school, doing homework, or just following their teacher’s instructions — will want to hear about this. A new study published in the Neuropsychologia journal this week suggests that kids who daydream are actually more creative than kids who don’t. And (under certain circumstances) if a child’s mind wanders, it can be a very positive sign for their overall intelligence.
If that comes as a surprise, trust me you aren't alone. I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of seeing my kid's daydreaming as a negative. Plenty of pleasant weekday mornings have ended in frustration because I found my daughter — who is six years old, by the way — distracted by a toy, a book, or even her collection of hair barrettes rather than actually getting ready for school. If I send her to put on her shoes, she may end up building a fort with her little sister. If I ask her to brush her teeth, I might hear her narrating her own YouTube video using her bathroom mirror as her audience. And just last week, I got a note from her teacher alerting me that my otherwise well-behaved, A-student was hoarding a desk full of tiny doodles and stories she’d created during class. Apparently, my daughter’s visits to fantasyland keep her occupied between lessons at school, too.
But according to new research from the Georgia Institute of Technology, it’s not necessarily something I (or her teacher) should discourage. In fact, it could be quite a good thing.
A Georgia Institute of Technology research team observed brain activity in more than 100 people. The participants were asked to focus on a stationary point for five minutes so that researchers could identify which areas of the brain worked together. Afterwards, the participants completed a questionnaire on how often their minds wandered.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the team found that people who daydreamed more often also scored higher on tests of intellect and creativity. The MRI results showed that those participants’ brains functioned at greater capacity than others.
In a statement posted on the GIT website, Georgia Tech associate psychology professor Eric Schumacher wrote that taking some mental downtime between tasks can be a sign that a child’s brain is functioning more efficiently than their peers'.
People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can’t. Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor — someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings. Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming.
Of course, excessive daydreaming can be a sign of deeper concerns for children. The caveat in all of this is that there is a major difference between daydreaming and the more serious problems with inattention associated with certain forms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On its website, Understood.org, the National Center for Learning Disabilities explains that ADHD (and ADD) are among the most common brain-based biological conditions in children, affecting as many as 5 to 11 percent of kids between the ages of 4 and 17. The symptoms of ADHD go far beyond daydreaming, according to NCLD.
Parents who have concerns about a kid who daydreams often — especially if a child shows signs of having trouble following conversations, having difficulty making transitions, and getting bored easily — should talk to their child’s teacher, or even seek a professional evaluation, according to the NCLD website.
But absent other signs of inattention, these findings suggest that daydreaming may more of a positive sign than one that signals trouble.
As for my daughter, I think for now we’ll have to let her do her thing and understand that sometimes the land of her thoughts is too exciting to resist. I’m pretty sure her teacher was hoping that her note would get us to discourage my daughter from letting her mind drift when she’s in class. But that approach feels all wrong to me. She’s my kid and sometimes (like Mommy) she will get lost in her thoughts rather than focus on the family’s chatter. Exploring my creativity and imagination has allowed me to make a living doing what I love. I would never tell her not to explore hers. (Unless we’re late for school, I mean.)
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