We don't appreciate sleep enough. I used to say, "I wish I didn't have to sleep so I can get more done." Now that I actually get enough sleep, I get more done. Pretty cool, eh?
We also don't appreciate doing nothing enough. We call it being "lazy" and feel guilty when we fill our time with something that doesn't produce results. But it's as important to learning and living as any chore, workbook or activity. Taking regular breaks gives our brains enough time to process our experiences.
It's like training for a marathon or some other physical training. We have to give our bodies rest in order to increase our stamina and strength. If we don't take days off to do "nothing", it breaks down our muscles, instead of strengthening them.
If I've been training hard for many weeks, and I take a break, when I come back, I can often break a distance barrier I hadn't been able to break before. My muscles have had a time to recover from the challenging training, and to change according to the demands that have been put on it. In the fitness industry, it's called muscle memory. And each sport trains muscles to memorize different things. That's why an elite runner is not automatically an elite swimmer just because he's fit. Our muscles learn from what we practice.
An elite runner will tell you that rest is an essential part of training. One day of complete rest a week keeps a runner's muscles from over-training and breaking down. They wouldn't recommend running everyday either. They cross train with other sports and physical activity to give the running muscles a break, and time to recover from training.
This is similar to what happens to our brains when we learn. If we don't give kids breaks in their learning, and regularly let them do nothing, they won't be able to fully process the things they've learned. It makes it difficult to go to the next level. People learn in spurts, with nothing in between to give the brain time to process.
Sleep is an important way for the body to rest. Our brains use that time to re-live the things we experience during the day, deciding which information is important to keep in the forefront, and which is important to stow away or forget. Although we aren't sleeping, time when we do nothing serves the same purpose. It gives us an opportunity to step away from what we've been doing a little bit, and process information.
How and when we need these breaks will be different for every person, at every stage of life and learning. There will be times that we cannot pull ourselves away from a topic until we are completely and totally saturated. When we are filled up with as much information we can possibly stand about that topic, our natural reaction is to focus on something else. While our attention is turned to this new thing, we haven't forgotten what we experienced, we're processing it. Usually unconsciously. Then, when we come back to it, we will be able to approach from a fresh, more mature, perspective. And our brains will be ready for more training.
This was one reason we chose not to use a learning schedule for our kids. From the beginning, we could see that how they learned was completely unpredictable. They learned in spurts. Not linearly. And no amount of coaxing from us made them learn any faster. In fact, it almost seemed like our coaxing slowed down their learning, much like running everyday trying to progress faster, actually slows down our muscles' ability to adapt and grow. When we try to make our kids go faster, we can actually be slowing them down.
From learning to walk to learning to read, from learning to talk to learning how to add negative numbers, the kids all need time to process on their own, and the freedom to push when they need to as well. That isn't to say, I don't test the waters, and throw things out there to see if they bite. But if suggest something to them, and they would rather do something else, their brains are full. Anything I give them overflows the glass, and makes a mess inside their psyche. Then I have to clean it up later. I'd rather keep the glass about 3/4 full, keep them wanting more, asking for more. Teasing their brains and keeping them on their toes. That way, when they are thirsty, it's easier for them to know, and for me to know, that they are ready to learn. And, when they rest, I can smile, knowing that it's what they need, instead of freaking out that they aren't doing enough.
I also notice that if we don't take regular breaks, then when we do finally get a break, we don't know how to use it, or enjoy it. Incorporating lots of relaxing and recovery into our lives has to be habit for it to be useful. And, I don't mean scheduling "rest" from 5-6 everyday. It doesn't work that way.
We need to fall in love with rest. And love it just as much as we love the work we do. If we feel guilty when we rest, we never really get the rest we need. If we are in love with it, and appreciate it as much as everything else, then we will be better equipped to recognize the signals that our brains are giving us to take a break.
Kids love rest and having fun. They haven't learned to feel guilty about it. Kids don't think of rest as "bad". They learn that from us. From adults. Who tell them that resting is "lazy". And listening to their inner signals telling them when they need to focus on something else is wrong. Kids are born with an inner ability to know when to rest, just like they are born with ability to know when to eat, when to sleep. It's a learned behavior to get out of touch with our body's ability to be full of food, activity or learning.
That's not to say that we should just let kids sleep all day, everyday. That kind of extreme behavior might be a sign of serious depression or undiagnosed physical illness such as a thyroid imbalance. If we love rest, we won't let kids do that. It's when we are apathetic that we allow our kids to do whatever they want all the time without comment. If we love the things we do - love rest, love food, love play, love work, love ourselves... then these things aren't a threat to our idea of what kids should be doing with their time. We come to understand what sleep and food and rest are for and how they are good for us. When we can see that these things are good for us, not our enemy, we can embrace it when we need it, and let it go when we don't.
Getting breaks and sleep is a vital part to everyone's learning. How much we need, when we need it and how long we can go without it is different for every individual. But we all need time off. And we need them at regular intervals. It's not the enemy. If it were, there would be no such thing as burnout.
Let's give ourselves a break and enjoy it! Think of it as never-ending training for the marathon of life.
Tammy Takahashi lives and learns with her three children (10, 7 and 4) and supportive husband in California. She is the author of Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling. She also serves as the editor of the California HomeSchooler magazine, a bi-monthly publication for the Homeschool Association of California. You can read more from her about education and homeschooling on her website. And you can email her at tammy.takahashi @ gmail(dot)com.