Daydream weavers

Why it can be good for kids to let their minds wander.

Navigating the first days of JK last September was a breeze for four-year-old Isaac Laflamme of Toronto. His mom, Sarah, thinks it’s because he’d been daydreaming about starting school for a whole year.

It all started when Isaac was three and his sister, Bella, brought home tales from the first grade. Isaac would soak them up and then imagine himself in the scenarios, which his mom overheard as one-sided conversations with an imaginary friend he calls Exxin Boy. “He used to create stories about what he and Exxin Boy had done during the day: They went to school, got a circle of friends and went to playdates, everything Bella had been doing.” Other times, she would notice Isaac absent-mindedly fingering his blocks or a puzzle and could practically hear the wheels turning as he wrestled with whatever was on his mind — including how to prevent kindergarten crises. If a child ever blurted something out of turn, Isaac announced to his mom one day, he’d quietly tell the kid that you have to raise your hand first.

Daydreaming isn’t just an escape hatch from a less-than-captivating math class (though it can certainly be that too!). Consider that an average person spends up to half of her mental energy on some form of daydreaming, according to Eric Klinger, a recently retired professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and author of Daydreaming: Using Waking Fantasy and Imagery for Self-Knowledge and Creativity. Experts agree that this normal, common behaviour serves an important developmental role, helping kids relax, flex their creativity and rehearse for upcoming challenges and events, among other things — just as long as daydreaming doesn’t balloon into delusional proportions, that is.
Klinger wrote that daydreams show elements of drifting (mind being elsewhere), spontaneity (mind slipping away from intentional thoughts and moving in its own direction) and fancifulness (constructing a different reality). And daydreams have much in common with their nighttime cousins. Both are triggered by behaviour, thoughts and feelings that are important to us. Daydreams tend to peak every 90 minutes and night dreams become more vivid at the end of a 90-minute sleep cycle. But otherwise, our daydreams are more deliberate (we mean to think them) than dreams that take shape while we slumber.

Daydreaming likely begins around age two or three, at the same time that language development spikes and pretend play emerges. “This is when kids become able to use objects symbolically, for example, the use of a block to represent a cup from which they can pretend to drink, and when they begin to create more complex narratives,” says Ruwa Sabbagh, Today’s Parent Expert Q & A columnist and a psychotherapist in private practice at The Willow Centre in Toronto. Younger children are more apt to act out their daydreams using their toys or other objects, while older children, adolescents and adults are more likely to keep daydreaming covert and purely mental.
Rehearsing for an expected challenge is one of the many valuable benefits of daydreaming. Children’s daydreams can help them prepare for an event in the same way as practising the piano or a soccer play. And research shows that daydreaming about physical actions involves the same brain mechanisms that would generate those actions in real life, which means fantasizing about scoring a goal actually improves performance in a game. It’s little wonder, then, that Laflamme used to hear Isaac daydreaming aloud when he was worried about leaving home to start kindergarten. “He’d play the role of parent with his doll, Henry, and say, ‘It’s going to be OK. School will be fun,’” she recalls.

Daydreams can also offer children a brief hiatus from an intense or stressful situation. “To take that break and have a bit of relaxation can help bring them back to whatever they’re doing with more energy,” says Sabbagh. Not to mention more creativity. In fantasyland, kids get to use their imaginations to “try” experiences that may or may not be realistic.

“Daydreaming is much like play in that it helps children to think about the world, explore new ideas and behaviours,” says Christopher Gibbins, a registered psychologist at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Which, in turn, helps kids get to know themselves better and increase their self-knowledge, since it is believed that we daydream about the issues that are the most emotionally important to us.

This may explain why adopted children tend to gravitate toward daydreaming as a way of “figuring out who they are and where they came from,” believes Joyce Maguire Pavao, a marriage and family therapist and founder of the Center for Family Connections in Cambridge, Mass., who wrote The Family of Adoption. “Daydreaming is a way to reframe things that are hard to understand and to compensate for things that are painful.”

Most parents won’t exactly be cheering when their child is busy building castles in the sky instead of setting the table, or when a teacher reports a foggy stare each time he asks a question. Indeed, some kids become so absorbed when daydreaming that they temporarily shut out the real world (not so comforting if a child is on one of these mental sabbaticals while crossing the street or riding a bike).

Parents may also be concerned if a child daydreams excessively about a particular issue, as in the case of Lydia Kelly of Peterborough, Ont., whose eight-year-old son has stressful visions that leave him shaken. He doesn’t daydream much, but he has what she calls “daymares.” In a recent one, he imagined finding himself alone at home, with no one nearby and no one left in the world but him. “This has been a theme in recent nightmares too,” says his mom. “He has some anxiety issues, particularly around being abandoned.”
And what about those children who duck out mentally out of sheer boredom? That’s completely normal, especially for gifted children or those with strong imaginations. “The problem isn’t the daydreaming per se,” says Gibbins. “It’s that the child is bored and unmotivated by what she is doing and she requires more of a challenge to stay interested.”

And, yes, daydreaming is definitely part of the equation when it comes to ADD or ADHD. “Daydreaming, in and of itself, is normal and valuable and very common,” says Sabbagh. “But if it comes in a pattern with other things like distractibility, inattention and hyperactivity, and it’s consistent at home and school and in other contexts, I would want to explore that.”

As for Isaac Laflamme, while other four-year-olds clung to a parent or melted into tears during those first days of school, his mom says he marched up the steps with confidence. Right into the classroom of his dreams.