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Midday Naps Boost Learning in Preschool Children

Update Date: Sep 23, 2013 03:01 PM EDT
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Scientists have found more evidence that sleep benefits children’s brains. New research reveals that connections between the left and the right hemispheres of the brain strengthen during sleep for young children. (Photo : Lars Plougmann/Flickr)

Midday naps may boost learning in preschool children, a new study suggests.

New research reveals that classroom naps improve learning in young children by enhancing memory.

Researchers found that children who napped performed significantly better on a visual-spatial task in the afternoon after a nap and the next day than those who did not sleep.

The latest findings suggest that naps are very important for memory consolidation and early learning.

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The latest study involved 40 children from six preschools across western Massachusetts. In the study, the children were taught a visual-spatial game. Children had to see a grid of pictures and remember where different pictures are located. Each child participated in two conditions.

In the first condition, the children were encouraged to nap during their regular classroom nap times. The naps were on average 77 minutes long. In the second conditions, children were kept awake for the same amount of time.

Afterwards, the children played the visual-spatial game.

The findings revealed that children forgot significantly more item locations on the memory test when they had not taken a nap (65 percent accuracy) compared to when they did nap (75 percent accuracy). After napping, children recalled 10 percent more of the test locations than when they had been kept awake.

"While the children performed about the same immediately after learning in both the nap and wake conditions, the children performed significantly better when they napped both in the afternoon and the next day," researchers wrote in the study.. "That means that when they miss a nap, the child cannot recover this benefit of sleep with their overnight sleep. It seems that there is an additional benefit of having the sleep occur in close proximity to the learning."

To see the effect of sleep stages and whether memories were actively processed during the nap, researchers recruited another 14 preschoolers who came to a sleep lab and had polysomnography, a record of biophysiological changes, during their average 73-minute naps.

The study found a correlation between sleep spindle density, or activity associated with integrating new information, and the memory benefit of sleep during the nap.

"Until now, there was nothing to support teachers who feel that naps can really help young children. There had been no concrete science behind that," Research psychologist Rebecca Spencer said in a news release. "We hope these results will be by policy makers and center directors to make educated decisions regarding the nap opportunities in the classrooms. Children should not only be given the opportunity, they should be encouraged to sleep by creating an environment which supports sleep."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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