Should we wake up to the benefit of 40 winks?

16th October 2015 at 00:00
Research says a short sleep can boost memory, productivity and learning. Is it time to introduce formalised napping to schools?

It’s not unusual for a child to drift off to sleep during a lesson. Your first instinct is usually to rouse them and deliver a stern reprimand. But rather than waking the student and chastising them, would it be more beneficial to allow them to carry on catching some zzzs?

Several research projects conducted around the world show that napping offers benefits such as increased productivity and improved memory. Napping, it turns out, is great for learning.

In 2013, sleep researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst – who ran a test on 40 children aged between 3 and 5 – found that those who took an hour-long nap after lunch recalled 10 per cent more of the information they were taught that morning than those who stayed awake (Sleep Spindles in Midday Naps Enhance Learning in Preschool Children by Laura Kurdziel, Kasey Duclos and Rebecca Spencer).

Meanwhile, a 2008 study undertaken by the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the University of Düsseldorf suggested that as little as six minutes of sleep was sufficient to “enhance memory processing” (An Ultra-Short Episode of Sleep is Sufficient to Promote Declarative Memory Performance by Olaf Lahl, Christiane Wispel, Bernadette Willigens and Reinhard Pietrowsky).

And, earlier this year, researchers from the Experimental Neuropsychology Unit at Saarland University in Germany found that napping for about an hour improved the associative memory performance of healthy young adults (Nap Sleep Preserves Associative, But Not Item Memory Performance by Sara Studte, Emma Bridger and Axel Mecklinger).

“Our findings revealed that sleeping helps to ‘save’ information,” says Studte, a graduate biologist specialising in neuropsychology, who coordinated the research.

The business world has already woken up to the benefits of napping. In both the US and Japan some businesses are offering employees the option of sleeping on the job in “nap pods”.

But could formalised napping opportunities be worked into the school timetable? In the early stages of schooling, some believe it could.

“I think there is a place for napping, especially in the early years,” says Richard Bullard, headteacher at Combe Down Primary School in Bath.

Russel Tarr, a history teacher based in Toulouse, agrees. “It’s interesting that in France in this age group, a nap is built into the day as part of the natural routine – the kids are completely frazzled without it,” he says.

But what about allowing older age groups to have naps? Hans van Mourik Broekman, principal of secondary academy Liverpool College, is far from keen. “First of all, memory, while massively important, is not the sole purpose or goal of what happens in a school or classroom,” he says.

“Time spent napping could be spent reading, discussing, running, singing, playing chess and so on. The [most recent] research does not indicate whether these other school activities might be more conducive than napping to memory improvement, as well as being fun and providing other benefits.”

Dream time

Studte admits that more research needs to be done in this area, but says her study should still interest schools and universities. As for how best to introduce napping to the classroom, she doesn’t think a “strict time window” for sleeping, during which children would be forced to sleep even if they’re wide awake or not interested in sleeping, would work.

One suggestion she makes is that schools create “a room with the possibility to relax or sleep at any time in between lessons”. It has already been introduced at the University of East Anglia, which earlier this year opened a dedicated “nap nook” – a room students can book for 40 minute slots between 12pm and 6pm.

The time the room is available and the length of the bookable slots loosely align with advice from sleep experts, who say the best time to take a nap is between 1pm and 4pm – any later might disrupt regular night-time sleep. They also say shorter naps tend to be more effective and improve alertness – naps of 60 minutes or more can cause “sleep inertia”, the grogginess associated with having woken up after a lengthy doze.

As far-fetched as adding a “nap room” to schools might sound, Tarr doesn’t rule the option out. “In practical terms there might be a minority of kids who would benefit from a nap room and it’s an interesting concept, but it would have to be presented as a ‘chillout zone’ where silence was expected and bean bags, or similar, were provided for people who wanted to make use of them,” he says.

Yes, you are feeling sleepy

However, Tarr believes it might be harder to convince older kids of the benefits of napping. “As kids get older they don’t think they need – maybe correctly – a nap during the day,” he says. “Quite the opposite, actually. The concept of me getting secondary school kids to take a nap is laughable. They are desperate to get outside and run around and burn off energy.”

Reluctant teenagers are not the only issue. Dr Helen Lees – a visiting research fellow from the Faculty of Education and Theology at York St John University and a big advocate of napping – believes that the practicalities of implementing these changes are too much of an obstacle for many.

“All the scientific research I’ve encountered around napping shows that it improves productivity,” Lees says. “But in exchange for this productivity you have to have flexibility and in schools we have a lack of flexibility. What comes with scientific proof is change, but change is difficult for schools.”

Yet is there proof in this case? There is certainly evidence that suggests napping might be useful but Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers: how to excel at math and science, says we don’t know for sure, yet. “Clearly a lot more research needs to be done before we have a handle on what is helpful and what isn’t before suggesting something as difficult to do as rearranging children’s school day,” she says.

Even if we found that proof, pinpointing a way to facilitate a little daytime slumber – and getting teenagers to buy into it – is clearly problematic. So maybe the idea of introducing napping in schools is something we need to sleep on for a while.

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