The importance of rest

We started back to our regular school schedule today, after quite a bit of time off for the holidays. Every January, I am a little trepidatious about how things will go when we start back. And every year, I am happily surprised at how well everyone is doing. You would think I would remember by now that this January jump in ability is a 'thing'.

I've seen it with piano students. I've seen it with my own children. I've seen it in children's choirs. There is something about coming back from Christmas break that brings about a burst of maturity and ability. You want to hear my own pet theory about this, founded on nothing more than my own experience and musings?

I think there is something about three months of fairly intense learning, followed by a relatively short break (2-4 weeks) where something completely different is done. There is a lot to learn in the fall. New grade levels, new ideas, new things to think about. It can be both exciting and a bit overwhelming. It is a lot for a brain to take in all at once.

And then comes Christmas (or winter break if you do not celebrate Christmas). It's a time when people generally do things very different from the academic activities of school. They spend time together, play games, decorate cookies and gingerbread houses, give and receive gifts, go on vacations, spend time with family, play outside. In a way, it is just as intense as the previous school semester, but in a very different way.

Our brains like nothing better than to do sorting and organizing of one sort of information while we are engaged in another type of activity. So while families are doing all of this celebrating and vacationing, it gives children's brains a chance to sort and organize all of the material they had been working on during the fall semester. I don't see it as much different from when my desk becomes rather chaotic with the business of the school year, and I take some time in the vacation weeks to sort things out and get them back under control. It makes me more productive when I've done that, and for brains, the sorted, thought about, and stored information also becomes more useful. Having done something different from regular academic work, children are then ready to start back to school learning fresh.

I keep saying I'm going to do this some time, but just have never taken the time to figure out the logistics, but I think the perfect schedule for learning would be six weeks on with two weeks off. (I could also be persuaded that six weeks on, three weeks off, or five weeks on, two weeks off, would be just as positive.) Six weeks is a manageable time to be focused on something, and the two weeks' break would provide enough rest and different activity to process everything.

Our culture doesn't like to rest, though. We tend to see it as wasted time. We are particularly uncomfortable with children having free, unstructured time; time when they could be learning something. I fear we've become a bit too driven on the academic end of things and it has ceased to be useful because there is no time for thought or reflection or processing or a chance to do something completely different.

I know this is partially my own bias because this is how I know I function best. I will focus very narrowly on one thing for a while, grow tired of it at some point, set it aside nearly completely for a while, and eventually cycle back to it. While I did well in school, there was always the tension of not being able to learn and focus on the things which were of high interest to me at that moment. And truly, there is nothing that will remove my desire to learn something than someone telling me I had to do it. It's that whole excel in the class you're taking pass/fail-thing.

So my point? Be aware of your child's schedule. Provide breaks. Do not be afraid of unstructured and unscheduled time. Become a student of yourself and how you learn best, because chances are good your children will function in similar ways. Live the Monty Python line, "And now for something completely different!"


Donna said…
I think our best homeschool year was when I did a block schedule of 6-7 weeks on (varied a bit due to how holidays fit in) and then 1 week off. 2 would be better. No matter whether what we were doing was hard or easy, the prospect of plowing through and having a break in sight made it much more enjoyable for everyone.
Happy New Year!

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