Time to Dream


Have you ever wondered, “What’s going on in there?” when your child looks like she’s a million miles away? 

Keeping Busy

It seems to be widely believed that children need constant exercise, stimulation (and expensive extra classes) if they are to become intelligent and to sleep at night. However, I have read many articles about children’s lives being too crammed full of scheduled activities, with no time to just relax and ‘be’. 

But what do children actually do with ‘me-time’? Do they even understand the concept? Surely they will get bored and restless if we don’t give them things to keep them busy and amused? And, you might ask, are they ever voluntarily still and quiet?!

Free Time

A child who is given space and time for free play, to choose what she will do from moment to moment, is enabled to develop her own inner resources. She is free to relax or explore at her own pace with no expectations placed on her.


A child sitting in the sunshine with a vacant look on her face is not necessarily just drifting aimlessly, nor is her brain suffering from under-stimulation. Children (unless they are mentally impaired) are pre-programmed before birth to instinctively seek whatever they need from their environment. They are learning in every second they are awake. But all the rapid learning and growing they accomplish needs time and space to integrate into the developing circuitry. Every now and then they just need to pause to let it all sink in.

One Thing at a Time

Children’s brains have to process simple concepts before they can understand more complex ideas… it’s like building a wall one brick at a time from the bottom up. Worth knowing if you might be tempted to push advanced learning on them before they are ready. It is much better to keep explanations simple while they are young.

Pattern Matching

During sleep, new learning that has happened in the day ‘beds down’ and is added to existing knowledge. And during waking periods of daydreaming when it looks as if nobody’s home, children are processing new information and connecting it to patterns of learning they have previously internalised, like adding more beads to a necklace. Seeing, speaking and hearing needs to be temporarily suspended so that new knowledge can be digested. (Which is why teachers should take it as a compliment when their students daydream in lessons – it means they are taking it all in!)

When you see a child’s eyes go far away, he is looking inside his head…searching his internal database for a match to connect the new information up to. Building up a storehouse of knowledge about his world, one brick at a time.

You can liken it to a computer saving data. You get that little egg-timer icon and a message saying, ‘Please wait’……

It is good to respect this and allow the child a few moments of quiet while they focus their attention inwards. Sometimes this ‘trance state’ lasts only a few seconds before they spring off again with a new idea. Learning is never theoretical with children; they need to put everything into practice immediately.


In a Trance

Sometimes you see this entranced look when you are telling them something new and they’re trying to connect the dots, searching internally for a matching picture piece for the puzzle. Or when they are dreaming up a new idea for themselves. A trance, after all, is simply a focused state of attention, during which the person appears to ignore what’s going on around them. If your child seems at times not to hear you, she’s not deliberately being annoying; it may be that she is simply focused very intently on her internal world.


I love to watch the internal cogs turning as a child dreams up some new imaginary venture. What can I do with this leaf? It could be a caterpillar…or a kite…or a hairy monster!

Given a new object or idea to contemplate, a child retreats for a moment into her own private universe to weave her own magic around it. This child holds a painted and glittered stone – her treasure. Who knows what flights of fancy are going through her head in this moment?

Often when we present children with a new experience, we unwittingly put pressure of one sort or another onto them to respond in certain ways. Sometimes we don’t realise that they may be having a profound inner response that may not be readily apparent. They could be dreaming about what they might do one day in the future… or imagining an adventure… or simply absorbing the magic of the moment. A little peaceful time to reflect is important.

Stories and Role Play

Given a role to play, children take it very seriously; in their own minds they actually become that character. Many children have a rich fantasy life. (I know I did. I was Queen of my own world inside my head. :-)) They adore the chance to act a part and pretend to be somebody else; even if they are doing little more than dressing up, most of the ‘acting’ is taking place inside their heads! I am sure these two are imagining themselves proudly giving birth to the Son of God and riding a camel laden with gifts.


A child listening to a story, or taking part in a play, or even watching TV, easily and naturally enters a trance state, as she absorbs what has focused her attention. She is so caught up in the ‘reality’ of the situation that she switches off her awareness of all else around her. This is a highly suggestible state, in which the child deeply absorbs what she hears into her unconscious mind. Well worth bearing in mind when choosing children’s books, the plays they take part in and what you let them watch on TV!



New Sensations

Sensory experiences can be another trigger for this ‘daydream’ state. While the hands or mouth are busy feeling a new sensation or taste, the brain is absorbing the experience. Again, this is a kind of trance, with the attention closely focused on what the senses are feeling. It is as if, while something is going in, nothing can come out.



Taking a Break

Another kind of ‘time-out’ occurs when a child is ‘full up’. The children I look after often pause in their energetic play to come and sit on me for a cuddle and a rest. At such times they often ask for a snack or a story; I think they are just refuelling. Unless they are highly excited, children will often instinctively know when they have had enough stimulation and need to balance it with a calm interlude. A child will take himself off at such times and seek out a quiet room or corner where he can digest in peace, or curl up in a den.

A baby may not know to give himself a break and will become fretful and fussy from mental exhaustion if overstimulated. It is up to us to judge for him when he’s had enough to be going on with, and take him to a quiet darkened room for a rest or a peaceful cuddle to calm him down. Otherwise he might resort to screwing his eyes tight shut, flailing and screaming to block out the sensory overload.

The Autistic Trance

Autistic children often have extremely oversensitive hearing, sight and other physical senses, and can’t shut off unwanted input. They don’t have the neural wiring to make sense of the world, make connections and link patterns of learning. So they flap, spin and rock to create a self-soothing trance state. This shuts off the overwhelming barrage of incomprehensible sensory overload. They are actually behaving perfectly appropriately based on their perceptions.

But that’s a whole other subject for another day….

About Cathy Owen

I have enjoyed working and playing with children for over 20 years, starting with a holiday job as mother's helper to two different families and babysitting for neighbours from the age of 17. My experience since then includes working with children from 3 months to 12 years, in schools, nurseries, toddler groups and homes, as a teacher assistant, play leader, special needs facilitator, after school and holiday club supervisor/planner, childminder, and currently as a private nanny and creative play specialist. My Discovery Boxes developed out of my observation and interaction with young children and a desire to enter and enrich their world. Children are our greatest teachers; their imagination has a magical quality that makes the world a more exciting and wondrous place. I love nothing better than to join them in this adventure that is life and see where we can journey together! To learn more about my way of working, see my posts.

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