We are on the last day of a three-day “no homework” weekend at Cary Academy.

Placed at roughly the mid-point of the school’s first trimester, this is a wonderful opportunity to disconnect from the day-to-day grind of the school year and get a much needed break.

I found myself thinking about the importance of this downtime as I listened to an interesting TED talk on the importance of sleep by Oxford professor of circadian neuroscience Russell Foster.

Foster argues that scientists still don’t have a full picture of why we sleep, but that they suspect it involves the intersection of three areas:

  • restoration and repair of metabolic processes,

  • energy conservation,

  • and brain processing and memory consolidation.

Foster is most interested in the impact of brain processing and memory. He cites several interesting strands of research that highlight just how important sleep is to learning and productivity. This, of course, flies in the face of our more recent trends to see sleep as an enemy of efficiency and a crutch of the unmotivated or lazy. Foster goes on to share some of the latest research that links healthy sleep patterns with positive mental health.

Foster’s talk reminded me of an important chapter on sleep in the book Brain Rules by John Medina. Targeted more for teachers and parents, Medina links sleep to better academic performance, while also highlighting how sleep deprivation hurts attention, executive function, working memory, logical reasoning, and quantitative skills.

I’m only in the first third of Dan Goleman’s new book Focus: The Hidden Ingredient in Excellence, but it is already clear that sleep plays a major factor our ability not only to focus on the task at hand but also the ability to let our minds wander — linked increasingly to our ability to find creative solutions to interdisciplinary problems.

At a time during the school year when everybody is faced with a cascade of deadlines and assignments, a three-day no-homework weekend is a nice opportunity to put away those check-lists, reflect a bit on the work we’ve accomplished so far, and perhaps get a restorative afternoon nap.