All day kindergarten has re-started the discussion about naps and their value to an overall positive, healthy education. Recent research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports the benefits of naps for young children.
Sleep specialists, even so far back as Sigmund Freud, suggest that sleep is a time when we resolve conflicts, solve problems, organize and re-organize our thoughts, review activities of the day and it gives our bodies an opportunity to rebuild and rest. Research on sleep over the past five years also supports the notion that it is another state of consciousness when our "brain filter" lowers and our bodies go into a hibernation of sorts - including a lowering of our body temperature.
That being said, children tend to run so hard and fast, learning and absorbing so much throughout their day that it is refreshing to see research that supports what I have always told parents, naps are essential for young children and making it a consistent part of their day can help them with information processing, retention and creativity. Imagine you are a worker for the Oregon Department of Transportation and it is your job today to fill a hole in the freeway. But it is 3PM on a Friday and it is constantly busy with cars zipping and zooming by at 70 miles an hour trying to get where they need to go. That's a young child's brain. So many thoughts zipping and zooming through that it is difficult to connect the dots of learning new material, adding it to old material and creating novel thoughts in response to this equilibration (Piaget's notion regarding how children construct their world view). Connecting those pathways is like filling in the hole. Sleep for young children is equivalent to the ODOT worker being able to tell the drivers to stop for a couple hours so she can get onto the freeway and complete the roadway. The traffic of new information stops and the processing can commence without interruptions.
Think of your own experiences with sleep as an adult. If you don't get a good night's sleep, you might wake up grumpy and that grumpy feeling might represent unprocessed thoughts and an uneasiness that comes from unresolved issues. Now imagine that feeling quadrupled in a child's brain and it becomes even clearer how important it is to have naps.
Unfortunately, the social, developmentally inappropriate pressure to succeed academically once again trumps the science. Preschool programs, and like the article by Gray says, especially those with public funding who are beholden to the Core Curriculum and "results"-orientation, are filling the days of 3 year olds with worksheets and learning rather than the more developmentally appropriate opportunities for authentic learning and, as we are finding, opportunities to process the new information by providing naps during the long day that some children spend in preschool and day care.
The bottom line on this topic for parents is this: young children (but everyone really) need time to process information as well as be introduced to it. Research is supporting the belief that during sleep is when we do a great deal of that processing and children aren't getting enough of it. Here is part of the problem though, parents sometimes succumb to the pressure to succeed academically and do not realize the value of taking time away from the active pursuit of learning and the processing of it. Making naps a consistent part of a young child's day is beneficial to the young child and instills a habit of taking time out to process information.