I’ve never been a great sleeper. Now I have a 3-year old who seems to have inherited that trait. As a result, I’ve become a bit obsessed lately with both my own sleep and hers and that obsession has fueled a good bit of my research lately.
We’ve known for a long time that sleep is important for learning. As we sleep, the brain remains active, working to reinforce and consolidate the learning that we have done throughout the day. And studies have shown that even a relatively brief nap following a period of learning can significantly improve recall of what we learned.
While sleep is essential for supporting learning throughout our lives, three studies released over the past year highlight the especially critical role it plays in the developing brains of children. If you have young children in your life, you’ll want to tune into these. Here’s the quick rundown:
The work of a research team at University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that sleep is essential for strengthening connections across the hemispheres of our brains as we mature.
The researchers used electroencephalograms, or EEGs, to track the brain activity of eight kids as they slept. Readings were taking multiple times at ages 2,3, and 5 for each child with the goal of seeing how brain activity differed when the kids slept and how their brain activity changed over time.
The results? The researchers found that connections in the brain generally became stronger during sleep as the children aged. They also found that the strength of the connections between the left and right hemispheres increased by as much as 20 percent over a night’s sleep. The findings suggest that much of the alteration of our brains that occurs as we mature may be dependent upon sleep.
These findings are particularly intriguing in the context of recent report suggesting that the strength of the connections between the hemispheres of his brain may have contributed to Albert Einstein’s genius.
Regardless of whether you are raising a young Einstein, making sure the toddlers and kindergartners in your life get sufficient high quality sleep may help ensure that their brain matures as it should.
Report: Development of Brain EEG Connectivity across Early Childhood: Does Sleep Play a Role?
Press Release: Connections in the brains of young children strengthen during sleep, CU-Boulder study finds
Any parent (and many an innocent bystander) knows that when a young child misses her nap, there is often a price to pay. Research conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests that price may be greater than previously believed.
During the preschool years, kids often transition from taking a nap during the day to sleeping only at night. It’s tempting to speculate that, because “naps may contain mostly light sleep stages” – rather than the deeper sleep typically needed to support learning – they “may serve serve little function for learning and memory during this transitional age.”
To test out this line of thinking, the U. Mass research team tracked the performance of 40 preschoolers across 6 different schools on a visual-spatial learning exercise that involved remembering the location of different pictures. The exercise was given to the children in the morning. Some kids then took their normal afternoon nap while others were kept awake during the nap period. Both groups were then tested after nap time and the next day for their recall of the location of the pictures.
The children “performed significantly better when they napped both in the afternoon and the next day,” the researchers reported. “That means that when they miss a nap, the child cannot recover this benefit of sleep with their overnight sleep. It seems that there is an additional benefit of having the sleep occur in close proximity to the learning.”
The U. Mass team notes that there are important policy considerations related to these findings:
Lacking scientific understanding of the function of naps in early childhood, policy makers may curtail preschool classroom nap opportunities due to increasing curriculum demands. Here we show evidence that classroom naps support learning in preschool children by enhancing memories acquired earlier in the day as compared with equivalent intervals spent awake.
Parents may also want to consider the implications within their own homes: think twice before getting rid of nap time for your preschooler.
Sleep helps both kids and adults transform subconsciously learned material into active knowledge, but it appears to pack a greater punch for kids, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Tübingen’s Institute for Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology.
The Tübingen team trained a group of 8-11 year olds and a group of young adults to makes guesses about a pre-detemined sequence of actions. The training and the associated learning were “implicit” in that the participants were not aware that a sequence existed. Participants were subsequently tested to see how much they remembered – or, in other words, how much explicit knowledge they gained as a result of the implicit learning activity. Part were tested after a night of sleep, the other part after a day of being awake.
As you might guess, the participants that got a night’s sleep before the memory test performed much better that those that did not. What was particularly interesting, however, was that the 8-11 years olds who got sleep performed significantly better than the young adults that got sleep.
The researchers speculated that children were able to much more efficiently convert the implicit knowledge gained from the training into explicit knowledge because of the large amount of deep sleep kids typically get at night. “The formation of explicit knowledge appears to be a very specific ability of childhood sleep,” they write, “since children typically benefit as much or less than adults from sleep when it comes to other types of memory tasks.”
Any one who has spent much time observing kids has marveled and how quickly the often seem to pick up new skills and knowledge. These findings point one of the possible reasons.
The bottom line for all of these reports – particularly when taken in the context of a great deal of previous research – is that sleep is incredibly important for childrens’ learning and development. So, if you have kids in your life, do everything you can to make sure they get the sleep they need. (And, of course, don’t forget that sleep is incredibly important for your own learning as well.)
P.S. – I’m always sharing these kinds of study on Twitter. Be sure to follow MissiontoLearn.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.