When your toddler first begins drawing or making marks on paper, you’re probably overjoyed to see their first works of “art.” But once they reach school age, all those doodles and scribbles on their math or English work might make you worry they’re not paying attention in class. The good news? That’s not necessarily true.
“I think doodling is great for attention and focus,” says Anne Zachry, PhD, who's the occupational therapy department chair at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center who also authored the book Retro Toddler: More Than 100 Old-School Activities to Boost Development .
“Research has suggested that doodling helps with recall and memory, and it might help you have more insight into the content you’re listening to or watching.”
Encouraging kids to doodle can be as simple as making it more fun (think: giving them crayons or colored pencils) and providing them a clean sheet of paper aside from the papers they’re going to turn in. Who doesn’t love a fresh box of crayons, after all?
You can also help your kids take pride in their doodles by showing them off (i.e., hanging them on the refrigerator) to let them know the casual drawings are not something you see negatively.
Stop short of telling your kids it’s OK to doodle in school whenever they want, though. Dr. Jill M. Dorflinger, a pediatric neuropsychologist at AMITA Health Neurosciences Institute Center for the Pediatric Brain , warns parents to not try to have the final word on how their child behaves in the classroom. “In my opinion, the teacher should be the one in charge during the school day,” says Dr. Dorflinger.
Sometimes it’s a classroom rule that pencils must be down during certain activities, and that’s because the teacher is trying to help the children learn how and when to pay attention. In preschool or kindergarten, young kids may not be adept at doodling yet, so teachers must change activities frequently to keep them engaged and capture their attention.
One caveat: the majority of the research on the benefits of doodling has been done on grownups (including — a 2009 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology that found doodlers were able to recall 29 percent more information than non-doodlers). “We shouldn't assume that children are little adults,” says Dr. Dorflinger. Dr. Zachry agrees that it’s difficult to translate adult research to kids, but speaking from her 22 years of experience working in the school system, she’s seen doodling helps kids improve focus, stay in their seat longer and be more engaged than if they’re not doodling. To that we say, pencils up!