Oh, man. She is in the zone.
I said these words to myself the other day as I heard my 7-year-old daughter’s voice float from the living room into the kitchen where I was preparing dinner. I had peeked on her before I started to cook and noticed she was talking to herself as she stuffed toys and books into a bag.
This was not a new scene. She was in the middle of some story she had created in her head. Her imagination was on fire and she was daydreaming her way through the house. She moved room to room narrating what her brain was seeing. She was relaxed and happy.
I envied her. I daydream too, but quietly and not as often as I would like. I tend to continue my everyday tasks while my brain goes on autopilot and creates scenes in books or articles I am writing. I imagine myself in front of a class, hitting talking points in a workshop I am leading. I have conversations in my head with people I have never met. I create scenarios that could happen and relive situations that have.
Two of my three kids actively create narratives while playing; toys are simply props to the story. Imaginary characters or long-standing imaginary friends become real, and I am often eavesdropping on conversations that make little sense to me. But they are not meant for me; daydreams can be very personal journeys of exploration. They entertain us. They help us process information and emotions. Daydreams allow sparks of creativity to burst into flames.
Yet, when it comes to kids, quiet or vocal daydreams may seem likes distractions or the inability to focus.
Daydreams can be distractions, especially when I want my kids to brush their teeth or put on their shoes. I need less “cheetah mauls Iron Man” and more “get the Fruit Loops off your molars.” Teachers likely feel the same way when they see a kid doodling or staring off into space instead of working math equations. A daydreamer may look like a defiant child not completing or struggling to complete a task. They may be assumed to have larger neurological issues like ADHD, autism, or schizophrenia.
One of the key differences of a wandering imagination versus a symptom of a more complex mental health symptom is that a daydreaming child can be redirected to the present without too much struggle.
A child’s propensity to daydream may seem to affect their ability to learn, but the opposite is usually true. Daydreaming can be linked with well-performing students. Daydreamers are creative; creativity leads to curious learning and the ability to solve problems by thinking outside of the box. Kids who daydream are often socially well adjusted. They have spent hours imagining conversations with friends. They have worked through conflict, excitement, and boredom. They actively practice valuable social skills that include compromise, empathy, and awareness.
Another cool and useful thing about daydreaming was found by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. Researchers there published a study that shows a mind that wanders equates to a better working memory. This type of memory allows a brain to retain and recall information even during distractions. Our ability to remember to do all of the things during our busy days is dependent on working memory—and random notes and notifications on our phones, but still. Working memory allows us to think beyond the immediate situation at hand. This is why some of our best thinking comes in the shower or while driving.
When I daydream, I don’t always realize I am doing it until I am forced out of my own head. A sound or another person brings me back to the space my body never left. My brain had traveled though, and the sensation of daydreaming lingers. I usually feel less stressed. I am open to new solutions to problems. Ideas and thoughts flow more freely. I feel less stuck and more content. My ability to focus usually improves.
Daydreaming kids experience the same thing. Kids’ worlds can be loud, confusing, and overwhelming. Some kids zone out. This is better than acting out. A child who can process big feelings through play or art is less likely to disrupt a classroom or bully another student.
Remember how I said two of my three kids often daydream? They absolutely display the positive side effects of their wandering minds. My child who doesn’t have the ability to engage in imaginative play and is less likely to be found lost in thought? She struggles with feelings, making friends, talking through her day, and anticipating what will happen next. She acts out, can be anxious, and often doesn’t know what to do with herself. This often leads to getting into trouble. There is absolutely a correlation between emotional intelligence and daydreaming.
I am not suggesting that we should just let our kids live in bubbles of imaginary worlds and islands of fantasy. But we shouldn’t view their daydreaming as a bad thing. It allows them to entertain themselves while we make dinner. It lets them process big emotions they experienced during the day. It gives them space to make up the most creative and vivid stories. It helps them focus while being distracted. It permits them to paint, draw, and built without inhibitions. Daydreaming allows our kids to dream.
It’s our job as parents to reign them in once in a while so that responsibilities are taken care of, but we should never try to stop our kids from daydreaming. Beautiful things happen when we let our brains go. Necessary things happen too. Our kids aren’t just staring off into space or talking to themselves when they daydream. They are busy engaging in some pretty important creative thinking that will enhance their social interactions with peers and help them process and better learn information they gathered during the day.
Let them be dreamers.