A Long Winter’s Nap: Sleep, Health, and Learning

At this time of year, I usually make some connection with students, parents, and staff about the “long winter’s nap” from Clement C. Moore’s classic poem The Night Before Christmas. The Winter Break from school and work is a perfect opportunity to let down, relax, reconnect with family and friends (including the ones who live in your house!) and store up energy for the second half of the school year. So first of all, on behalf of all of us at ASH, we wish you a safe, happy, and rejuvenating holiday season. When we return, we will launch our new mission and vision, start work in earnest on our strategic projects for the near future, and continue our learning together.
What about that nap?
On the subject of life and learning, which is really the subject of all the entries in this blog, the long winter’s nap has another significance. An ever-increasing body of research is showing us how vitally important sleep is for our overall health and for learning, whatever our age. Even naps help. So what do we know?
Sleep and Overall Health
First and foremost, we need sleep to be generally healthy. This cannot be overstated. Just as the ability of people to be highly functioning when multi-tasking is largely a myth, so is it a fact that sleep deprivation and sleep debt have long-term ill effects on our health in many ways. People who do not get enough high-quality sleep are much more likely to suffer from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and problems with their immune systems, among other body health issues. Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. It is therefore extremely important that we work to help our children develop healthy sleep habits, and model those habits as well. Some of the latest long-term research on sleep is very clearly showing a link between regular healthy sleep and a longer lifespan overall. This should be a compelling reason to grab that nap.
Sleep and Learning
It turns out that sleep is also a necessary ingredient for lasting learning. Studies show that short bursts of sleep (there’s that nap again) can help us retain the lowest forms of learning such as muscle memory and memorization of facts. The power nap is a real thing. As we have been discussing in this blog, however, this type of short-term learning, which used to be how we largely defined intelligence at school, is not the most important kind of learning. Though it is still important, deep, conceptual understanding is what we need to solve complex problems. This kind of learning is only consolidated when we sleep, according to learning and sleep research, and only when we sleep well. This means, in general, seven to nine hours of good sleep each night. In fact, I once heard a sleep expert explain that five or fewer hours of sleep for three straight nights results in the same cognitive performance level as someone who is intoxicated. You can see that sleep is not only necessary for in-the-moment learning, but also for long term retention and complex understanding. So, go ahead, indulge yourself in those long winter’s naps. Store up that energy and consolidate that learning while you also enjoy the holidays!

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