How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn

Letting children rest and play gives their brains opportunity to reboot.

A girl in a pink tank top and a boy in a black tank top play in a fountain during a heat wave in Washington.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Savoring and gratitude are both forms of directed attention. But in contrast to that type of on-task focus, free-form attention is what the brain defaults to when it’s off-task, allowed to move in any direction it wants. It happens when the brain is in what scientists call the resting state. In the 1990s, neuropsychologists began to delve into free-form attention and found that it has many benefits, including for children’s learning and their brain development. To shift instantly into free-form attention, all an individual has to do is goof off.

Now just any kind of goofing off won’t do. There’s a constructive form of goofing off that is restorative to the brain and therefore important for strength-based parenting—parenting that focuses on kids’ strengths instead of their weaknesses. Good goofing off is active; the mind is not simply being “fed” stimuli. Rather, the activity engages the mind in a way that simultaneously gives it free rein. Good goofing off happens when the person participating is competent enough at the activity that he or she does not have to focus closely on the process or the techniques. It happens when reading, cooking a familiar recipe, shooting baskets, or simply daydreaming.

Penguin Random House

Good goofing off acts as a bridge between directed attention, when people are laser focused on something specific, and mindfulness, when people actively notice the thoughts that arise during free-form attention.

Research now shows that in this so-called resting state, the brain is still highly active. Functional magnetic resonance imaging depicting the brain in a resting state reveals multiple brain regions lighting up, indicating activity. That’s why I prefer to think of free-form attention not as a resting state, but as “deliberate rest.” Although it might seem counterintuitive, deliberate rest refreshes and restores, playing an important role in building the powers of attention.

It turns out there’s a tiny lag time—about 300 milliseconds—between when an event happens (an email arrives, a cat meows, a child calls out) and when the brain registers the event, as seen by an electrical change in the brain. This measurement is called Event Related Potential (ERP). Essentially, it’s the brain updating itself in response to reality. Scientists have found that ERP improves immediately after people engage in moderate aerobic exercise. Perhaps evolution rewarded those whose brains got sharper at the same time that their bodies got fitter. When a teenager has three hours of homework but can only really sustain attention for about 20 minutes at a time, he’s going to need breaks to help him attend to his work. Spending 15 minutes every hour or so doing some physical activity he enjoys doesn’t look like a time waster to me.

For another, the brain uses deliberate rest to consolidate learning and free up resources for new learning (including new strength development). Think of a computer slowing down or crashing because it’s running too many applications at once. The brain gets overloaded, too. So much information gets taken in through directed attention that it can result in “cerebral congestion” as input competes for the brain’s neural connections. Brains need downtime to process and sort through the information.

In a study on downtime processing, a group of university students in Amsterdam was given data on the size, mileage, maneuverability, and other features of a series of cars. Each student’s task was to select the best car, based on analysis of this data. Half were given four minutes to review the specifications and make a decision in a focused way. The other half were given a little anagram puzzle to do for four minutes instead. It turned out that the students who were, in a sense, distracted from analysis of the specifications by doing the puzzle were more likely to choose the best car, compared to the students who had actively focused on the data. Their brains processed the information more effectively when they were goofing off.  It’s a common experience to have a sudden insight into a problem after stepping away from it for a while—in the shower, during a walk, after a workout, or while working on a hobby. Somehow, a solution filters up from the brain without conscious effort. Downtime provides the mental space that allows the brain to dive into itself and uncover what it knows.

The ability to toggle between directed attention and free-form attention improves with practice, making the brain most effective. The brain can snap to attention when necessary and then downshift to deliberate rest mode whenever possible in order to maximize mental alertness, process information, and bring forward that knowledge to apply to the next attentive time.

These ideas are supported in the findings from a series of studies performed by Columbia University researchers, who partnered with schools to trial an unstructured play-based curriculum for students ranging from 4 to 13 years. The researchers wanted to see what would happen if schools gave students a break from intense learning by injecting a play-based (i.e., downtime) curriculum. In a classic case of “less is more,” the students showed significant improvements in attentional skills and cognitive functioning after the play curriculum, compared to having a full day of traditional academic classes. Attention is built through rest and play.

When parents seek my advice about what activities their child should be doing, they’re often surprised when I pare down their proposed list and prescribe free time during the week for good goofing off. It’s not that kids aren’t paying attention during this time, it’s that their attention has shifted within. Important things are going on in there. Even adults can only pay attention for about 20 minutes at a time before getting less effective. When a child has finished her math homework and is taking time between assignments to make a smoothie or read a chapter in a book, or when he comes home after school and blows off steam by shooting baskets in the backyard for an hour before starting his homework, the brain is still processing information very effectively. It’s sorting through what it’s taken in, attaching emotional meaning to it, cementing it in memory, and integrating it into the individual’s core self. It’s all part of building a child’s identity, about learning who they are apart from what they do.

Smart strength-based parenting means holding firm against the pressure to constantly schedule kids so they look busy on the outside. Children are always busy, even when they don’t look it. Letting a child press the pause button allows her to reboot her attentional resources and come back strong to continue building her strengths. Good goofing off is as an important part of a child becoming who they are.

What constitutes good goofing off for kids? Anything that allows them to have softly focused inward attention. The key is that it’s not about performance. Good goofing off is not texting or talking on the phone, which pulls a child into the external world (one study found reduced empathic responses after just asking study participants—teens and young adults—to describe and draw an image of their cell phone!). It’s about giving a child’s brain the chance to reboot and come back sharper and more attentive when the time arrives.

This article has been adapted from Lea Waters’s new book, The Strength Switch.