Get Down!

Were you ever scolded in school for not paying attention? Have you found yourself sitting in a meeting and suddenly realizing that you have no idea what has been said for the last few minutes? Do you sometimes arrive at work and realize that you don’t remember a thing about the drive? These experiences often cause us to feel guilt for not being totally connected and aware, even when we know we should be. The perceived rudeness of getting lost in thought combined with the belief that learning happens through constant stimulation can cause us to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of always being on point. Science is giving us some good news that might help to relieve the pressure a bit.

“Children need stimulation!” This is a cultural dogma engrained in American culture and it is one of the most common arguments we hear against Montessori education. People often think that a simple wooden rattle is simply not as good for a baby as a whiz-bang exersaucer with all the bells and whistles. We are also often inclined to think that a person who isn’t actively paying attention all the time is surely not able to contribute to what is happening around them. I am here to tell you that more than “stimulation” what most of us actually need in order to develop higher order thinking is actually the opposite. We need downtime. This is more than my personal opinion; this is backed up by a plethora of recent research on the topic.

Two researchers from UC Santa Barbara are shedding light on cognitive processes and their discoveries are throwing a wrench in the gears of standard thinking about learning. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood have been studying the concept of “zoning out” and how it works in the human brain. As it turns out, some of the most critical areas of the brain are active during mental down time. There are two specific areas of the brain that are activated by a lack of stimulation: the default zone and the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is the hub of all executive function. Meaning that this area of the brain controls planning, decision making, impulse control, and several other critical functions. The default zone is specifically attuned to self-referential thinking such as reflection on choices and envisioning our future. Clearly these are two regions of the brain that matter. The combination of reflective thinking, future-oriented thinking, and decision making are the exact combination of functions that are needed for successful engagement in work or school. The research indicates that these regions of the brain show the highest level of activity when people are sitting idly.

When I think about this research, I am able to see parallels to my own behaviors. I have always valued taking the time to “unplug” and just be quiet. Some of my best work happens when I am not actually working but when I am sitting on my sofa looking at the trees in my front yard. While my mind wanders, connections are formed and solutions come to light. My absolute best ideas always come to me while I’m in the shower. I can see how downtime truly benefits my productivity in work and in life.

It is clear to see from the research that adults strongly benefit from downtime, but what does this mean for our children? What I take away from the work of Schooler and Smallwood is that our child’s greatest ally is simplicity. It means that you can do less and your child will gain more. It means you don’t have to constantly find ways to stimulate your child and provide them with enrichment activities. It means that spending your Saturday laying in the yard, being with one another, and getting absolutely nothing accomplished might be the very best thing that you can do for your whole family. It also means that if your child is staring off into the distance or completely immersed in an activity, you can let him be. Bottom line, it means that you can and should relax a little.

Of course, you can file this information under the “easier said than done” category as all of us have a wealth of responsibility and stimulation in our lives along with colleagues, friends, and family expecting us to be tuned in and on point when we are with them. I have these same obligations and I intend to do my best to fulfill them. What I plan to do with this information is let go of my “we didn’t plan anything fun this weekend” guilt. We don’t have to go to a museum or a birthday party to have an excellent weekend. The next time I find myself thinking that I need to plan a stimulating activity for my daughter in order to be a good parent I am going to slow down instead. I will put my cell phone away in my purse, take my daughter by the hand, and just be with her (preferably outside) and see what wonders come of our downtime together. We are trading in our race cars for bicycles. We’re still going somewhere, we’re just going to see more of the scenery along the way.


“It is only against the background of our place in the universe, our relationships with other living organisms, and our understanding of human unity within cultural diversity, that we can attempt to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’”-Dr. Maria Montessori



~ by vegucationmama on March 5, 2013.

One Response to “Get Down!”

  1. I like to walk. I never wear an iPod. I don’t chat on my phone. Friends offer to go with me and I figure out ways to decline. I just walk; and the entire time I am thinking, observing, making lists in my head, etc. Some of my best ideas happen that way; and I never feel guilty about the time spent.

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