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.