Good students stay focused on work and pay attention in class, right? What if we were to go against common logic that letting the mind drift in class distracts from learning and say that these focused students may actually be missing crucial aspects in their learning?

Why teachers should allow a child’s mind to wander and wonder is the topic of a recent article in Psyche by Anders Schinkel, associate professor of philosophy of education at the Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Schinkel opens his article describing a classroom scene where a student is feeling the sun’s rays warm his arm as his teacher is lecturing on the solar system. The author argues that the child’s visceral experience of the sun at the center of our solar system adds rather than detracts from the teacher’s explanation — even if the child was distracted from hearing everything the teacher said.

He defines wonder as “a mode of consciousness, a way of being aware of the world, both in perception and feeling, that differs from our ordinary perception of things in a unique way, We perceive the object of our wonder as in some way strange or puzzling, even mysterious, beyond our understanding, yet worthy of our attention for its own sake."

He differentiates wonder from curiosity or awe, stating that curiosity’s value lies in motivating enquiry, yet awe can heighten interest to the point of admiration that actually halts enquiry.

The mind can drift outward like Schinke describes where you find your senses heightened and become aware of little details in your surroundings you wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't detached your mind from everything else going on.

Another kind of wandering is when your mind drifts inward. Here you may find yourself in a state of deep imagination not aware of your surroundings or your senses where you conjure up vivid scenarios and situations. This is what’s usually referred to as daydreaming. This is related to pretend play where children slip out of everyday reality and the imagination runs wild.

Increasing creativity and envisioning the future through daydreaming

As a 15-year-old, I personally find wandering beneficial, because it helps me see things on a deeper level, with more detail. I can focus on the little, yet important things that surround me. It also has increased my creativity. When I daydream, I come up with new things that I wouldn't think about if I hadn't let my mind be free to wander.

When I was younger, I used to play Barbies with my little sister. We created this whole world, turning our dressers into their houses, making them clothes out of old socks and using objects around the house for furniture. At the time, I was just having fun creating this fictional world but I realize that was developing an interest for architecture which I now plan to pursue as a career.

“Daydreaming and pretend play are associated with greater creativity in children,” confirms David B. Feldman, Ph.D., a professor in the department of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University citing research published in the Creativity Research Journal. “For many kids, fantasies form a basis for social activity with their friends, a way to explore their interests, and a vehicle for engaging in creative pursuits like drawing or storytelling.”

These are some reasons the importance of incorporating pretend play for older children as well as preschoolers in education cannot be overemphasized.

When it comes to goal-setting and achievement, daydreaming helps you have a more clear vision of what you want and steps to achieving it. Essentially, the imagination becomes a vehicle for concentrating, visualizing and manifesting your desired outcome.

For educators who want to explore this with their older students, Feldman describes structured daydreaming, a tool he used in a study of 100 college students.

Have students close their eyes and use all five senses to vividly imagine themselves pursuing a real-life goal, complete with experiencing the frustration of dealing with obstacles that might stand in the way, he explains.

“Whereas fantasy-based daydreaming gives people the pleasant experience of enjoying a mental reward without any effort, structured daydreaming forces people to rehearse exactly what they'll need to do to accomplish their goals in real life.”

In the study, students who’d participated in structured daydreaming reported significantly greater progress towards their goals a month later, as compared to the participants in the other conditions.

Allowing for the flow of wonder in students

Another study that can be applied to the classroom comes from the University of California at Santa Barbara. As described in a Fast Company article, it showed that engaging in an unrelated and cognitively easy task that lets the mind wander can help people find some creative solutions to challenging problems.

So, students who get up in the middle of class to sharpen pencils or peel the labels off of crayons may be in actuality revving up their creativity and problem-solving. Teachers may want to create structures to help students get these benefits in a less disruptive or messy way.

In his article, Schinke points to how child-generated wonder serves as a powerful source of intrinsic motivation, asking rhetorically, “Isn’t wonder a state of mind from which questions flow?”

"Any educators interested in — or devoted to — opening up the world to their students should consider wonder essential to the task, and will do their utmost to foster students’ sense of wonder," he says.

One obstacle teachers are up against is time, he says. As the world becomes more and more familiar to children as they age, typically they’ll experience wonder less readily. This is all the more reason to set up a learning environment that promotes wandering when they are young.