Naps have significant academic benefits for preschool and kindergarten students, despite the fact that schools continue to cut nap time in favor of more academic activities, according to recent research funded by the National Science Foundation.
In the study, researchers gave preschool students across six schools a memory learning task in the morning. Those students took afternoon naps every day for one week, but skipped naps the next week. Then, researchers examined performance on the memory task later in the day to see how much was retained.
“Students perform better if they’ve napped than if we keep them awake,” says Rebecca Spencer, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and co-author of the study.
On declarative memory tasks, when students did not nap, they forgot 12 percent of the items learned in the morning. After another day without a nap, the memory gap grew to 18 percent.
Naps allow for memory consolidation—a process in which sleep reorganizes the storage of memories, and makes it easier to retrieve information, Spencer says.
“Preschools want to focus on learning, not sleeping,” Spencer says. “But if the goal is preparation for elementary school, we are showing that one way to enhance the learning is giving the nap.”
No more naps?
Children ages 3 to 5 years old should get 10 to 13 hours of sleep, including naps, every 24 hours, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
No data exists on how many schools still offer nap time, says Peg Oliveira, executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development. However, it is now one of a number of practices that were once considered normal in early childhood classrooms but have been traded for academic activities, she adds.
While not all young children may need to nap, virtually all would benefit academically from taking a pause to process information, Oliveira says. This is in line with research that shows the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
Students from the most vulnerable backgrounds need those breaks the most, Oliveira says. “Kids who have grown up in environments colored by trauma have different brains,” she says. “Many may not get enough hours of replenishing rest at night. They arrive at school already in need of rest. Naps allow kids who come a little tired to catch up, and have a space that’s quiet and safe and calm.”
Changing the sleep conversation
While there are no federal policies regarding nap time, districts face challenges in finding the time and ensuring that they have the space, cots and setup in place, Oliveira says.
Schools that still let students nap often do not take it seriously, and such periods are often noisy and not overseen by the primary teacher, says Spencer, of UMass Amherst.
However, the conversation around sleep in schools is beginning to turn, Spencer says. For example, many high schools have delayed school start times to better match the circadian rhythms of teens. Now, schools must turn their attention to the youngest students, she says.
“Good sleep habits are building the cognitive foundations for a lifetime of good academic performance,” Spencer says.