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Is 'Goofing Off' Good for Children?

Children play in park after attending school in Managua, Nicaragua 2014.
Children play in park after attending school in Managua, Nicaragua 2014.
Is 'Goofing Off' Good for Children?
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Something happens to many children when they are out of school over the summer months. It is called the “summer slide.” This may sound like a ride at a water park. But it’s not.

Summer slide is when children forget much of what they learned during the latest school year.

To fight the effects of summer slide, teachers often give students homework over the summer. Many parents may send children to camp or find other activities to keep them learning.

As the new school year begins, most children are soon very busy with new classes and school-related activities. However, experts say keeping children busy all the time is not good for them. What should parents do instead?


Helping children succeed is one of the issues Lea Waters has been researching for over 20 years. Waters is a psychologist – an expert on human behavior.

Waters says slowing down actually helps children become the best they can be.

"It's a little bit like, if you have too many programs running on your computer, your computer starts to slow down. And when you shut down those programs, your computer speeds up again. It's very much like that for a child's brain."

Machines need to be reset, while kids need to goof off.

"What I mean by goofing off is really allowing kids to have some downtime, where they’re not focused on a specific task -- something that they choose to do like shooting baskets, or doing a creative project, cooking. It's a project they're interested in doing that they can do more automatically and get enjoyment from."

She adds that goofing off does not mean the brain isn’t working.

"It goes into this default network mode and uses that time to process all the information it had during the day, to integrate new information. It makes a kind of decision about what information do I keep and put into my memory, what information do I not need and I get rid of. It's also an essential network for helping us to develop emotional intelligence, to consolidate a memory, to develop a sense of identity..."

In her book, The Strength Switch, Waters suggests that parents work on building up their child's strengths instead of trying to fix their weaknesses.

"In working with parents around the world on this strength-based parenting approach, one of the common questions that I get is, ‘Once I identify the strength of my children, what do I need to do to build up these strengths?' In that question is often a misconception that, as a parent, the way we build up our children's strength is to get them into extra tutoring, get them into kind of every class possible..."

Parents often mean well by wanting to keep their child busy. But the result is often a tired child with an overcrowded schedule. This keeps a child’s brain active -- learning, gathering information and preparing for the next event. And this may have the opposite effect the parents are hoping for.

"Yes, practice builds up strength, but so does downtime. One of the “counter-intuitives” that we're finding in the field of neuroscience is that if you're constantly on task, if you're constantly practicing, in the end it doesn't help to build up a skill or a strength as effectively as you might think."

Waters based her ideas largely on her own research in psychology, parenting and education at the University of Milbourn in Australia. But her book also describes studies by several American researchers.

"I love Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research. She's a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. And she's done a lot of work on the idea that our brains have these two alternative systems."

Those two systems, or modes, she noted are known as “on-task focus” and “free-form attention.”

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says the on-task focus is about observing and understanding one's environment. That happens, for example, when you play sports. But the other mode is activated when you are resting.

Here is Immordino-Yang.

"You need to be watching other people on your team, and running fast and coordinating your motions, and reacting to the things you're perceiving. And then, there is another network that's extremely important for being able to make meaning out of what you're doing. And that network seems to be deactivated when people are sort of playing sports and attending to the outside. And it's activated when you're resting and just daydreaming, when you’re thinking about your memories and imagining things that don't exist here and now. You need those two modes of attention in order to function as a person in the world."

Lea Waters says she hopes parents will accept the fact that children don't have to be busy all the time. Children and adults need time to goof off now and then.

And that’s the Health and Lifestyle report.

I’m Anna Matteo.

What do you think about letting children goof off – a good idea or a bad idea? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments Section.

Faiza Elmasry reported this story for Anna Matteo adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.



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Words in This Story

default n. used to describe something that happens or is done when nothing else has been done or can be done

mode n. a particular way of doing something

integrate v. to make (something) a part of another larger thing

consolidate v. to join or combine together into one thing

misconception n. a wrong or mistaken idea

tutor n. a teacher who works with one student

schedule n. a plan of things that will be done and the times when they will be done

counter-intuitiveadj. different from what you would expect : not agreeing with what seems right or natural

approach n. a way of dealing with something : a way of doing or thinking about something

coordinate v. to act or work together properly and well

perceive v. to notice or become aware of (something)